My favorite ‘about writing’ book, which I re-read every 1-2 years, is Richard Hugo‘s Triggering Town. I think it’s possible that the world can be divided into writers whose favorite is Triggering Town, and writers who favor Anne Lamott‘s books (which I’ve picked up a couple times but never gotten far with, for whatever reason).
I often turn to Triggering Town when I’ve finished (well, ‘finished’ — I write at a fairly Bishopian pace, which is to say it takes years, most of the time, to really finish a poem) or at least paused on all the poems I had going. Hugo is so honest about the silliness of writing at all, and the realities of a writing life, abjectly honest, but reassuring too in his insistence on the essentialness of it. I shouldn’t have ever started marking passages I liked — almost the whole book’s underlined now.
Hugo says broad things like, “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything” and “You have to be silly to write poems at all” and also gives nuts-and-bolts tidbits, for instance,
A student may love the sound of Yeats’s “Stumbling upon the blood dark track once more” and not know that the single-syllable word with a hard consonant ending is a unit of power in English, and that’s one reason “blood dark track” goes off like rifle shots.
The only part of the book that seems dated now (it was published in 1979) is a passage about poetry vs. communication, “Since the majority of your reading has been newspapers…” There’s also a chapter about the usefulness and nature of creative writing programs, which may be outdated too (I only have experience with one program and that was years ago now), though I suspect elements remain true.
One of the reasons it’s such a re-readable book is how wide-ranging the essays are. He talks about the process of writing his own poems, what he’s learned from teaching, what he learned from his teachers (Roethke, particularly), being a bombardier in Italy in WWII, what the self means to a writer, and more. And he uses examples of real poems, what happens when you change a line this way, or how about that way.
Here’s another passage:
Use any noun that is yours, even if it only has local use. “Salal” is the name of a bush that grows wild in the Pacific Northwest. It is not often found in dictionaries, but I’ve known the word as long as I can remember. I had to check with the University of Washington Botany Department on the spelling when I first used it in a poem. It is a word, and it is my word. That’s arrogant, isn’t it? But necessary. Don’t be afraid to take emotional possession of words. If you don’t love a few words enough to own them, you will have to be very clever to write a good poem.
Triggering Town is my favorite, but I have quite a few writing books on my shelf. Natalie Goldberg‘s books Long Quiet Highway and Writing Down the Bones were touchstones for me in college (my brother gave me Long Quiet Highway just before my sophomore year). Writing and Zen Buddhism are tied together for Goldberg, and though I’ve never been one for meditation the books spoke to me anyway.
Writing is something you do quietly, regularly, and in doing it, you face your life; everything comes up to fight, resist, deny, cajole you.
Long Quiet Highway is primarily memoir, of both how she came to be a writer and her practice of Zen Buddhism, while Writing Down the Bones is essays/advice about writing, and exercises, with chapter titles like “Tap the Water Table,” “Fighting Tofu,” “Don’t Marry the Fly” and “One Plus One Equals a Mercedes Benz.” In Writing Down the Bones, she says,
Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think too much. […] Be patient and don’t worry about it. Just sing and write in tune.
Goldberg walks, sometimes over, the — oh what’s the best term, “woo-woo?” New Age? line. Anyway, she’s on that side of things. From Long Quiet Highway:
When we open to big mind, what I’ve called wild mind, we have to die to small mind. So, in a sense, each time we sit down to write we have to be willing to die, to let go and enter something bigger than ourselves. Wild mind includes writing with our whole body, our arms, heart, legs, shoulders, and belly. This kind of writing is athletic and alive. We must get out there in the playing fields of our notebook.
But she also has enough straightforwardness to suit my personality: “Kill the idea of the lone, suffering artist. We suffer anyway as human beings. Don’t make it any harder on yourself.”
Writing Down the Bones too has just one dated bit (published 1986) in the first chapter, “I have not worked very much with a computer, but I can imagine using a Macintosh […].” She goes on to explain that text typed on a computer wraps around, no typewriter ding demanding carriage-return.
Then there are William Stafford’s books “on the writer’s vocation,” Crossing Unmarked Snow and Writing the Australian Crawl. I disagree with Stafford on occasion (flipping through those books today I see that I wrote “I disagree” here and there in the margins of both books the first time I read them) but on the other hand, “Language can do what it can’t say” is one of my favorite quotations. (Both those books were given to me for Christmas years ago by a family friend who was Stafford’s student once). I think that although Stafford published too many poems that weren’t very good, he is definitely worth reading and respectfully arguing with.
You can really, I pretty much agree with both Goldberg and Hugo, only learn to write by writing. But books like these can help nudge you to actually put pen to paper, remind you that you’re okay, and get you going again (or in the first place). To paraphrase both of them, these books have worked for me, but if they don’t for you, no sweat, find whatever does. And get to work.