It’s week 13 of lockdown in the UK and my energy levels are definitely beginning to flag. What seemed like a welcome pause in frenetic 21st century living - for those of us lucky enough to be in work and in reasonable accommodation - now feels like a prolonged period of uncertainty tinged with paranoia. Not the best situation for writing, perhaps, and I know many people are struggling to get words on the screen or page.
But it’s also true that writers have been producing work in adverse circumstances since whenever, whether personal or political or a mixture of the two. Virginia Woolf struggled with her mental health, George Orwell with TB, Chester Himes (author of A Rage in Harlem) started writing and publishing fiction while serving eight years in prison for armed robbery.
So, it’s time to reboot, recharge the batteries and return to the Work in Progress. These are five books that have helped cheer me on, over the years, and I’d recommend them to anyone, at any stage of the writing process.
Geneva Dawn by Nouhailler is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
1. On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
Wonderfully down to earth, filled with King’s own experiences of the highs and lows of writing, and pithy advice about getting started and keeping going. Busts the myth about alcohol fuelling great writing, too. The account of his near-fatal accident is as vivid and shocking as you would expect from this master story teller. A favourite with experienced writers as well as newcomers.
2. The Art of Fiction, David Lodge
Lodge gives a clear overview of the elements of writing, from Beginning to Ending, and taking in Suspense, Interior Monologue, Defamiliarization, Weather, Fancy Prose and Magic Realism along the way. Elegantly written, and with a short extract at the start of each section which illustrates the point being made. A book to dip into again and again – my copy is bulging with Post-It notes.
3. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Ursula le Guin
Le Guin is best known as a science fiction writer, but this book is invaluable to writers in any genre. It’s just as useful to writers working alone as those in a creative writing class, and the playful tone makes it accessible and easy to refer to. I love the passion and commitment that informs this book. As Le Guin says: ‘To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit.’
4. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, John Yorke
Yorke is a screenwriter and drama producer, and this book is filled with references to story and narrative on the screen. But his insights are extremely useful to fiction writers too. Here he looks at the fundamentals of storytelling and the reasons that there are so many common elements to a compelling story. Here is an example of York at work, speaking to employees at Google
5. The Right to Write, Julia Cameron
Cameron is a passionate advocate of the writing process as a form of self-discovery. I find her approach borderline hippie at times, but it works. One of the approaches she advocates is writing morning pages when you wake up – this is not easy, particularly if like me you aren’t much of an early bird. (I am borderline dynamic after 8.30 am, pretty much slug-like any earlier than this. I can just about manage a masochistic bout of yoga, but thinking is out).
Reading any of these books is a reminder that writing, while not necessarily fun, is a sustaining, grounding process if you approach it with patience and commitment. Top tip: try to avoid thinking about agents, publishers, Twitter storms and The Voices while you are engaged in writing. See you writing space as a place apart, where you can think and write what you like. That works for me, and it may well work for you.