Take a Page from Their Book


We challenged our spring writing instructors to come up with books to help aspiring writers. From Patricia Highsmith to a classic of screenwriting, we're sure you'll find a book to inspire and guide your writing. And if you've never thought about writing something, you may find yourself picking up a pen or opening a word doc after reading our recommendations.   



Alison Gaylin: 


Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is both a moving personal memoir and an essential book for writers, offering some of the soundest practical advice of any book Ive ever read. The writing process can be exhilarating, but it also can be terrifically daunting, and Lamotts wise words will get you through those rough periods. As a companion piece, Id recommend Abigail Thomass Two Pages—a wonderful little book of writing prompts to get your instrument in tune.



Andrea Chapin:


Ever since I worked at The Paris Review, I’ve been drawn to writers talking and writing about their process. I remember copy-editing an interview with Reynolds Price and thinking, he teaches at Duke, he writes essays, plays, poetry, translation, memoir, he’s confined to a wheelchair after three operations for spinal cancer, and he writes a ton of fiction. As a beginning writer, it was comforting to read how for most writers—even the well-known and the famousit is often a struggle to find the time to write but they have to and they must and they do. Here is a sampling of some wonderful collections of pieces by writers on writing: The Paris Review Interviews, Vols I – IV (Picador); Writers [on Writing], Vols 1 – 2 (Times Books); A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on their Craftedited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi (Trinity University Press); On Being a Writer, edited by Bill Strikland (Writer’s Digest Books); and The Best Writing on Writing, Vols 1 – 2, edited by Jack Heffron (Story Press). 



Elizabeth Gaffney:


For their radiant intensity, for their bald honesty, for their heartbreaking sadness, for their allowance of redemption, for their humor, for their way of fitting together without being too much of a piece, and for their utterly unfussy lyricism, I recommend the stories in Denis Johnson's brilliant book Jesus' Son to any new writer, to any writer at all, in any genre.



Jonathan Santlofer:


I HATE how-to-write books (until I write one). I think writers learn from reading.


My recommendation is not only for beginning crime writers but for all writers and readers: Patricia Highsmith's Strangers On a Train. This was Highsmith's first novel, written when she was 25. Clean, clear, and beautifully written, this (basically) two-character novel is practically a primer for anyone who wants to know how to write a crime novelthe plot simple, perverse; the characters rich and complex. It's a morally ambiguous page-turner that feels fresh and relevant more than 66 years after it was written. 



Judy Sternlight:


Deborah Tannen is a nonfiction writer I love to recommend to novelists and short story writers. She’s a linguistics expert and her observations on how we communicate are illuminating. One of Tannen’s books is That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships. Drawing on specific anecdotes (which are often funny because they ring true), she explains how we struggle to understand and influence each other. Our cultural backgrounds play a big part in how we communicate. Some of us like to speak very directly, while some find this rude, preferring a nuanced approach that can be misinterpreted. We speak in different rhythms. We are passive aggressive, loud or soft, meek or sarcastic. We interrupt each other or endure awkward silences. Even with the best of intentions, we sometimes completely misunderstand each other. Or we communicate on multiple levels, with a strong emotional intention running beneath a deceptively simple verbal exchange.

Writers can use the pitch-and-catch of dialogue that comes from very specific characters to propel a plot, rather than simply providing information. When you allow for gut reactions, confessions, demands, and flashes of humor, kindness and aggression in your dialogue—along with authentic physical responses—you’ll create a heightened experience that captivates your readers.



Patricia Park:


The bleak Yorkshire winters. The howling moors. The friendlessness of orphanhood. Whenever I think I have it bad in my "novelistic" first-world, I remind myself that Jane Eyreand Charlotte Brontë penning her narrative in the days before the word processorhad it that much worse. Jane Eyre is a novel I turn to again and again. Jane's frank, first-person narration is a master class in voice, and the novel's classic structureit was originally published in three volumesis a lesson in building a character's story arc.



Stefan Merrill Block:


I’d recommend that the aspiring writer read whatever books he or she most wants to read. Pleasure matters! In times when I’ve allowed myself only to swallow down the vitamin-rich literary roughage recommended to me by conscientious professionals, my own writing has become dour, studied, and wearingly sober. When I glut myself with less advisable pleasures, I find that my own writing tends to please me more. How a writer writes is largely, of course, a reflection of how a writer reads. A few years ago, The Paris Review had a marvelous idea for an anthology: they asked twenty of today’s greatest literary authors to pick their favorite stories from that magazine’s formidable archives and to explain what they love and admire about the stories they chose. The result, Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, is a wonderful resource for writers at any level, a DIY master class on how, as Zadie Smith once put it, “writers speak so helpfully to one another, across time and space.”



Sunil Yapa:


I think Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg is an excellent starting place for any writer. If I've had a particularly bad binge of reading the news, I go back to it to "reboot" and "clean" my creative mind. What we think about, daily, minute-by-minute, second-by-second is what makes us who we each are. Writing Down the Bones is an excellent tool to help us out of our critical and analytical thought loops. The exercises are fun and help us think and see creatively. A sort of gym (or playground) for writers. Salinger, who famously read 40,000 words a day (or something equally nutty) said, "masterpiece in, masterpiece out." I would add the corollary: trash in, trash out. I think of Writing Down the Bones as the 5am garbage truck. 



Teddy Wayne:


I recommend all fiction writers read Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. It's the book and author depicted (affectionately) in the movie Adaptation, and while it's technically for screenwriters, its lessons on narrative and character are incredibly useful for prose writers, too.




Terese Svoboda:


The stories of Lucia Berlin, Mavis Gallant, Nadine Gordimer compose a trinity of fiction inspiration, each of them with so many jawdropping examples of you-can-do-that. I chose their stories because I can lift up my head at intervals and apply something I learn from them straight into my work—a novel that's finished often has a finish that's impenetrable. A story will yield. You can see just where it turns, that little tapdance of seduction. For a novel, the most obvious books to suggest first are for research. I'm working on a novel about harpies so I need to know a lot about birds, and I'm no birder. You'd think all I had to do was look out the window and wait, but their behavior is harder to figure out than Santa at the Pizza Hut. I've found that reading accounts of birds in the world from a few centuries ago is more helpful than cruising the net. People noticed them, or/and there were more around to watch. Chekhov's “The Bird Market” will do. Recently I peered into Neil Gaiman's American Gods to see if I got mythification of the harpies right. Inspiration is something else. If I'm really stuck, I'll turn to Mac Wellman, whose work always reminds me that words make the play, and play is all we have.