Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Writers on Writing

I’m not a writer, at least not of the “creative” sort, but that doesn’t matter: I love to read about how writers do their thing. I’m not exactly sure why the “how-to” genre is a favorite of mine, except that learning how writers approach their craft helps me become a better reader. I want to know how my favorite authors work their magic in words. So here are five books on writing, with particular focus on creative nonfiction:

Mary Karr Art of MemoirThe Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. Karr is a master memoirist, and I know a lot of people have loved and recommended this book on how to write in the form. She has a lot of great advice and some interesting discussions of tricky subjects like how to write about people you know and love and how to approach the issue of truth-telling in memoir. I found this book frustrating because it felt sloppily-organized and sometimes her arguments seemed inconsistent. I may be in the minority on this one, though. If nothing else, this book is a great source of recommendations for memoirs worth checking out.

Verdict: Buy if you are an aspiring memoirist and want inspiration OR if you are a huge Mary Karr fan OR if you want a good introduction to issues in the genre; borrow if haphazard organization and occasional lack of depth will frustrate you.

In Other Words - Jhumpa LahiriIn Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This book is about Lahiri’s experiences learning to speak and write in Italian. It’s written in Italian, in fact, and includes both the original and the English translation by Ann Goldstein. It’s a beautiful book, especially Lahiri’s description of how writing changed for her when she began working in a new language. It’s a thoughtful, deep meditation on what it means to be a student of language and the ways our history with language shapes how we think and write about the world.

Verdict: Buy, especially if you love languages.

Meredith Maran Why We Write coverWhy We Write About Ourselves, edited by Meredith Maran. This is an anthology with short essays from 20 writers on how and why they write about themselves, including Edwidge Danticat, Cheryl Strayed, Jesmyn Ward, and Anne Lamott. The line-up of contributors is fabulous. I wished the essays had been longer and more in-depth; they tended to brush the surface of what are some really interesting questions: why writers are drawn to writing about themselves, how they balance self-revelation and artistry, how they deal with the fall-out of writing revealing things not only about themselves but about family and friends. It asks a lot of great questions, but I wish the answers could have been more expansive.

Verdict: Borrow, unless you are writing a memoir and want some inspiration and/or comfort from fellow writers, in which case buy and keep it by your side as you write.

Gornick Situation Story coverThe Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick. Gornick is, like Mary Karr, a lauded and experienced memoirist. This book sets out her theories for how to read and write memoir and personal essay. Published in 2001, it’s a bit older than the others listed here, and it is — as far as I’m concerned — a classic of the “how to” genre. It’s beautifully written, it will shape how you think about personal nonfiction forever, and it’s a wonderful source of reading recommendations.

Verdict: Buy, and then buy Gornick’s memoirs after that, especially Fierce Attachments.

Lopate Show Tell coverTo Show and to Tell, by Phillip Lopate. Lopate may be best known as the editor of the wonderful anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and he’s also a personal essayist himself. In To Show and to Tell, he writes about the state of the essay as a genre and covers technical questions writers face, such as how to end an essay and how to turn oneself into a character interesting to read about. Lopate’s conversational tone is informative, entertaining, and comforting all at once. Reading this book is like listening to your favorite teacher expound passionately on a subject he or she loves.

Verdict: Buy, if you have any interest in the personal essay whatsoever.

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