A Portable MFA: The Best Books on Writing

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A Portable MFA: The Best Books on Writing

best books on writing

Reading for Writers

On the hunt for the best books on writing? Enrich your craft mastery and writing process with six unconventional guides on the art of creativity.

For more than a decade, I have been tasked with selecting guides for aspiring authors. I take this seriously: the ideal combination of insight and expertise, couched in compassion and borne out by experience, can shape a writer’s development.

The best texts provide a holistic approach, cognizant that a sustainable process is as important as mastering craft, and that reading, deeply and with discernment, does as much to improve one’s writing as any workshop. Writers yearning to reach the next level need not always enter exclusive MFA programs to gain an edge. Instead, use these how-to guides to improve your writing without leaving home.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson

What specific challenges does a writer face when drafting a story from start to finish? Legendary writing teacher Ron Carlson walks readers step-by-step through his process of writing a complete short story in a single day with characteristic wit and laser-focused tips that readers can put to immediate use in their own work. Don’t let its scant 112 pages fool you: a how-to guide doesn’t get smarter than this.

KEY QUOTE: “The writer is the person who stays in the room. All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”


From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler and Janet Burroway

Intuition trumps traditional instruction? Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler believes so. In this guide, Butler teams up with fiction writer Janet Burroway to explain his provocative premise as to why everything you’ve been taught about creative writing is wrong. Drawn from lectures and exercises designed for students in the MFA Program at Florida State, Butler emphasizes the importance of the unconscious in the drafting process.

KEY QUOTE: “Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from the unconscious. Artists are not intellectuals. We are sensualists.”

The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel

Does depression go hand-in-hand with creativity? Internationally renowned creativity coach and natural psychologist Maisel cuts to the heart of why making art triggers existential anxiety. In this fiercely intelligent guide, free of platitudes and rich with case studies, Maisel strategizes how writers and artists in all disciplines can successfully manage the mental challenges of creative process.

KEY QUOTE: “Creativity is not a task like painting the fence or mowing the law, the success of which you can pretty much guarantee. It is an enterprise with a substantial chance of failing. The only person who has a chance of pulling off what amounts to a miracle is someone who has recognized that the universal silence is punctuated primarily by one sound, the sound of his own thoughts. If his thoughts defeat him, he has no chance. But if he can enlist his thoughts on his own behalf, then the realization of his intentions becomes a possibility.”

Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance by Roseanne Bane

For as long as there have been writers, there has been the phenomenon known as “writer’s block”. Yet what causes procrastination on creative projects we yearn to complete? Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have born out some longstanding wisdom, while shattering other preconceptions. If you crave an empirical approach to the study of creativity, this bestselling book on writing outlines a practice that is both scientific and sustainable.

KEY QUOTE: “Brain science answers the writer’s perennial question: What the heck is going on in my brain when I want to write – but can’t?”

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

Language is the writer’s tool for turning ideas and emotion into art. When it comes to learning how to use this tool more skillfully, Prose proves a colorful guide as she breaks down the sentences, paragraphs and structure of masterworks for writers of all levels to understand . . . and emulate.

KEY QUOTE: “The temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly unappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. Words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.”

The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century by John Updike and Katrina Kenison

“Figure out how to read the work you love in a way that teaches you how to write better,” author Antonya Nelson urges in her top ten rules for writing. The process of falling in love with a few memorable stories and studying how they are put together can prove more useful for understanding structure and tone than any traditional guide.

When a fiction writer asks which book he or she should read (and re-read) to become a better writer, this is the one I recommend. Follow the evolution of American fiction over the course of the 20th century, featuring bravura performances from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien and Alice Munro. Find your favorites and attempt similar elements in your own work.

KEY QUOTE: Who could select only one?

Which books have revolutionized your approach to writing?
Recommend them in the comments.

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Carol Test
Carol Test
CAROL TEST is an award-winning short story writer and former editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. Raised in Phoenix, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and taught fiction workshops at the college level for more than a decade. She currently empowers authors to get works-in-progress publication-ready via The Writing Cycle.
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