There’s no shortage of essays on writing out there. Authors, poets, scholars and other creative voices spend years devoted to their art – it’d be crazy (and our loss) if they never took a moment to talk about the why and how. These five essays are available to read online for free, and they’re exceptionally useful and inspiring for young and aspiring writers.
Despite Tough Guys, Life Is Not the Only School for Real Novelists by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
This one is short, but it’s an important topic. When you read a lot of writing by the creative geniuses of the past – the ‘tough guys’, as Vonnegut calls them – like Hemingway who learned and crafted their voice through living, learning to write your own stories from classes (and from guides and advice online) can seem less honest or worthwhile. Vonnegut strikes that thought down. “The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly,” he writes, “is that it enables one’s soul to grow.”
Why I Write by Joan Didion
“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act,” This essay by the author of The Year of Magical Thinking starts, “You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.“ Written in the 70s, the rest of the essay covers some of the barest truths about storytelling and why we do what what we do, centered around the idea that we write novels to find the answers we ask ourselves.
Fail Better by Zadie Smith
In the tradition of the two essays before it, Fail Better talks about what it means to write and what you’re asking for from yourself (and the reader) when you do. Zadie Smith discusses failure as a concept for novelists, and the indeterminate “they” we can fall into traps trying to please. Smith’s most powerful insight comes when she breaks down the connection between the author and the reader, and the reader’s responsibility: “Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it’s a conjurer’s trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more."
Where do you get your ideas? by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s writing advice isn’t hard to come by. Thanks to the internet and the author’s willingness to embrace social media, you can find nuggets of wisdom doled out by the American Gods author from essays to tumblr asks on Gaiman’s blog. In it, he talks about every writer’s worst nightmare: “My idea of hell is a blank sheet of paper. Or a blank screen. And me, staring at it, unable to think of a single thing worth saying, a single character that people could believe in, a single story that hasn’t been told before. ”
Not-Knowing by Donald Barthelme
“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made,” Barthelme, author of The Dead Father, writes, “Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.” Barthelme’s mastery of words is clear in this essay. Famous for his playful post-modern style, he leads you through his concept of the art from the very first line (one that defines our site and mission, for all its simplicity) – “Let us suppose someone is writing a story."