Best Books for Writers

From the newly published to the invaluable classic, our list of essential books for creative writers.

  • The Poetics of Space

    by
    Gaston Bachelard, translated from the French by Maria Jolas
    Published in 2014
    by Penguin Books

    First published in 1958, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space asks readers to consider the emergence of the poetic image and its metaphorical relationship to the intimate spaces of the home. Guided by lyrical and philosophical arguments, this examination on art, poetry, and consciousness itself challenges readers to think back to the domestic spaces that shape one’s dreams and memories: rooms, cellars, drawers, chests, wardrobes, corners, and nests, among other places. Sure to unlock imagination and encourage examination, this book is a guide full of inspiration for any writer. As Bachelard writes, “We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0143107521
  • Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

    by
    Toni Morrison
    Published in 1992
    by Harvard University Press

    “I intend to outline an attractive, fruitful, and provocative critical project, unencumbered by dreams of subversion or rallying gestures at fortress walls,” declares Toni Morrison in the first of three essays included in this iconic critical text dissecting the “Africanist” presence that exists throughout classic American literature. Morrison’s examinations argue that the themes of individualism and freedom in the works of authors such as Cather, Hemingway, Melville, and Poe would not be possible without the enslavement of African Americans, dispelling preconceived notions about literary tradition and encouraging readers to think and read beyond the confines of American literature. Morrison creates an instant classic that sets out to sharpen the imagination and toolset for anyone to carry into the act of reading, writing, and living. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0674673779
  • At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life

    by
    Fenton Johnson
    Published in 2020
    by Norton

    Although it was written prior to COVID-19 and published just as the pandemic was spreading around the globe, Fenton Johnson’s meditation on accepting and celebrating one’s solitude is a timely look at the lives and works of eleven writers and artists he calls “solitaries,” a term borrowed from Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton. In chapters devoted to Emily Dickinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Eudora Welty, Walt Whitman, and others, Johnson, an emeritus professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona who serves on the faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program, explores the alchemy that transforms isolation and loneliness into creative solitude. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0393608298
  • The Work of Revision

    by
    Hannah Sullivan
    Published in 2013
    by Harvard University Press

    In The Work of Revision, Hannah Sullivan argues that the history of revision is a relatively new trend inherited from the avant-garde experiments of the modernists, a badge of honor for writers anxious to justify the difficulty of their work. Dating back to how Alexandrian editors surveyed Homer’s works, Sullivan considers the virtues of redrafting and examines changes made in manuscripts and proofs by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and others, illustrating how the impulse to keep rewriting can sometimes go too far. Both craft writing manual and historical analysis, this book will shed light on practices writers have come to understand as commonplace, sharpening the praxis of prose writers and poets alike. 

    ISBN: 
    9780674073128
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

    by
    George Saunders
    Published in 2021
    by Random House

    Based on a class he has taught for years at Syracuse University, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is George Saunders at his best: funny, frank, rigorous yet accessible, and most of all humane. Paired with the full text of the author’s favorite stories by Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, these essays explore not only how fiction works and why fiction written up to 185 years ago (in the case of Gogol’s “The Nose”) is as relevant now as it has ever been, but also how writing can change a reader’s life and become a fundamental part of one’s moral and ethical beliefs. As Saunders writes: “The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part of the mind that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-1984856029
  • The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction

    by
    John Dufresne
    Published in 2003
    by Norton

    Drawing inspiration from the principles of method acting, John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth demystifies the writing process and covers the basics of the craft, including how to invent characters, develop a voice, and revise work. Through literary analysis of the works of Anton Chekhov, Frank O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and others, as well as sets of writing exercises for each chapter, Dufresne creates a practical and comprehensive guide with steps on how to become a confident storyteller. As Dufresne writes in the introduction, “No one else can or will give you permission to write, so don’t even ask.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0393325812
  • American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time

    by
    Tracy K. Smith, Editor
    Published in 2018
    by Graywolf Press

    In American Journal, published by Graywolf Press in association with the Library of Congress, former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith selects and introduces fifty poems that examine and pay tribute to the diversity of experiences that make up the United States—stories from rural and urban communities, the grief and losses of war, the triumph of immigrants, and lessons learned from history. Taking its title from a poem by Robert Hayden, the first African American appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, this anthology includes the work of Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Aracelis Girmay, Joy Harjo, Marie Howe, Layli Long Soldier, and Natasha Trethewey, among others. This timely anthology welcomes readers to connect to poetry through storytelling, as Smith states in the introduction: “This is why I love poems: they invite me to sit down and listen to a voice speaking thoughtfully and passionately about what it feels like to be alive.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-1555978389
  • A Feast in the Mirror: Stories by Contemporary Iranian Women

    by
    Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami and Shouleh Vatanabadi, editors
    Published in 2000
    by Lynne Rienner Publishers

    Edited and translated by Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami and Shouleh Vatanabadi, this anthology of twenty-one short stories explores new literary styles and forms, and provides a glimpse into the lives of women in contemporary Iranian society. Beginning with an introduction by the editors, the collection includes Tahereh Alavi’s story of a woman who sees a picture of herself in the missing persons column of a newspaper, Manusureh Sharifzadeh’s fictional exposé of workplace politics, and stories by writers such as Farkhondeh Aqai, Parvin Fadavi, Nahid Tabatabai, and Fariba Vafi. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0894108648
  • Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction

    by
    James B. Stewart
    Published in 1998
    by Simon & Schuster

    In Follow the Story, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist James B. Stewart lays out techniques on writing nonfiction from conception to publication, covering wide-ranging topics such as research, structure, description, dialogue, humor, and endings that can be used for a variety of genres, including fiction and narrative nonfiction. Lauded by many in the literary community, this book on the craft of nonfiction guides writers through every aspect of telling a compelling story and offers a reminder that writing, as Stewart says, “may be absorbing, satisfying, even exhilarating, but it is hard work.”

    ISBN: 
    978-0684850672
  • The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature

    by
    André Naffis-Sahely, editor
    Published in 2020
    by Pushkin Press

    Poet and translator André Naffis-Sahely edits an anthology of literature from writers who have been forced to leave their homes, ranging from activist and writer Emma Goldman during the Red Scare in the early twentieth century, to Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, and contemporary Eritrean writer Ribka Sibhatu. This anthology of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction with contributors drawn from twenty-four languages and six continents is a journey through themes both ancient and contemporary. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1782274261
  • ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness

    by
    CAConrad
    Published in 2014
    by Wave Books

    ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, winner of the 2014 Believer Poetry Award, collects twenty-three writing exercises and their resulting poems that involve rituals with the senses that push the attention of writers to the political and ecological effects of the body. Writers are brought out of the quotidian and encouraged to sharpen their senses and connect to the world around them with pointed reminders: “As much as 80 percent of human communication is nonverbal, remember this detail.” Through this book, CAConrad, who teaches workshops on (Soma)tic poetry and ecopoetics, inspires and encourages risk and imagination. “Take the quiet with you to write your poem.”

    ISBN: 
    978-1940696010
  • Just Us: An American Conversation

    by
    Claudia Rankine
    Published in 2020
    by Graywolf Press

    In essays, poems, and images—from screenshots of social media to archival photographs—Claudia Rankine searches for new pathways into conversations about race and racism. Recalling encounters with white men at airports, personal memories from college, conversations with her white husband, and various other American scenes, she maps how whiteness and white privilege infiltrate and poison everyday life. Rankine looks closely at the moments of tension, of both quiet and obvious violence, always questioning and complicating her own certainties. Inviting readers to sit down at a common table, she models how to pose questions and listen in the pursuit of justice and empathy. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1644450215
  • Exercises in Style

    by
    Raymond Queneau, translated from the French by Barbara Wright
    Published in 2013
    by New Directions

    In this updated and illustrated edition of Raymond Queneau’s 1947 modernist masterpiece, translated from the French by Barbara Wright, an ordinary story of an encounter on a Parisian bus is retold in ninety-nine different ways in the tradition of the Oulipean literary group. From a metaphorical retelling to an “abusive” retelling, where the events are condemned, to a sonnet and a tanka, this anniversary edition includes new exercises by Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, and Lynne Tillman, adding to Queneau’s innovative and instructive exploration of language’s possibilities.

    ISBN: 
    978-0811220354
  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

    by
    Alexander Chee
    Published in 2018
    by Mariner Books

    “The story of your life, described, will not describe how you came to think about your life or yourself, nor describe any of what you learned. This is what fiction can do—I think it is even what fiction is for.” In his first collection of essays, Alexander Chee writes a book that examines his life’s entanglement with writing fiction. With personal essays that span from his time as an MFA student at Iowa Writers’ Workshop to becoming an AIDS activist with ACT UP in San Francisco to the events of 9/11, each entertains, inspires, and instructs writers on how to combine living a full life with knowing how to observe and write it. Widely lauded for its searing arguments and wise reflections, this collection is a testament to art’s ability to help process the events of one’s life. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1328764522
  • Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights From the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs

    by
    Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard, editors
    Published in 2001
    by Writer’s Digest Books

    “It’s a fascinating enterprise, this business of trying to tell the truth about the world through writing that is at once factual and literary,” write editors Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard in the introduction to this book focused on the wide-ranging genre of creative nonfiction. With over thirty essays and an accompanying reader, Writing Creative Nonfiction collects insight on vital elements of writing craft from esteemed writers, including Annie Dillard, Martín Espada, Phillip Lopate, Brenda Miller, and Judith Ortiz Cofer. Forms from the critical essay to the lyric essay, and the academic biography to journalism are covered, and there are prompts and exercises to engage anyone interested in learning more about the genre. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1884910500
  • When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry

    by
    Joy Harjo, executive editor
    Published in 2020
    by Norton

    “It is poetry that holds the songs of becoming, of change, of dreaming, and it is poetry we turn to when we travel those places of transformation, like birth, coming of age, marriage, accomplishments, and death,” writes U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo in the introduction to this landmark anthology celebrating indigenous poets spanning four centuries. Harjo—along with LeAnn Howe, Jennifer Elise Foerster, and a lineup of contributing editors and regional advisors—gathers the work of more than 160 poets representing nearly one hundred indigenous nations such as Eleazar, a seventeenth-century Native student at Harvard; Natalie Diaz; Jake Skeets; Layli Long Soldier; Luci Tapahanso; and Ray Young Bear. With work ranging from traditional oral literatures to contemporary poetry, this anthology is historic and essential reading.

    ISBN: 
    978-0393356809
  • Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics

    by
    TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson, editors
    Published in 2013
    by Nightboat Books

    This anthology of trans and genderqueer poetry and poetics gathers a wide range of poets from across aesthetics and backgrounds, and celebrates their poems and poetic statements that reflect on their individual relationships to language, activism, and identity. A historic and long overdue achievement, this collection of fifty-five poets includes Samuel Ace, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, kari edwards, Joy Ladin, Dawn Lundy Martin, Eileen Myles, and John Wieners. 

    ISBN: 
    9781937658106
  • Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World

    by
    Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryant Voigt, editors
    Published in 1996
    by University of Michigan Press

    This anthology is an invaluable tool for teachers and students of poetry and poetics at every level, and includes essays by current and former lecturers at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers—such as Marianne Boruch, Carl Dennis, Louise Glück, and Robert Hass. From discussions on Homer to Plath, to meditations on the nature of the image, this 1996 essay anthology continues to be relevant today. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0472066216
  • Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers

    by
    Joyce Carol Oates, editor
    Published in 1998
    by Norton

    Based on Joyce Carol Oates’s writing seminar at Princeton University, this anthology collects numerous types of narratives—including short stories and their early drafts, poems, short plays, myths, and folktales—and recommends in its introduction “to read widely, to read with enthusiasm, to read for pleasure, to read with an eye for another’s craft.” By providing models of rich storytelling, Oates instructs and inspires writers to challenge their work, and includes an afterword on the writing workshop with supplementary prompts and advice. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0393971767
  • 25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way

    by
    Geraldine Woods
    Published in 2020
    by Norton

    Culling examples of “beautiful, creative, or resonant” sentences from a variety of sources—fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, song lyrics, speeches—Woods considers what makes “form and meaning work together, in synergy.” Sentences by Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and others are juxtaposed with those by Neil Armstrong, John F. Kennedy, and even Yoda from Star Wars, grouped according to their distinctive features: structure, diction, sound, connection/comparison, and extremes. The result is a delightfully readable examination of the foundation of literary architecture for writers and language enthusiasts alike. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1324004851
  • Your Art Will Save Your Life

    by
    Beth Pickens
    Published in 2018
    by Feminist Press

    “You cannot possibly know right now how much your work is going to impact someone, someday.” In this guide for creatives, Beth Pickens writes with candor and wisdom about the power, pleasure, and responsibility of creating art, providing inspiring assignments, practical strategies, and skills and techniques designed to sustain writers through a lifetime of creativity. “Your work—the work you’re making right now and the work you haven’t dreamt of yet—is going to impact the people who need to experience it.”

    ISBN: 
    978-1936932290
  • Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Revised and Expanded

    by
    Jeff VanderMeer
    Published in 2018
    by Harry N. Abrams

    For the fifth anniversary of Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer expanded the original edition to include fifty additional pages of illustrations, diagrams, and writing exercises, as well as new instructive modules focusing on storytelling perspectives, structures, and the environment. The vivid and colorful visualizations encourage playfulness as well as logic and will inspire writers—of the speculative, fantastic, and all other genres—who are seeking to refresh their creative outlooks. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1419729669
  • Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers

    by
    Lawrence Block
    Published in 1994
    by William Morrow

    Telling Lies for Fun and Profit is the equivalent of a house call from the family doctor. Whatever my condition, whatever the nature of my creative symptoms that day, I know I can count on a sympathetic ear and an effective remedy. Whether he’s talking about plot, character motivation, point of view, or revisions, his suggestions are practical and his guidance is dependable.” In the introduction to this 1994 edition of Lawrence Block’s handbook, Sue Grafton writes about the book’s innumerable lessons, and the value of revisiting its insights, advice, and wisdom about dealing with the obstacles many writers face repeatedly over the course of years of creative practice: motivation, priorities, commitment, work habits, writer’s block, hopelessness and faith, and failure and success. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0688132286
  • Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay

    by
    Adair Lara
    Published in 2009
    by Ten Speed Press

    “What goes on between a writer of personal true-life stories and the person who reads them is like a friendship—and real friendship is exchanging secrets, taking hostages, rolling over like a dog and exposing your soft throat.” With a straightforward and irreverant style, author and columnist Adair Lara guides writers through the journey of personal essay and memoir writing, from how to approach inspiration and raw material, to techniques and writing routines, to taking steps toward publishing. The book also includes an appendix with a reading list, useful texts, and writing exercises. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1580084802
  • My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form

    by
    Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, editors
    Published in 2014
    by Rose Metal Press

    “The novella-in-flash takes the best of both of its namesakes’ lengths, blending the extreme brevity of the flash with the longer—albeit still brief—arc of the novella,” write editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney in the introduction to My Very End of the Universe, a unique collection of five exemplary works of this hybrid genre. Each of the five novellas—by Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, and Aaron Teel—is composed of stand-alone flash pieces and accompanied by a short essay by the author about craft elements specific to the form. Each piece embodies the strengths of this unique genre and how it “mixes the quick and the sustained into a single whole that may—if a reader wishes—be perused in one pass, but which coheres into a unity that will linger in the mind.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0988764583

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