Diary of a Poet

My Favorite Writing-Craft Books

I admit it. I’m a sucker for books that claim to help me be a better writer. I even wrote one myself. I keep my favorite books on writing poetry, memoir, and nonfiction on the shelf closest to my desk. These books are old friends I turn to again and again: when I’m stuck, or need a mental break, or feel like trying something new.

Just leafing through one of my writing-craft books can get me writing. I might discover a new way to use syntax, or find a poet whose work inspires me. Thanks to the lessons in these books, I’ve experimented with forms, topics, and themes.

Here are some of my favorite writing-craft books.

Sing Me the Creation by Paul Matthews, Hawthorn Press 1994. This book claims to have “over 300 games and exercises for individual and group work in creative writing.” On nearly every page, you’ll find something interesting. I just opened the book to page 141 and found “Compose an invocation” followed by “Write a letter to your nurse, asking for inspiration.”

The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, W.W. Norton 1997. Packed with ideas and exercises, this was one of my MFA textbooks. My copy is full of doodles, Post-It notes, and highlights. My favorite chapter: “Stop Making Sense: Dreams and Experiments.”

Poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, Random House 1996. I was in my mid-thirties and had just restarted my writing practice when I found this book. I still make word-pools, searching for words that are, as Wooldridge puts it, “compact, forceful and beautiful.”

Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See, Random House 2002. Carolyn See visited my college when I was an MFA student, and impressed all of us with her generosity and wit. The chapter titled “Do Some Magic” has this instruction: “reassure your timid, frightened brain that…you’re perfectly happy and satisfied, right now in this moment!”

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser, University of Nebraska 2005. This book contains the sage advice, “One of the hardest things to learn is how poems can express strong feelings without expressly stating those feelings.”

Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, eds. Scott Wiggerman & David Meischen, Dos Gatos Press 2011. I can’t praise this book enough. It’s helped generate many poems of mine, including a fair number of published poems. Every writer should have a copy of this book on her desk. I use Blas Falconer’s “Fifty Questions” exercise often.

The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, Teachers & Writers Collaborative 1987. Both reference and instruction book, this book contains over a hundred distinct poetic forms, with examples of each form. A favorite quote from Apollinaire’s “It’s Raining,” a calligram: “It’s raining women’s voices as if they were dead even in memory.”

Writing Poems by Robert Wallace and Michelle Boisseau, Addison Wesley Longman 2000. This was the textbook for a poetry class I took in the early 2000s. It’s a wonderful book in many respects, but especially in its selection of sample poems; i.e., “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye, “First Death in Nova Scotia” by Elizabeth Bishop, and “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford. 

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Anchor Books 1994. The whole book is worthwhile, but my all-time favorite chapter is “Radio Station KFKD,” in which the author offers advice on how to deal with the “the rap songs of self-loathing, the assertion that everything one touches turns to…” Hilarious and wise.

The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward, Wind Publications 2013. The most useful part of this book, which is stuffed with creative inspiration, is the chapter titled “Opening the Too-Soon-Finished Poem” from Jeanne Marie Beaumont, who advises, “Take your wedge and hatchet from your toolbox and hack open the poem.” I refer to this chapter again and again when a poem wraps up too soon.

If you’d like to recommend a writing-craft book, please do so in the comment section.

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