BY JON PILL
Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly
Part 2 – Books on the Craft of Writing
These books have some crossover with the books on craft (the first half of King’s On Writing is memoir rather than guide).
1. Top Pick: A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
This is my top pick for a number of reasons. It touches on so many aspects of the writing life, detailing Woolf’s concerns and ideas, various manifestos, the thoughts behind her novels. You get to see things grown from a vague idea and take form for her on the page.
But the main reason I would recommend it to anyone who writes is for the violent mood swings. Entries that are days apart can assess her current WIP as being either a worthless self-indulgence that should be burned, or a satisfying piece possibly her best.
It is always good to see someone else come out of that slump time and time again.
2. A Life in Letters by Anton Chekov
Penguin produced this set of letters in which Anton Chekov touches on every part of his life. Somehow both prolific and brilliant, Chekov is someone to worth listening to.
3. Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood
Written as a novel, with most of the real life names obscured, though often not very well (Wystan Hugh Auden for example is called Hugh Weston), Lions and Shadows covers Isherwood’s formative years as a writer and the drafting of his first works. It is facinating to get a sense of how his friends influenced him and how he figured out what he wanted his books to do.
Also recommended are Isherwood’s Diaries which come in several volumes.
4. What It Is by Lynda Barry
This is another recommendation from Interior Dasein. What It Is is part artistic guide, part memoir, part objet d’art. With each page a collage of drawings and handwritten notes.
5. Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers by Various
A book of interviews made up of writers who were asked, “Who would you like to interview about writing?”. These writer to writer conversations are a great source of writerly tidbits.
6. Paris Review Interviews by Various (in many volumes)
Covering decades there are hundreds of these interviews with writers, all focused on how the writers write, what their approaches to literature are, the arcs of their careers. It is probably one of the most interesting and useful resources out there.
The interviews can also be found for free on the Paris Review website.
7. The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot by Lyndall Gordon (reviewed here)
This is both a biography and a biographical reading of Eliot’s work. It is fascinating to see the mirroring of his concerns both in life (where he was a persistently troubled and terrible human) and in his works (where he is brilliant).
A good place to see how not to let one’s artistic concerns rule your actual life.
There were several memoirs which didn’t make it either because they failed to cover writing much (e.g. Martin Amis’ Experience) or because I haven’t read them or been recommended them by friends (e.g. Dante’s La Vita Nuova).
I am sure you’ll be able to find plenty more yourself, and I’d love to hear your recommendations.
Part 4 – Books on Reading Like a Writer
Part 5 – Books on Art and Arting in General