The Best Creative Writing Guide

My interest in creative writing guides that day was an anomaly. I wouldn’t go so far to say I’m against creative writing guides, though I’m usually reluctant to read them, resisting them like an unwanted suitor. I don’t know why. Perhaps because I find the idea of them boring, even though there are ones I truly admire, like Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s Good Prose or Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell.

But there was something that day that captivated me about them.

I was at the local library, browsing the creative writing guides section (yes, such a thing exists — somewhere around 808.02 in the Dewey Decimal System). I was going to pick up a couple of guides on writing creative nonfiction, specifically.

But as I looked for their call numbers, I was amazed by the sheer amount of writing guides available. And instead of searching for the two I’d come for, I got lured away by all the other fascinating titles, ones like Reading like a Writer, Startle and Illuminate, and The Lifespan of a Fact.

There were guides, not only on how to write autobiography, memoir, and creative nonfiction in general as I’d expected, but also ones on how to write magazine articles, bestsellers, and court room procedures. Guides on how to write in the Buzzfeed age, in the mass literacy in American, and in unreaderly times; on how to get started, find your voice, and hire a ghost writer; on how to write through writer’s block, get published, and write with both sides of your brain. There was Jane Austen inspired inspiration, Chicken Soup for the Soul inspiration, tapping the power of your inner voice inspiration; there was advice by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Carol Shields; and then, there were books on books on books of writerly advice, unsolicited by a whole bunch of unknowns.

Everyone, it seems, has written a guide to creative writing.

As I looked at the selection, I wondered, Which one do I choose?

Now, I do have an entire shelf of writing guides at home, patiently waiting their turn to be read (admittedly, I’ve only read half a dozen of them so far). So why was I searching for more, when I’d not even made it through what I already had?

One of the two guides I’d come for was by a contemporary writer I’d recently encountered, not by reputation, but by fluke. My cursory introduction to her writing had left a good impression, so I decided to read her most recent memoir, heralded as a National Bestseller. But I’d found her writing wanting: the exploration of her subject seemed surface level only, her descriptions likewise. Oh, there was enough to convey some tension and description, but nothing convincing in her minimalist shorthand to convey deeper meaning. Her writing, in essence, had no soul. Now I was coming for her writing guide.

As I write this now, it seems absurd that I would even consider reading a writing guide by a writer whose writing, in my opinion, was disappointing. Or, to be blunt, was bad writing. But there was, I think, something I was hoping to find in her writing guide that I couldn’t find in her other work.

The truth is, the writing guides that day were appealing to a part of me . . . the part that is lured by a book’s tantalizing, implicit promise that all I had to do was read this book and voila! – I could be a polished, published, paid writer! (as if that was all it took).

Now, to be clear, I do think formal writing guides can be helpful. The half dozen of them that I’ve read on my shelf, I’ve returned to again and again as reliable, very useful references. I’ve benefited immensely from Kidder & Todd’s, Lopate’s and others’, all good writers in their own right. And, I do, after all, write these “Resources for Writers” posts which, on a smaller scale, are a sort of guide to writing; if I didn’t earnestly think they might help someone, I wouldn’t write them. But as you consider the writing guide, I’d also ask you to keep in mind what another well-respected contemporary writer has said about teaching creative writing.

Madeleine L’Engle (author of A Wrinkle in Time, among other titles), who has taught creative writing seminar courses herself, has gone so far as to say “nobody can teach creative writing–run like mad from anybody who thinks he can. But one can teach practices . . . one can share the tools of the trade, and. . .” — take note of this — ” . . .what one has gleaned from the great writers: it is the great writers themselves who do the teaching, rather than the leader of a seminar. It doesn’t take long for the gifted student to realize that there are certain things the great writers always do, and certain things they never do; it is from these that we learn.”

I got this quote, quite fittingly, from my own reading of L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet.

As a writer — especially a creative nonfiction writer, where reflection and commentary are key — sometimes, I need things explicitly spelled out. Sometime, my guide has been a formal writing guide; other times, a professor, one of the most valuable resources in my MFA degree in creative nonfiction.

But I think we also need — myself included — to more fully learn how to point things out for ourselves. We need to hone the ability to be discerning, and when we come across a good passage in our reading, if we are reading like a writer, we need to recognize our enjoyment of the writing, see what is happening at the technical level, and learn from it. Perhaps even try emulate its technique.

L’Engle also wrote that “Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.” I don’t know if I’d go so far as to claim that, but this idea does temper — and put into proper perspective — the glittering promise of the writing guide.

To answer the promise of the post’s title: The best creative writing guide is your own reading.

And the best formal creative writing guides are most likely going to be written by the writers you most admire.

If you read a book in which you thought the writing was poor, please, learn from my almost-mistake and don’t take that writer’s advice. Disregard their bestseller reputation. The quality of their writing should be its own authority.


Question: What has been your most useful creative writing guide? (formal or not)