My comfort food is books. When I’m tired, anxious, depressed, lonely, or grieving, I turn to books. When I need guidance, I turn to books. I turn to them for comfort, for distraction, for companionship, and for inspiration.
As a writer, you have to remember to feed not just your body, but your creative self. Of course, there are many ways I feed my writer (and, sadly, some ways I starve it), but when I need comfort books, I turn to a few old favorites.
If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
My dad gave me this book as a birthday gift when I was still way too young to appreciate it. I was maybe thirteen, and not yet really thinking of myself as a writer. Nevertheless, I sat in my study hall and diligently attempted to read it, and between my thoughts of how long my hair was getting (the ends were touching my desk!) and what the cute boy was doing (playing cards on the floor near the chalkboard), the warmth and wisdom of Ueland’s voice managed to penetrate my hormonal haze.
I read it again in high school, and again in college, and many times since, and each time I’m struck by how simple and wise and generous and important Brenda Ueland’s teachings are. She truly believed that anyone could write, as long as they paid attention to the world and did their best to tell the truth on the page. “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say,” she says, and you can’t help but believe her.
Read this book when you’re feeling overwhelmed, lost, and uncertain about your work, your voice, or your creativity.
Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg
This was my first real writing book, and I consider Natalie Goldberg to be my first writing teacher, even though I didn’t actually get to take a class with her until I was in my mid-twenties. It was the summer after my freshman year in high school, I’d just started taking my writing seriously, and I was scribbling my way through a disastrous family roadtrip. (“I know, I’ll write a poem about how much I hate everyone in this car! What rhymes with Nissan?”) We stopped in Boston to visit my step-mom’s cousin Ann, who was a capital-W writer with an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Ann gave me her very own copy — with her own notes in the margins and everything — of this book, and I spent the rest of the trip reading it and trying every single writing prompt in the book. In a way, it was my first writing class: perched on top of a bunch of sleeping bags and suitcases in the back of my dad’s proto-SUV Stanza wagon, writing “I remember…” and learning to use specific, vivid language, to keep my hand moving, and to write past my internal editor.
Wild Mind isn’t just a book of writing prompts; it’s part memoir, part exploration of what it means to be a writer and an artist, part love letter to New Mexico, and part writing instruction. Flipping through it now, I am reminded of how much of my writing and teaching comes from this one book. In the very first chapter, Goldberg’s rules are: Keep your hand moving; Lose control; Be specific; Don’t think; Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or grammar; You are free to write the worst junk in America; and Go for the jugular.
I write by these rules to this day.
Read this book when you’re feeling ungrounded and scattered, when you need a refresher course in the basics, and when you need a reminder that you’re actually doing just fine as you are.
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
This book came into my life when I was in college, struggling with perfectionism and procrastination and fear, and it was the hilarious, realistic, charmingly neurotic kick I needed to get going again. Lamott’s voice exactly matched my own fears and sense of humor at the time (“I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish”) and — more importantly — she gave me permission to write shitty first drafts, and made me feel less crazy for worrying about suddenly dying before I could revise those shitty drafts into something worth reading.
Read this book when you’re feeling crazy and trapped and you need first permission to laugh at yourself and then encouragement to be a little easier on yourself, as well as a reminder that you’re not the only one who struggles with this stuff.
Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver
God, I love Barbara Kingsolver. She is one of my favorite fiction writers, and I love all her books, and frequently use the beginning of The Poisonwood Bible in my writing classes as an example of how to create unique character voices. Animal Dreams is my comfort book, though, because it’s so simple — just one POV narrator (though actually, you hear a little from the father, so 1.25 POV narrator), a fairly chronological plot, etc — and yet so beautiful. This book reminds me of how powerful setting can be, and how the ecological and the political can be wrapped into the personal, how that’s true in real life and how much truer it makes fiction feel. Plus, the protagonist is a high school teacher in a small Southwestern town — bonus!
Read this book when you don’t know where your story takes place or why you should care, and you need a reminder of how setting can drive plot and character development.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek/An American Childhood/The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
This book was a high school graduation gift from one of my favorite teachers, and it has been a favorite of mine since I read the first paragraph:
“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.”
It’s stunning, right? The juxtaposition of imagery, the beauty and violence, the surprising brutality, even the rhythm of the language — I wanted to read pages at a time out loud to whoever was in the room with me. I read with a skinny Bic pen in my hand the whole time, underlining every third sentence, drawing exclamation points and asterisks in the margins. It was one of the first books that knocked me out with the sheer force of its writing, and I return to Annie Dillard again and again for the power and beauty of her language.
I spent most of my senior year in college reading, researching, and writing about Annie Dillard, and by the end of the year I’d barely scratched the surface. I’m still learning from her, and I suspect I always will be. I recently came across this essay, which I’ve already read four or five times, and it makes me want to be a better writer and a better writing teacher.
Read this book when you worry that your own writing is too easy, that you’re not pushing your sentences far enough, when you need to be challenged and shaken and tossed around by the power of language in order to get back to your own work and continue to grow.
Do you have books you turn to when you’re struggling? What are your comfort books?
M. Molly Backes
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