10 Essential Books About Writing

An illustration shows a person with brown skin and brown hair with a pencil in their mouth, bookshelves with blue, purple, yellow, and pink book covers behind them, and a laptop in front of them.

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Writers have long been fascinated with themselves and their craft, seeing a wealth of material in what is seemingly a rather mundane art—merely putting words on paper, or words onscreen. But in their own reflections, which can often border on myopic, writers have developed an entire, fascinating genre of writing about writing. In some ways, almost all popular stories are about writing. One could argue that even The Iliad is about the artist’s internal struggle between suffering for their art and dying unremembered. But sometimes, artists get more explicit with their musings on writing as an art form, either through analytical essays engaging with literary theory or vibrant tales about writers’ lives and the power of words. In this list, you’ll find novels that explore the question of why we write, essays about the writer function in both the metaphysical and the societal, and instruction on how incarcerated people can build a rich literary life from within prison.

Every book recommendation in this list comes from a Bitch Media contributor with complete editorial independence. However, Bitch Media is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, and we want to make sure you know that a small percentage of any books you click through and purchase will come back to Bitch as a commission. Bookshop.org does not ship internationally.

Elena Ferrante
{ Europa Editions }
Release Date: March 14, 2022

Writing under a pseudonym, Italian novelist Ferrante (whose real identity is unknown) has achieved what feels impossible for the modern writer—acclaimed status and protection from the public eye. Even after four New York Times bestsellers (including The Lost Daughter, My Brilliant Friend: The Neapolitan Novels, and The Days of Abandonment) Ferrante has achieved an elusive success as a writer while remaining cloistered and focused on her craft. 

That’s what makes this, her latest collection of essays, so compelling and unique. Candidly and beautifully, Ferrante explores her literary influences and how she was formed as a writer. She delves into the danger of “bad language” and how it obscures and excludes women’s truth; all while providing brilliant commentary and analysis of women authors such as Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Ingeborg Bachmann, and many others.

Yoko Ogawa
{ Vintage }
Release Date: July 27, 2020

This 1994 science-fiction novel from acclaimed Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa is a dreamlike Orwellian fable that centers the power of writing as resistance and vehicle of collective remembrance. It depicts a world—an unnamed island—in which objects are disappearing. At first, it’s simple things like hats and ribbons, birds and roses. Then the disappearances become much more expansive and frightening, even more so because the island’s inhabitants are largely oblivious to these absences. Only a few can remember the lost objects, and these few live in fear, hiding themselves from the Memory Police, whose mission it is to ensure that these things stay forgotten. 

A young woman, whose career as a novelist is fraught because of the widespread sweeping away of memory, discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police. As she hides him beneath her floorboards, they both cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.

Margaret Atwood
{ Anchor Books }
Release Date: September 8, 2003

Drawn from what Atwood wrote for the William Empson Lectures in Cambridge, this gorgeous set of essays is a reflection on writing that will sit with you for years. Atwood forgoes with the usual dimensions of the genre—offering instruction on writing or discussing her own writing as a focal point—in favor of exploring multiple contours of a writer’s life, existential awareness, and conflicts. Pulling from mythology (the essay on The Great God Pan, deity of madness and artists, is particularly engaging), critical theory, classic literature, folklore, and religion, Atwood gives readers insight into the collection’s main question: “Why write?”

Marguerite Duras
{ University of Minnesota Press }
Release Date: August 25, 2011
Significantly one of her last works, Writing is celebrated French novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker Marguerite Duras’s mediation on why writing was essential for her, and why solitude was a key component of her process. Written in a bare, stream-of-consciousness style, these five essays are masterful. Duras compares the process of developing style to a dying fly in this stunning, nearly confessional work of writing from one of the most dynamic writers of the 20th century.
Mary Karr
{ Harper Perennial }
Release Date: September 5, 2016

Karr’s exuberant love of memoir shines through this instructive guide on how to craft a powerful, engaging account of one’s life experiences. Author of three New York Times bestselling memoirs—The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit—Karr uses her own work, anecdotes from fellow writers, an impressive canon of iconic memoirs throughout the years to show writers the essentials of the genre—what to strive for and the mistakes to avoid. For any writer considering or working on a memoir, this is an essential component to the research process. Karr not only shares powerful insight on how to translate one’s inner life to thousands of readers, but she also delves into topics that confound memoir writers daily, especially how to tell people in your life that you’re writing about them.

Akwaeke Emezi
{ Riverhead Books }
Release Date: June 7, 2021

Emezi’s memoir is about their life moving through this world as a creative spirit, shaping their own community, and finding transcendence in art and the ritual of writing. A collection of tender letters to various recipients, Dear Senthuran moves between spirit and the practical world, speaking frankly about the role of payment and advances in their healing journey. A portrait of a writer as a god navigating the world of writing, Dear Senthuran is a meditation on art that all writers should add to their reading list.

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Jami Attenberg
{ Ecco Press }
Release Date: January 10, 2022

The journey of any writer is one of intense searching for the self; from the moment we decide to commit ourselves to this craft, we embark on a near-spiritual journey, becoming almost devotees of ourselves, in order to capture that elusive thing called voice. New York Times bestselling author Jami Attenberg takes readers along her own journey to becoming the master of craft that she is today. Her memoir explores the questions of what it means to have a life as a woman moving solo through the world, devoted to art and self-assured in her skill. Her writing path—cobbled with odd jobs, self-funded book tours, global travel, rejections, and transcendent friendships—is one that many writers will see themselves in, and will have a great deal to learn from.

Edited by Caits Meissner
{ Haymarket Books }
Release Date: January 10, 2022

This urgent guide was created to help incarcerated writers craft a literary life while in prison. Throughout history, reading and writing have given incarcerated people healing, insight, accountability, and a revolutionary arrow aimed at the heart of society’s corruption. With more than 50 contributors and featuring essays from writers such as T Kira Mahealani Madden, Ellen Bass, and Piper Kerman, The Sentences That Create Us breaks down different genres, shows readers how to build a writing community in prison, offers editing techniques, and examines the difficulty of getting one’s work published and distributed outside of prison. First-person narratives honestly discuss the emotional and physical limitations that prison places on a writer’s craft. Full of writing advice, lesson plans, and imaginative exercises, this book is an essential read for incarcerated people and their allies who aim to assist in using literature as a tool for collective uprising.

Francine Prose
{ Harper Perennial }
Release Date: April 9, 2007

One can be a reader without being a writer, but a writer who doesn’t read is usually not successful. Reading is perhaps the most crucial element of our practice, beyond the acts of writing, editing, pitching, or publishing. Opening up a good book is the genesis of all writers, and so the act of reading must be something we approach intentionally. With Reading Like a Writer, New York Times bestselling author Francine Prose explores the vital role of reading in the life of any writer, but especially her own. A lauded literature critic, Prose uses great writers throughout history—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf—to show how intentional reading can guide the writer in the art of “Words,” “Sentences,” “Dialogue,” “Gesture,” and “Details.”

Meg Wolitzer
{ Scribner Book Company }
Release Date: April 12, 2004

Adapted into a film starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, this novel follows a character named Joan Castleman reflecting on her life with her husband, Joe Castleman, after she learns he has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. They travel to Helsinki together so he can receive his award, but after 40 years of suppressing herself as a writer at the coercion of her husband, who relied upon her to support his own literary career, Joan suddenly decides to reclaim her agency. An essential story about what it means to be a female writer, The Wife is notable for its masterful undercurrent of rage throughout the narrative—and the heartbreakingly predictable situation Joan finds herself in.

 

by Nylah Burton
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Nylah Burton is a writer and sexual assault prevention specialist based in Washington, D.C. She covers topics related to mental health, health, climate justice, social justice, and identity. Nylah also has bylines in New York Magazine, Zora, ESSENCE, The Nation, Jewish Currnts, Lilith Magazine, and Alma, among others. You can follow Nylah on Twitter @yumcoconutmilk.