Tools of the Trade

Clearly, this is somewhat a matter of procrastination from the actual writing, but it is still true that we must have the proper tools to do anything. With writing, this can be as simple as pencil and paper, of course, but there are more things to consider – and they are fun to consider, in my opinion, though that is partly the librarian in me talking. See, I mean books. Well, and also software and keyboards and workplace set-up, etc., but today, I just mean books.

Everyone recommends many of the same non-fiction books, and for good reason: Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird, for example, are fantastic. There are dozens more, if not hundreds more, that people like. I particularly enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft for clearly explaining how to write beautifully, concisely, and purposefully. Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is inspiring just to flip through as it is beautifully illustrated by dozens of artists, but it is also well-written with essays by many well-known authors as well. A Creative Tarot by Jessa Crispin is a dark horse, I know, but really helpful on a day-to-day basis when you just feel stuck in a rut – check it out! The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a bit of a cliche but it really spells out, in a simple twelve-week program, how to kickstart your creative journey while figuring out what has been holding you back all these years.

However, there are other books that I also find extremely helpful and encouraging in my writing life and in my writing aspirations: the books that made me want to be a writer in the first place. I’m talking about the stories that made you clutch your blanket while reading, the books that made you gasp and/or laugh and/or cry, and the books that you hugged to yourself after reading the last page.

So, starting with the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, Alan Garner’s wonderfully sparse yet fae writing, Susan Cooper’s eminently re-readable The Dark is Rising, and all the books I loved so much as a child. Then, the newer books, be they more literary, like Ali Smith, David Mitchell, and Jeanette Winterson; more genre, like Kim Stanley Robinson, Ted Chiang, Nnedi Okorofor, or N.K. Jemisin; or classics, like Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing. And then there are the non-fiction writers, the ones that make me starry-eyed at the wonder of the world and worry for the future, like Robert Macfarlane, Amitav Ghosh (his literary works are wonderful, too), Marcia Bjornerud, Ed Yong, Peter Brennan, and most recently, Merlin Sheldrake with his exciting book on the life of fungi. (Sounds like a joke, but hands-down, the most fascinating book I’ve read in a while.)

The point here is not to make list after list, but to show and remember that there is so much that inspires our writing and hopes. I am sure the same is true for you, although undoubtedly your list of books will differ from mine by a lot. Looking at these stacks of books surrounding me as I write, I feel encouraged. They were all written by humans like me who also had to force themselves to sit down sometimes, and who also railed at their own limitations, and despaired of finding the right word and the right ending and so on and so forth. We all know the feelings!

I also have a small collection of early or first books by some of my favorite writers, like Francis Hardinge, Lucy Wood, Laini Taylor, Joy Williams, and Mary Rickert. These books are especially inspiring because they did it. They were also bewildered and discouraged at times and yet – they did it. They wrote that first book. They wrote beautiful, challenging, first-rate stories that surely they doubted at times or even all the times. They were like us – aspiring writers, perhaps uneasy at even calling themselves a writer yet. But, they did it – they wrote and they published and they endured. Therefore, so can we. We really can. Good luck this month.


P.S. Just started George Saunder’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, which is like taking a Russian lit class with Saunders as the professor. As a Russian lit major, I’m a bit biased of course, but just one chapter in already, I can guarantee any writer would find it fascinating and helpful. Check it out.