We live in the time of Writing Resource Cornucopia. There are myriad aides for writers out there – books, magazines, courses and websites offering writing advice and exercises (sometimes even recipes for creating the next bestseller).
I have my reservations about how useful it is to have such a great choice. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of available information, and to grow confused in the face of often contradictory advice. Worse, the impression such plenty creates is that the secret to becoming a good writer lays in following the rules and regulations offered under titles such as ‘10 golden rules for writers’ (or ‘My top 13 writing resources’...).
While the endless stream of the ‘How to’ advice runs the risk of setting up writers to produce formulaic work, I also have a problem with the similarly ubiquitous writing advice given in the fuzzy spirit of New Age, which abuses Buddhist clichés and really teaches more about meditation than the actual business of writing. Then there are resources for writers out there to help us with practicalities: How to write publishing proposals, How to approach an agent etc. Such advice is often useful, but won’t make us better writers. Yet it is the latter endeavor – growing as a writer – that I am most interested in when I look for resources to assist both my own practice and teaching of writing.
Over the years I have come across some useful resources and I’d like to share these with you. Those that mean the most to me are usually created by people who share my view of writing as art, and vocation. My favorite resources help me to remain inspired, but not in the fluffy, zany way of ‘connecting to your inner muse’. Rather, they push me out of my comfort zone, provoke me to think in more complex ways about the ethics of writing and of life in general, and sometimes sweep me off my feet by the sheer beauty of their prose. I can also use some how-to advice, but only if it comes from the masters, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Joan Didion. Their advice often relates to another practice – reading. They teach me how to steal better from other writers. The following list reflects these interests.
1. ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’
I find dictionaries invaluable, as I largely write for the sheer love of words. And this dictionary offers even more than their definitions. It also tells fabulous stories – about unusual words, idioms and names from history, fiction, folklore and myths. When feeling stuck in my writing, I sometimes leaf through this book only to discover words like Ephebi, which is of Greek origin and means ‘youths who have reached puberty’, or to learn of Og, the giant who apparently survived the biblical great flood. Often such discoveries rejuvenate my work, sending it in unexpected directions.
2. ‘Reading like a Writer’ by Francine Prose
My very favourite book on writing. I believe that the best way to learn to write is by reading other writers carefully. But how does our reading like writers differ from reading for pleasure? Prose will tell you in great, and entertaining, detail, quoting from an eclectic list of books.
3. ‘Truth in Nonfiction’, edited by David Lazar
This collection of essays offers a wonderful discussion of the ethics in creative non-fiction, stressing the need for being honest about, and critical of, our memories. Many contributors delighted me with their intelligence, sophistication and depth of analysis and I ended up reading their books too.
4. ‘A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism and Travel’ by Robin Hemley
This is a clear and thoughtful exploration of immersion, this relatively new and much misunderstood sub-genre of creative nonfiction. Hemley is not prescriptive about how to write immersion books, but rather discusses the genre and its ethical complexities through discoursing on books he loves. Like Lazar’s anthology, this work introduced me to exciting writers I hadn’t known previously.
5. ‘A Table for One’ by Aharon Appelfeld
Appelfeld is an internationally renowned Israeli novelist. This slim memoir of his working life is actually incredibly rich both in reflection about human nature and advice on writing. The overarching theme there is how to find one’s writing voice and themes.
6. ‘Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives’, edited by Elisabeth Benedict
In this marvellous collection of essays very fine writers tell about finding (and losing) people (and sometimes other sources of inspiration) who had greatly influenced their writing. The contributors all share an incredible commitment to the writing practice, and their tenacity is inspiring. Many essays also contain excellent advice on the craft of writing (mostly fiction).
7. ‘Tasting Life Twice: Conversations with Remarkable Writers’, a collection of interviews by Ramona Koval
This book showcases the greatest of minds in the writing world, such as Norman Mailer and Tony Morrison, and is also a lesson in conducting genuinely deep conversations. As I read this collection, I felt challenged and inspired by Koval’s brilliant questions and by the complex thinking of her interviewees. There are gems for writers in every interview in this book.
8. ‘The Paris Review’ interviews
‘The Paris Review’, an iconic literary magazine, has contributed greatly to the art of interviewing by publishing in-depth interviews with the greatest authors for more than six decades. The interviewers themselves are often notable writers and the interviews are often conducted over a substantial period, and then edited in collaboration with their subjects. The results are astonishing – many of these interviews have come to be recognized in themselves as classic literary works. There are several published collections of these interviews, but many are also available on the magazine’s website for free, which you can browse on the Paris Review websi
9. ‘Creative Nonfiction’ journal’s electronic newsletter
You can sign up to receive this monthly newsletter. It contains, among other things, links to electronically accessible readings on the art of creative nonfiction and to short creative nonfiction. It also offers a curious selection of creative nonfiction tweets (yes, there is such a beast!) and opportunities for writers that are often unknown to those of us in Australia.
10. Brain Pickings
Maria Popova’s brainchild, this is the most intellectually stimulating website I’ve come across. I suspect there is no need to describe it as you most probably already know it, particularly since Popova’s visit to Australia in 2014. All I’ll add is that for writing purposes, her series of entries on creativity is particularly useful. Browse through the Brain Pickings website
11. Bad Advice Wednesday
This is a shared weekly blog of American authors Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner. The advice is diverse, coming also from guest authors, and usually offers fresh alternatives to the well-worn clichés of writing classes, such as ‘show don’t tell’. Read the Bad Advice Wednesday blog online.
12. Quotes from writers on writing
In my darker hours (I have many of these!), when my muse gives me the finger and goes off to the pub, I sometimes search the web for quotes from literary masters to cheer me up. I have even compiled a list of my favorites which I keep by my writing desk. Here’s one from Phillip Roth which I find particularly useful when after a long writing session I realise that all I produced is crap (something that happens to me often):
I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.
This makes me think, if writing is that hard for such a prolific genius as Roth, then what do I have to complain about? So yes, quotes can be a great resource.
13. Finally, Book Depository
When purchasing out of stock books or books unavailable in Australia, I enjoy using this website as it is user friendly and offers quick delivery (in my experience). I count it as a writing resource, because, as I have stressed here, I have never found a better writing resource than reading (like a writer). Browse the Book Depository website.
About Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her short works in English have been widely published in Australia and overseas, including in ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Best Australian Essays’. She teaches writing and mentors writers. Lee’s first book in English, the memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’, was released in October 2014 through MUP.