Because I teach creative writing, and because I write myself, and because I generally like such things, I frequently use and read books about writing. Stephen King’s On Writing was the first good book I encountered on the subject, for two reasons. Firstly, his relaxed stance on sucky writing. Secondly, describing stories as archaeological finds that you dig out of the earth: the story already exists, your job is to find it. The first helped me understand that writing crap is a natural part of the process, and the second freed me of a writer’s block that had lasted for two years. I still use these in my teaching.
Then there’s Keith Johnstone’s Impro, which I’ll keep bringing up until the day I die, because of his excellent descriptions of how creativity works and how we are conditioned to crush our own spontaneity. I paraphrased his idea in my contribution to Shared Worlds’ excellent Hand in Hand project. Another book I’ve found myself using a lot is Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, a collection of essays by established writers and editors, put together by Analog and Asimov’s. Some of the essays are dated, but a lot of stuff in there – such as Gardner Dozois’ thoughts on science-fictional worlds and their relationship to the writer’s contemporary world, and Jane Yolen’s essay on what writing fantasy really is – hold up very well. Then there’s Gertrude Stein’s How to Write, which I won’t even pretend to understand properly but it’s not really a work you analyze, you just let Gertrude take you on a walk through her mind and show you … how she writes, in realtime. A new favorite is Nisi Shawl’s and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other, useful for everyone but especially since I teach in an environment where the overwhelming majority of students are white, middle class Swedes and normativity is an issue.
(The Swedish books Den åttonde dvärgen and Skriv om och om igen are crammed with writing exercises and thus super useful for teachers. Other than those, I find Swedish books on writing fairly restricting. They remind me of rulebooks more than anything else: this is the formula for writing a short story, this is how you should write a novel.)
My most treasured book on writing and creativity until now has been Lynda Barry’s amazing work What It Is. It’s an autobiography, a late-night conversation with your crazy aunt, and a workbook rolled into one splendid book, every single page written and drawn by hand. It’s a friendly book about the unknown and about how to rest in the unknown. It’s a book I would recommend anyone who works with creativity to own, because it is such a fantastic guide through the creative process, chaotic yet with its own logic, like the mind itself.
And now here’s a book to sit next to Lynda Barry. It’s vastly different, but it has the same kind of potential for creative transformation and release. I would call these two pretty much the perfect combination.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook is the most ambitious work on creating fiction I have ever seen. The title suits it very well, because not only does it encompass everything about creating fiction, it also awakens a huge desire to create. I was fortunate enough to contribute to this project, and it really feels like being a part of a small revolution.
It’s impossible to talk about Wonderbook without gushing, so I’m just going to do that. This book touches on every single aspect of the writer’s life and process. What it has is:
Essays on everything, everything about fiction: inspiration, creativity, techniques, narrative, worldbuilding, revision and publishing, and so much more. And the authors of these essays are people you want to take advice from: Ursula le Guin, George R R Martin, Karen Lord, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nnedi Okorafor, just to name a few.
Practical bits! Exercises, essays on practical stuff, prompts and so on. Anything from stealing old folktales to create your own, to using LARP as storytelling fuel (that was me). Also practical are things like taking apart a scene in a book an analyzing the different elements: what makes it tick? How does it work?, its guts laid out on the operating table so you can actually understand what this thing is.
Instructional art! And when I say instructional art, you have no idea. When was the last time you saw art or graphs about storytelling called things like “The Ass-Backwards Fish”, “Myster Odd Presents Worldview versus Storyview” or “Arrows and Targets: The Penguin and the Mysterious Woman”?
And the art, my god, the art. Every single page is illustrated. Jeremy Zerfoss is the insane genius who designed the cover for Jagannath, and whose unsettling and beautifully bizarre art runs through this book in graphs, illustrations and … random critters that suddenly show up on a page and peer at you. He’s also done the cover, which is just splendiferously amazeballs. There’s also a ton of illustrations by other artists.
This is everything you will ever need. Go get it.