All reviews are by Susan K. Perry, unless otherwise noted.
Amabile, Teresa. Creativity in context (Update to The social psychology of creativity). (Westview Press, 1996). An updated version of the classic social psychological treatment of what allows creativity to occur, with a thorough discussion of the controversy on whether rewards help or hinder subsequent creative behavior (it tends to decrease it, with certain exceptions).
Barron, Frank, Montuori, A., and Barron, A. (Editors). Creators on creating (Tarcher/Putnam, 1997). A superb compendium, with an excellent introduction by Barron.
Boyd, J., with George-Warren, H. Musicians in tune: Seventy-five contemporary musicians discuss the creative process (Fireside, 1992). When I began researching flow in writing, I discovered how similar flow is across the arts by reading the always fascinating comments by musicians in this book.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (HarperCollins, 1990). This is the book that made the term “flow” famous.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention (HarperCollins, 1996). The eminent University of Chicago researcher and his assistants interviewed more than 90 highly creative individuals across several domains and learned what it takes to get into flow and live a productively creative life.
Fiore, N. The Now habit: A Strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play. (Tarcher, 1989). No, this is not specifically a book on creativity, but rather a practical and psychologically insightful take on dealing with the tendency many of us have to avoid what we really want to do.
Gardner, Howard. Creating minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi (Basic Books, 1993). Seven kinds of intelligence, seven extraordinary individuals. And not only is this tome beautifully written and inspiring, but I have seen Gardner’s theories borne out again and again in my own interviews with creative writers. They are often in touch with their childhoods, they often feel like outsiders, there is some kind of tension between their lives and work that has creative results.
Rosenberg, Judith Pierce. A question of balance: Artists and writers on motherhood (Papier-Mache Press, 1995). You can be a feminist, an overworked mother and writer, struggling to balance the sometimes opposing forces of your life, and still know full well that there are some men who deal with the exact same issues. This collection of interviews, though, focuses on 25 working mothers (among them 14 writers). Several have other jobs too, such as teaching, or, as in Perri Klass’s case, doctoring. It’s interesting to learn what each woman gives up in order to make time to fashion a writing career. Klass, for instance, says she and her partner, who also writes, don’t ferry their kids to enrichment activities. Instead the whole family hangs out, lies around, and reads. Ursula LeGuin answers her mail but eschews e-mail, “which I won’t touch because I know it would be a total black hole.” It can be valuable to be reminded that successful writers and artists (if they’re being honest) never quite get over the ambivalence of sharing time with their families, yet many of them have found ways to integrate the various parts of themselves that is infinitely enriching to them and to their readers. Several writers (as I did) found that parenting became an essential subject for their work, and when the kids left home, there’s an odd vacancy. Advice from novelist Mary Gordon: Learn to say no to your kids once in a while, and enjoy them while they’re around; that part of your life does end.
Shekerjian, Denise. Uncommon genius: How great ideas are born (Penguin, 1990). The author traces the creative impulse with 40 winners of the MacArthur Award. She approaches the telling of their stories creatively, so that it makes easy reading, and uncovers some important factors: the need to have a vision, building resiliency, learning through doing, the harmony of instinct and judgment, and encouraging luck, among others.
Sternberg, Robert J., & Lubart, Todd I. Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity (The Free Press, 1995). In which the authors present their “investment perspective” on creativity: buy low and sell high, which refers to actively pursuing ideas that have growth potential and then moving on to new projects once an idea or product becomes valued and has a significant return. (This is all about risk.) There is also an enlightening discussion of the role of personality and attitudes on creativity.
Armstrong, Alison, and Charles Casement. The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk (Robins Lane Press, 2000). Even if you love your computer, you’ll learn something from this book. Ever wonder why your child’s school might be spending more on technology than on art, music, and P.E., and whether this is in your child’s best interests?
Auerbach, Stevanne, Ph.D. Dr. Toy’s Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ (Play Quotient) (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998). Most of this book covers what your child is ready to play with at each age, along with a listing of the specific skills the child develops at that age. Numerous lists and sidebars add to the book’s value as a resource.
Barrett, Nina. I Wish Someone Had Told Me (Academy Chicago Publishers, 800-248-7323, 1997). Comparing the ideal with the facts, Barrett, who interviewed 63 new moms, provides readers with lots to think about. For instance, we’re told we might feel a little weepy in the days following birth, but the truth is that we might go through a lot more emotional ups and downs than we expected. Knowing this can give you a greater sense of control during one of life’s most chaotic transitions.
Borba, Michele, Ed.D. Parents DO Make a Difference: How to Raise Kids with Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts (Jossey-Bass, 1999. I’m a realistic optimist. I believe the latest research that says a chunk of our personalities is determined by our genes. Yet I am also convinced that parents affect how their children develop. That’s why this book is so useful. Borba, an educational consultant, covers eight vital skills, including positive self-esteem, problem-solving, goal-setting, and not giving up. Her suggested activities are highly practical, such as helping a young child identify the warning signs of anger (clenched fists, dry mouth, fast breathing). Once a child learns to recognize these signs, she can learn to calm down and figure out what’s bothering her and how to deal with it. Another great idea is to give your child a special eraser as a gift at the start of a school year, telling her that the way you learn is to make lots of mistakes: “Mistakes are always a chance to start over.” Sound advice for kids and parents alike.
Bray, James H., and Kelly, John. Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade (Broadway Books, 1998). The success of my own stepfamily is not the norm: more than half of stepfamilies end in divorce. When we faced those odds, my husband-to-be and I read several books about what to expect (and he discussed with a therapist what his role might be in a ready-made family). Knowledge truly does bestow power, and what might have been terribly stressful was merely very challenging. This new book, based on a study of 200 stepfamilies, provides the facts you need to make a go of it. For instance, the stepfather ought to delay taking on a full parenting role too early in the marriage, before intimacy and authority have been earned; and both parents need to realize that the stepfamily may never become a replica of the nuclear family of their fantasies. In spite of such semi-bleak warnings, this book offers the facts you need to form happy and lasting connections in a stepfamily.
Brian, Gina. The Art of Family: Rituals, Imagination, and Everyday Spirituality (Dell, 1998). What an evocative title. The author, an anthropologist, tells us that she can’t help but look at her own family and others with an ethnographic eye. That is, she seeks to figure out why families do things the way they do, and what are the most central elements that make a family last when so many others shatter. This is an inspiring and intelligent book that speaks out against anxiety and constant striving, and speaks up for loving each other with all the intensity and forgivingness our irreplaceable uniqueness deserves. Lots of specifics and humor too. For instance, once when the author’s daughter and friend were bickering and imitating each other’s voices, the author complimented them on their ability to mimic, then suggested they try sounding like their teacher. They took to the game and soon were imitating others they knew. It not only stopped the fighting, it made the author aware of how carefully these girls had been listening to and observing their world. After reading this book, you’re unlikely to take your family for granted again.
Clarke, Jean Illsley. Time-In: When Time-Out Doesn’t Work (Parenting Press, 1-800-992-6657, 1999). I’ve always had some misgivings about applying time-outs too readily with children. Say your son tore a sibling’s art work. Would isolating him for 10 minutes to “think about what he did” make everything okay? Not usually. Clarke’s thesis in Time-In is that it’s far better to connect with our kids than to disconnect from them. She divides the process of “time-in” into four parts: Ask, Act, Attend, and Amend. Any one of the four may be the right choice for a particular situation, and each is described clearly in this slim volume. For instance, says Clarke, to make amends, the child has to genuinely make an effort to right the wrong, approved by the victim of the injury, insult, or loss. For the torn art work, then, the child might help tape it back together, or offer the other child some new paper, if that is acceptable.
Crofut, Pati, and Knapp, Joanna. Working Parents, Happy Kids: Strategies for Staying Connected (Turnagain Press, 1-888-404-6806, 1999). What I like about this book is that the authors face the reality of regular or occasional separation between parents and their kids, and then they make all kinds of practical and compassionate suggestions for bridging the distance. For instance, to help your child learn to manage her emotions, use a toy boat in the bathtub: when no one’s steering the boat, it goes every which way, but when your child’s the captain, the boat goes where and how fast she chooses. Likewise, she can learn ways to be captain of her own feelings, without denying their validity. Sections cover answering your child’s questions, and what to do when you’re away for the evening or you have to miss a special event, or you’re going on a trip.
Dacey, John S., and Lisa B. Fiore. Your Anxious Child: How Parents and Teachers Can Relieve Anxiety in Children (Jossey-Bass, 2000). I worried about many things when my kids were small, most of which never happened. But what did happen, to my dismay, was that my anxiety sometimes got passed along. To help your children grow up able to cope with stress, confident and able to solve problems, read this book. The advice was designed to help the 8-10 per cent of American children and teens who are seriously troubled by anxiety. The book features many illustrative anecdotes and dozens of activities, such as writing a set of adjectives — funny, happy, mean, friendly — on cards and having your child pick out the good and not so good ones that are true about him. This helps a child gain a more objective view of his strengths and weaknesses.
Douglas, Ann. The Unofficial Guide to Childcare (Macmillan, 1998). A lot of practical information is to be found in these clearly written 500+ pages. Douglas discusses working parent stress, evaluating out-of-home and in-home child care options, finding care for a special needs child, breastfeeding, and part-time care. In a section on handling sticky situations, Douglas suggests back-up plans for when your child or caregiver is ill, and how to handle conflicts with family members who are caregivers.
Edwards, C. Drew, Ph.D. How to Handle a Hard-to-Handle Kid: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding and Changing Behavior Problems (Free Spirit Publishing, 1999). If your child is more aggravating than average, this book may give you a toehold on regaining control over his or her disruptive behavior. Edwards suggests ways to be an authoritative parent and deal with problem areas (the morning rush, homework, tantrums). While I’m not fond of structured systems that reward kids for preferred behavior (it can decrease long-term motivation), I will admit that something like Edwards’ system once worked at least short-term wonders with my own hard-to-handle kid.
Elliott, Charles H., and Laura L. Smith. Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be?: End Old Patterns and Enjoy Your Children (New Harbinger Publications, 1999). Cheaper than therapy, but not necessarily any easier, certain books offer a chance to dig deep into your psyche and pull out a more functional way of parenting. This book by two psychologists uses extended anecdotes to make its points. Why is it so hard to parent they way you mean to, the way you’ve heard over and over is the best way to raise your kids? Some sticky holdovers, unhelpful “schemas,” from your own childhood are probably getting in the way. This book is an elegant guide to the process of making your behavior and your intentions match, resulting in a much more enjoyable family life.
Engel, Beverly. The Parenthood Decision: Discovering Whether You Are Ready and Willing to Become a Parent (Main Street Books/Doubleday, 1998). I wish therapist Engel’s book had been around when I was struggling to figure out how to decide whether it was time for me to start my own family. Engel’s thought-provoking analysis and questions is sure to help many individuals cope with ambivalence and turn into more aware and committed parents.
Gillooly, Jessica B., Ph.D. Before She Gets Her Period: Talking with your daughter about menstruation (Perspective Publishing, 800-330-5851, 1998). Like many of us, I was caught somewhat by surprise by my first menstrual period at age 11. What I recall most was when a friend of my mom whispered to her in front of me, “Does she know she has to be careful now?” Gillooly, a therapist and psychology professor, helps parents ease their daughters into maturity with a little more finesse than most of us experienced ourselves. Aimed at mothers of girls ages 8 and up (menstruation often begins at 9, 10, or 11 these days), Gillooly’s writing is sensible, clear, reassuring. She offers real stories and things to think about (i.e., what would you like your daughter to remember about your talks?), as well as a useful 20-page glossary.
Glendon, Will. 200 Ways to Raise a Boy’s Emotional Intelligence (Conari Press, 2000). I usually resist books that insist boys need to be raised vastly differently from girls, but I like this author’s inspiring suggestions relate to exploring your own assumptions, helping your son resist stereotypes, and helping him be comfortable in the world of emotions. Good advice for any gender.
Gordon, Sol, and Judith Gordon. Raising a Child Responsibly in a Sexually Permissive World (Adams Media, 2000). This is the revised and updated Second Edition of this sane and practical guide. Learn how to be a liberal, askable parent and raise a child with solid morals who won’t be exploited.
Greenspan, Stanley, M.D.(with Nancy Breslau Lewis). Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences that Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children (Perseus Books, 1999). Every parent wants to raise children who can love, express themselves, create, feel compassion for others. In about half an hour a day, you can help achieve all this. Just get down on the floor with your child and enjoy some relaxed, yet focused, interaction. Learn how in this book by a noted child psychiatrist. Greenspan describes in evocative detail six stages a child passes through in the first four years, from beginning to take an interest in the world, to “building bridges with ideas.” Then he offers insights on how to share vital “floor time,” including what you should notice, adapting to a child’s needs, and setting limits while playing.
Hauswirth, Katherine. Things My Mother Told Me: Reflections on Parenthood (Trafford Publishing, www.trafford.com, 2000). This is a short, sweet, inspirational book that does exactly what it sets out to do. When Hauswirth began planning for parenthood, she decided to write vignettes around the sayings her mother always pulled out at opportune moments — those sayings that stuck with Hauswirth down through the years. She did this in order to crystallize them in her mind, so she could use the best ones with her own child. I see this book as suiting two excellent purposes. One is for any parent, at any stage of the parenting enterprise, to provide instant warmth and inspiration to be a loving and supportive parent. I also see this as a lovely example of a focused memoir. If you’re itching to write the story of your life, as so many people are, the task can be overwhelming. Things My Mother Told Me is a superb instance of breaking such a vast storehouse of memories down into something succinct, manageable, and pleasurable to read.
Hendrix, Harville, Ph.D. and Hunt, Helen, M.A., M.L.A. Giving the Love That Heals: A Guide for Parents (Pocket Books, 1998). The idea here is that by becoming aware of your own emotional history, you can become a reenergized parent. Be aware, of course, that you can’t just “do” something to your kids or change them. You’ll need to reflect deeply on yourself to apply conscious parenting. Even if you resist the idea that we’re all wounded and need healing, you’ll find some common-sense tools here that can improve your family’s day-to-day life.
Hersch, Patricia. A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence (Ballantine, 1999). When teens hit the news these days, it’s usually with a bang. Rather than accept this as the whole picture, author Hersch immersed herself in teen culture for several years. Her book is well worth reading before your own children reach the time of life when they put on emotional dark glasses and you lose touch with their world. Written in a lovely novel-like style.
Kabat-Zinn, Myla and Jon. Everyday blessings: The Inner work of mindful parenting. (Hyperion, 1994). A lucid introduction to living a more conscious and mindful family life. The authors use self-revealing anecdotes to enliven this inspirational book for parents who hate being mired in the trivial details of daily life while feeling they are somehow missing the big picture.
Kellerman, Jonathan. Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children (Ballantine, 1999). As fresh as today’s headlines, this small volume covers the whole nature-nurture story in very readable fashion. I won’t be giving away the ending if I tell you he feels it’s possible to alter at-risk kids before it’s too late, but that it requires motivated parents and, often, a more comprehensive therapeutic approach than is likely to happen.
Kivel, Paul. Boys Will Be Men: Raising Our Sons for Courage, Caring and Community (New Society Publishers, 1999). A part of this book that most appeals to me is Kivel’s statement that generalizing about boys is as problematic as any other form of stereotyping. Kivel has written a thought-provoking book about how we might raise our sons to produce men who are capable of growing beyond society’s usual messages to simply “get by” or “get ahead.” Filled with questions to reflect upon and to ask our children, Boys Will Be Men will raise your consciousness. In Kivel’s household, the children are responsible for laundering their own clothes at age ten. And that’s the easy part of parenting. Kivel goes on to cover attitudes toward sexuality, violence, sports, even consumerism. This elegant and daring book could make a difference in our troubled culture.
Kranowitz, Carol Stock. The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (Berkley, 1998). This will make a lot of sense to you if you often think of your kid as difficult, picky, oversensitive, clumsy, unpredictable, or inattentive. Half the book contains advice on coping at home and at school.
Kurcinka, Mary Sheedy. Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime (HarperCollins, 2000). The only real way anyone ever wins a power struggle within a family is if EVERYONE wins, says family educator Kurcinka, who here shares insights and techniques for reducing parent/child battles. Take tantrums. Sometimes your child gives you plenty of warning that a meltdown is coming. But you can recognize frustration, a desperate need for nurturing, or incipient exhaustion before it’s too late. By monitoring your child’s emotions, you can keep him or her from having to escalate just to be heard. This book clearly shows how to understand your child’s — and your own — temperament so everyone can get along.
Lewis, Steven. The ABCs of Real Family Values (Plume, 1998). An English professor and father of seven shares his fresh view of family life. His values are the ones that make life worth living. For instance, in Chapter J (for Joie de Vivre), he offers a story about his young son’s outsized joy at his first phone call, adding, “The politicians and bankers and teachers and religious leaders in our lives invariably advise us - in grave tones - that we should, in effect, save for rainy days, keep everything in perspective, do all our homework, eat our peas and carrots. . . , pursue (moderately) moderation in all things. . . , and floss twice daily. But children remind us that exuberance is indeed better than taste.” Each chapter - about empathy, generosity, humor, idealism, resilience, and more - inspires a thrill of gratitude for what we already have.
McCracken, Anne, and Semel, Mary (editors). A Broken Heart Still Beats: After Your Child Dies (Hazelden, 1998). If you’ve lost a child or know someone who has, run out and buy them this stunning collection of excerpts and poems about child loss by the world’s greatest writers (Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Anne Tyler, Russell Banks, William Styron, etc.). You may be weeping by the end of the very first page, as soon as the editors briefly tell their own stories. Sometimes such tears are precisely what’s called for. Knowing you’re not alone always helps, at least a little.
Murphy, Shane. The Cheers and the Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today (Jossey-Bass, 1999). When my two sons were in elementary school, they participated with childish gusto in the sports teams offered by our local recreation center. They had some fine times, and some memorably negative experiences, as well. A just-published book on youth sports tackles the problems that often come with this territory. Sport psychologist Murphy offers lots of helpful tips for parents who would like their kids to tune into the fun and downplay the competition. His most compelling suggestion involves promoting a focus on mastery, which is the way to raise kids who not only excel, but who are resilient and who enjoy challenges.
Newmark, Gerald, Ph.D. How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children (NMI Publishers, 1999). Educator Newmark offers a brief look at how parents can meet the critical needs of their children to feel respected, important, accepted, included, and secure. A variety of anecdotal situations includes examples of helpful and hurtful behaviors. One chapter focuses on “becoming a professional at parenting,” for which Newmark suggests setting up a variety of “game plans” that will help meet your family’s needs, and offers activities that correspond with each goal.
Nordin, Rhonda Kruse. After the Baby: Making Sense of Marriage After Childbirth (Taylor, 2000). Some marriages, like some women’s bodies, heal more quickly after childbirth. Sadly, after the birth of a baby, a lot of marriages begin a downward slide that never stops. The changes relationships go through are all so normal, yet if you don’t expect them, you may fail to recover. Nordin studied hundreds of couples to write this book. She covers expectations, postpartum depression, the too-much-work quandary, sexual turning points, and finally, since the topic comes up so often during the early years of parenting, divorce. Reassuring advice for those willing to take the issue seriously.
O’Mara, Peggy, with Jane McConnell. Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting (Pocket Books, 2000). A soothing and thought-provoking compilation of articles from a fine magazine that stresses trusting yourself and your child.
Orenstein, Julian, M.D. 365 Ways to Calm Your Crying Baby (Adams, 1998). If ever a book consisting solely of short, easy-to-digest tips deserved to be written, this is it. And a perfect gift it would make for any new parent. Palm-sized and easy to lug around while you’re also struggling to find out what’s keeping your baby from quieting down, 365 WAYS offers a pediatrician’s tried-and-true advice. Among his suggestions: use a hand-puppet to get your baby’s attention, put her in a front carrier while you ride your stationery bike, sing her a song with her name in it (once she’s old enough to realize it’s her name). Divided into sections for infants and toddlers, the book also includes information about numerous causes of baby distress.
Paley, Vivian Gussin. The Kindness of Children (Harvard University Press, 1999). Paley, the author of numerous popular books and the recipient of one of those MacArthur genius grants, tells stories about children that make you see them in a new light. This book is filled with evidence of the surprising goodness of little boys and girls. A delightful read.
Pantly, Elizabeth. Perfect Parenting: The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips (Contemporary Books, 1999). In spite of the slightly intimidating title, this is no static list of how-to’s. Rather, it’s a set of helpful mini-articles about common problems. Take the child who procrastinates doing her chores. First Pantley asks, don’t we ALL put tedious tasks at the bottom of our lists sometimes? Among the solutions: begin the chore WITH your child to get her started. Compliment, don’t criticize, your child’s efforts, and don’t redo the work. If your child is bored by the same chores, increase her interest by assigning her new tasks. (This is based on solid theory, which says we get more engaged when a job is novel and a bit of a challenge.) Allow a chore-free day (except for pet-feeding and such), since we all come back refreshed from a day off. That’s just a single example of how useful this book is.
Rapp, Rayna. Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America (Routledge, 1999). Do you like to know everything about a subject before making a decision? If you’re facing an amnio, you’ll get support and information from this book by an anthropologist and feminist activist who shares a wide variety of compelling human stories that are rarely told.
Roehlkepartain, Jolene L., and Nancy Leffert, Ph.D. What Young Children Need to Succeed: Working Together to Build Assets from Birth to Age 11 (Free Spirit Publishing, 2000). The Minneapolis-based Search Institute came up with 40 key factors — developmental assets — that all kids need to grow up healthy, caring, and productive. They’re fully discussed in this book by a parent educator and a developmental expert. More than 1000 suggestions are offered for those who spend time with kids on how to encourage commitment to learning, positive values, empowerment, and social competencies.
Rosenfeld, Alvin, M.D., and Nicole Wise. Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard? (St. Martin’s, 2000). Do you catch yourself feeling overwhelmed by the effort to create the perfect kid? Paradoxically, you’re likely to mess up big-time unless you take it a little easier. According to these authors, most of us mean well — too well — but we forget to give our kids what they REALLY need, which is a chance to learn from their own mistakes, live their own lives, and, gasp, occasionally not be number one. Hyper-Parenting reminds us that we need to consciously counter our society’s push to turn us all into frenzied perfectionists.
Rubenstein, Carin, Ph.D. The Sacrificial Mother: Escaping the Trap of Self-Denial (Hyperion, 1998). Rubenstein loves pickles, yet always gave the last one in the jar to her kids. For the first eight years of her children’s lives, she didn’t buy any new clothes — not even underwear, she tells us. When she realized she’d lost her self by sacrificing her needs to her children’s, she devised a Sacrifice Scale, surveyed mothers across the nation, and wrote this book. Rubenstein found that one in three American mothers — 12 million women — are extreme sacrificers. They live through their children, are often miserable, and, contrary to their deepest wishes, may damage their children by fostering dependency. Many of us become sacrificers by following the example of our mothers. Sooner or later we start resenting the one-way giving. Please don’t read this book, though, if you’re looking for an excuse to be selfish. Rubenstein suggests instead that we learn to be selfist. It’s important, she says, for women to learn to pamper themselves as well as they pamper their kids and husbands. If you often think, hey, I do way too much, or you’re torn up by guilt for what you haven’t done, it’s time to re-evaluate.
How you feel about what you do counts too. I sacrificed a lot for my kids, but it rarely felt like a sacrifice. Once, after I’d completed an article about hardware stores because that was one of my son’s interests, he said to me, “Why don’t you write about something you’re interested in, Mom?” That this struck me as a surprising idea shows the extent to which I’d put myself second. Yet, far from feeling like sacrifice, I had truly learned to enjoy what the people I love enjoyed. Much of Rubenstein’s list of sacrificial behaviors makes sense. If your child over the age of eight doesn’t know how to turn on the washing machine, or you carry his lunchbox to school even if this is the third time this month he has forgotten it, you may be spoiling your child as well as sacrificing yourself. But Rubenstein would also be concerned if you leave little notes or tape record yourself reading stories to your child when you’re going to be away for several days. Maybe I’m too far gone, but I see those as sensitive gestures.
I also beg to differ with Rubenstein’s suggestion that what we do or don’t do for our kids may not matter. Best to understand that as meaning that the individual details don’t matter. The overall quality of parenting does make a big difference in how a child’s psyche develops. Finally, her six-step plan for achieving selfism is commendable: do one small thing just for you, set up a pampering program, share the sacrifices, respect your self, find a dream, and establish your true self. Not a bad place to begin if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Shimberg, Elaine Fantle. Blending Families: A Guide for Parents, Stepparents, Grandparents and Everyone Building a New Family (Berkley, 1999). As common as it is to marry someone with kids these days, it’s still surprisingly complicated and stressful to put together such a combo-family. Shimberb, an award-winning medical writer, offers a comprehensive, yet gentle, guide to the subject. She covers the feelings and needs of all parties, from the biological parent’s inevitable guilt, to those often infuriating conversations with an ex-spouse about the kids. Everyone involved in an about-to-be blended family should be required by law to read at least one good book on the subject, and Shimberg’s is an excellent one.
Small, Meredith F. Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent (Anchor, 1998). The author, an anthropologist at Cornell, shares with us a fascinating look at how different caretaking styles across cultures affect infants and what might actually be best for babies. She cites research, for example, finding that even nutritionally deprived women’s breast milk is plentiful and of the same composition as that of better-nourished women, and that it’s well-fed Western women who say they cannot produce enough milk (without blaming, Small suggests several reasons for this). You may rethink your use of the playpen when there are people around to hold your baby, or you may decide sleeping with your baby is something to try.
Stern, Daniel, N., M.D., Bruschweiler-Stern, Nadia, M.D., with Alison Freeland. The Birth of a Mother: How the Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever (Basic Books, 1998). It’s not only babies that get born, but moms. The authors of this book explore the process of what happens to women when they have a baby. From pregnancy through the period of adaptation (I knew I’d partially adapted when I could concentrate on reading a whole magazine article, when my son was three months old), the authors share their insights with warmth and poignancy. When you most need validation of your intense emotional changes, this enjoyable volume offers it.
Sternberg, Robert J. and Grigorenko, Elena L. Our Labeled Children: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know About Learning Disabilities (Perseus, 1999). If your child has trouble reading or has already been labeled “learning disabled” at school, you’ll want to spend some time with this book. The authors’ thesis is stated upfront: “virtually everyone has a learning disability in something, but society chooses to recognize only some individuals with the LD label.” The book covers identifying those with LD and how we serve them in school, the science of reading disabilities, and a better way of teaching reading that will prevent many children from developing learning disabilities in the first place.
Swedo, Susan Anderson, and Leonard, Henrietta L. Is It “Just a Phase”?: How to Tell Common Childhood Phases from More Serious Problems (Golden Books, 1998). All parents worry whether some weird or annoying behavior of their child is “just a phase” or something more. Even if your child’s nervous tics, fears, disobedience, impossible activity level, and so on, are normal developmental phases, does that mean you should just keep trying to ignore what is impossible to ignore? You’ll get sound advice in this book, learning how to tell if your child is shy, in which case you can help her outgrow it, or socially phobic to the point of causing her anxiety. Even in the latter case, there’s a lot you can do. The authors, a pediatrician and a child psychiatrist, offer reassurance that most of what you worry about can be alleviated without putting either you or your child in a strait-jacket.
Swihart, E.W., Jr., M.D., and Cotter, Patrick, Ph.D. The Manipulative Child: How to Regain Control and Raise Resilient, Resourceful, and Independent Kids (Bantam, 1998). You’d think kids were nothing but trouble from the rash of new titles sitting on my desk, but when you’re having daily battles with your own, one of these books just may save the day (and year). Take this one. All manipulations involve some underlying fear, and long-term goals don’t get served by giving in. It’s a complex topic, not oversimplified here, but bound to be of enormous help to you if your child is running your life.
Taffel, Ron, Ph.D. Nurturing Good Children Now: 10 Basic Skills to Protect and Strengthen Your Child’s Core Self (Golden Books, 1999). Taffel, a therapist in New York City, wrote this book with award-winning journalist Melinda Blau. The 10 skills they tackle are miles in sophistication beyond the usual, ranging from mood mastery, expressiveness, and body comfort, to team intelligence and gratitude. Here you’ll learn how to encourage your child’s passion by holding back a bit, how to help a noisy child by praising brevity and order, and how to build a healthy bodily self-image in your child by keeping a lid on gloomy comments about your own body.
Unell, Barbara C., and Jerry L. Wyckoff, Ph.D. 8 Seasons of Parenthood: How the Stages of Our Children’s Lives Transform Us (Times Books, 2000). While your children are growing, so are you. In this book, we learn how our adult identities go through predictable stages. It’s a fascinating peek into our own inner lives.
Wagner, Hilory. And Baby Makes Four: Welcoming a Second Child into the Family (Avon, 1998). From planning a second pregnancy to integrating the baby smoothly into the family. A tip I wished I’d known way back when: Allow the “big kid” to hover as much as he wants to, with the single rule that he is to back off if the baby looks unhappy or is crying.
Wright, Marguerite A. I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World (A Guide for Parents and Teachers) (Jossey-Bass, 1998). Whether you’re the parent of a black or biracial child, a teacher, or merely a citizen of a multi-racial metropolis, you’ll find much of value in this book by a senior clinical and research psychologist for the Center for the Vulnerable Child at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. I found the “parents’ quiz” in the chapter on raising the racially healthy preschooler enlightening. Do you react to racial slights in the presence of your child by ignoring them? If so, you may be invalidating your child’s experiences and feelings. If, though, you angrily accuse someone who makes a charged comment of demeaning your child, you may be impulsively interpreting situations as racial, when a more balanced perspective would be better for your child’s developing identity.
Yapko, Michael, Ph.D. Hand-Me-Down Blues: How to Stop Depression from Spreading in Families (Golden Books, 1999). A look at how families can support their children’s emotional resilience. Even if your own parents fostered a competitive, hostile, negative, distant, tense atmosphere that made it tough for you to see life’s glass as half-full, you can do the right thing for your own kids. While Yapko’s therapeutic family systems viewpoint doesn’t mean never having to say, “Take your Prozac,” it can make a major difference in raising kids to be undepressed adults.
Baur, Susan, Ph.D. The Love of Your Life: What we learn from living in the grip of passion (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2002). This wasn’t what I expected: only a quarter of Baur’s 200 interviews netted her the story of a lasting love. She distinguishes, in fact, between the love of a lifetime and the best relationship of your life. Many of the rest of her anecdotes are about those passionate experiences that seem to have no parallel: brief relationships that were somehow doomed but still haunt you for decades, romances that didn’t survive but nevertheless transformed your life. Baur, a licensed psychologist, writes compellingly, and she candidly shares her own story (a year-long affair with a married man). Like a good ethnographer, Baur asks intriguing questions and shares her interviewee’s answers, while never judging.
Carlson, Richard, & Kristine Carlson. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in Love (Hyperion, 1999). Part of a popular series of books of bite-sized aphorisms, this one focuses on letting go of what doesn’t really matter in a relationship. The authors’ theory is that love can get much better if you avoid the distraction of all those minor irritations that pile up and get in the way. Their message is accurate as far as it goes. Where this book falls down is that there isn’t enough solid help in doing what the authors suggest. For instance, it repeats the tired advice to do some tasks yourself, without resentment, and presto chango! your mate will suddenly become helpful, simply because you avoided nagging. It doesn’t work that way in reality.
Christensen, Andrew, and Jacobson, Neil S. Reconcilable Differences (Guilford, 2000). One of the best books in this genre, covering issues with a depth of insight not often found in popular books. The main focus is how to you can adapt amiably to your partner’s imperfections. You’ll learn why getting one’s partner to change is so difficult, and how to get around that and still be happy together. The authors don’t advocate putting up with rotten behavior or surrendering to the annoying in a syrupy way. Rather they show you how to understand why your partner behaves in certain ways. Once you’ve managed to learn compassion, change actually does become a possibility. The book is written a little like those old “can this marriage be saved” stories—her story, his story, and a qualified “outsider’s” response—which are engrossing and enlightening at the same time. The authors include an intelligent discussion of when good advice is bad for us (being told that apologizing is good, for instance, when it’s your nature to do so anyway, but you do it with resentment), and when bad advice is good (when it gets you to talk openly with each other and relate the advice to your own unique relationship).
Cohen, Eric J., and Sterling, Gregory. “You Owe Me”: The Emotional Debts That Cripple Relationships (New Horizon, 1999). This book zeroes in on the tit-for-tat phenomenon, which when misused, can cause great harm to lasting love. Some good ideas, but also rather emphatic about how to even things out (with written contracts and so on), which goes against the nature of the most successful communal relationships, according to the latest research.
Cohen, Evelyn S., Rogovin, Sheila A., with Andrea Thompson. Couple Fits: Attachment Theory Will Revolutionize the Way You Look at Your Relationship (Perigee, 2000): Therapist-authored book focusing entirely on attachment theory (individuals are either secure, avoidant, or ambivalent).
Cohen, Sherry Suib. Secrets of a Very Good Marriage: Lessons from the Sea (Penguin, 1993). This journalist’s account of her own marriage is pleasingly written, offering numerous (and often amusing) insights about how a long-married couple negotiate their many differences.
Doyle, Laura. The Surrendered Wife (Simon & Schuster, 2001). This bestselling book mainly seemed to benefit from major publicity generated by its ultra-reactionary suggestions to wives that they basically give up their voices so their husbands can feel manly and in control in traditional ways. I suspected at first that this was written tongue-in-cheek. Now I wish it had been.
Dubin, Julie Weingarden. How to Plan an Elegant Second Wedding: Achieving the Wedding You Want with Grace and Style (Prima, 2003). Didn’t someone say that remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience? Those of us who discovered genuine and lasting happiness only in our second marriages know that such hope is a vital antidote to just plain giving up. Anyway, this book offers sane and sensible advice for those planning to celebrate their second (or later) nuptuals “with grace and style,” as the subtitle notes. Dubin covers the usual stuff (choosing time and place, creating guest lists, the ceremony, clothes, music, and so on) but also includes getting over your guilt, figuring out who pays for what this time, and including your kids in the big day.
Fein, Ellen, & Sherrie Schneider. The Rules for Marriage: Time-Tested Secrets for Making Your Marriage Work (Warner Books, 2001). Most of the publicity generated for this book relates to the fact that the first author’s own marriage broke down just before pub date. In one interview, she admits to writing “in the extreme because we know women won’t follow it exactly,” which in my opinion is a patronizing and irresponsible attitude. Although the “rules” they suggest for making a marriage work are fairly ordinary (communication is important), this book offers nothing new and no practical or insightful help to those who need the guidance. A “rules” approach is as useless in the long run as a diet book espousing eating bananas 13 times a day to lose weight quickly.
Fowers, Blaine J. Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness: How Embracing the Virtues of Loyalty, Generosity, Justice, and Courage Can Strengthen Your Relationship (Jossey-Bass, 2000). Focuses on the necessity of being an unusually good person in order to have a fine marriage. It’s rather vague in places, and could be misleading to some. For instance, in his discussion of communication, Fowers takes one brief section to say it’s not necessary to communicate well and that we shouldn’t worry about it if we don’t.
Glasser, William, M.D., and Carleen Glasser. Getting Together and Staying Together: Solving the Mystery of Marriage (Quill, 2000, revision of a 1995 book). Good as far as it goes, this quite brief book makes use of the well known author/psychiatrist’s “choice theory.” Interesting coverage of genetic and personality issues.
Gordon, Sol, Ph.D., and Elaine Fantle Shimberg. Another Chance for Love: Finding a Partner Later in Life (Adams Media, 2004). I’ve been reading and enjoying Sol Gordon’s books for many years now, and this is another one that combines inspiration with practical, sane guidance. Finding and sustaining love is always a challenge, and the older you get, you more you can become dispirited over your chances of ever finding a suitable partner. Another Chance for Love takes the unusual stance that it’s actually friendship that is the answer. Seeking out, valuing, and deepening friendships with reasonably suitable individuals may lead you to a longterm, deep, and abiding love that will make your earlier quest for fireworks seem shallow. Gordon and Shimberg discuss values, trust, communication, humor, and passion (not just for sex, but for life)—among the aspects of a good friend. Relaxing into the safety and flow of an authentic friendship, they explain, is more likely to lead to something richer than if you begin every official “date” with unreal expectations.
Gottman, John M. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Crown, 1999). Gottman is among the most credible of academic psychologists. Based on his decades-long lab work with highly distressed couples wherein he discovered some very useful methods for predicting marital failure, this book explains clearly how to communicate and so on, including the use of tests and exercises. Although he simplifies his approach a little for a popular audience, his advice never loses its usefulness or accuracy.
Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Coming About: A Family Passage at Sea (Sheridan House, 2002). Refreshingly candid memoir of the year the author, her husband, and their school-age children spent sailing. She describes how her marriage was positively transformed by the experience.
Ingram, Leah. The Balanced Bride: Preparing Your Mind, Body, and Spirit for Your Wedding and Beyond (Contemporary Books, 2002). The months leading up to a wedding are not only exhilarating, they’re often anxiety-inducing. It’s a shame when the logistics take precedence over all else, so that the bride is often the least likely to enjoy the occasion. This book aims to counter that trend by offering numerous suggestions for achieving balance before, during, and after the big day. While the first part of the book covers health issues and birth control options—nicely summarized but nothing startling —the rest of the book tackles issues rarely touched on in wedding planning tomes: changing identity, extended family feuds, how to integrate your work and your friends into your new married life, stepparenting, balancing two religions under one roof, and making your marriage stronger. Interspersed throughout are “Wedding Wisdom” quotes from brides. Could there be a better bridal shower gift?
Kramer, Peter D. Should You Leave: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy—and the Nature of Advice (Scribner, 1997). An excellent and quirky book by a psychiatrist who is also a bestselling author, it tackles a few specific issues (advice, divorce decisions) and offers insights as to why problems are so hard to solve. Readers learn about ego differentiation, how long change really takes, and why most individuals who say they’ve “tried everything” have actually sabotaged their own efforts. Kramer uses both fictional techniques and made-up aspects in this nonfiction book.
Krasnow, Iris. Surrendering to Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and Other Imperfections (Hyperion/Talk Miramax, 2001). Written journalistically in the form of one long personal narrative divided into three chapters, this easy read appeals to those who find the reality of their marriages less shiny than they’d hoped. The author limits her material mainly to those in her circle of friends. It’s another in a long line of writings that repeat tired old cliches about male/female behavior. For instance, she says that her husband, “like most men I know,” tend to talk around problems. She refers to caveman days and calls on brain circuitry studies to justify this outdated dichotomy that men only want quick solutions and women like to talk about feelings. This “theory” can safely be dismissed by those who prefer a more individualized approach to relationships. Krasnow’s advice about keeping the mystery in a marriage by, for example, taking up knitting doesn’t seem very helpful. She explains that her husband associated knitting with grandmas but now sees she can do it, too. How likely is that to stoke the fire of renewed passion? Krasnow’s wish, at one point in the book, that she had made more homemade dinners early on, seems to conflict with what she says later when she quotes her husband as saying he wanted her attention, not her food. The reader is bound to come away confused about the real lessons here. Finally, she insists marriage is good when it’s not bad, which is a sadly tepid finale.
Love, Pat. The Truth about Love: The Highs, the Lows, and How You Can Make it Last Forever (Fireside, 2001). Mostly a regurgitation of well-known platitudes, featuring brief coverage of some of the biggest issues facing couples. For instance, the author, a therapist, covers infidelity in three short bits, for a total of one page. She suggests dealing with negative thoughts by using thought-stopping (just don’t think thoughts you don’t want to think), and includes only a page on the whole subject of tuning in to and paying attention to one’s partner. Much of the book is devoted to surprisingly simple true/false tests, with such vague statements as “I am a pleasant person to live with.” One of her one-page sections is “Streamline Your Home,” in which she suggests “getting rid of clutter.” If it were only this simple, especially when one partner revels in clutter.
Markman, Howard J., Scott M. Stanley, and Susan L. Blumberg. Fighting FOR Your Marriage (Revised Edition, Jossey-Bass, 2001). Based on the well-known PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) approach, this book discusses getting through conflicts effectively, and then how to have a good time together (mustn’t forget that!). The practical points are illustrated with dialogues and enriched by numerous examples.
McGraw, Phillip C. Relationship Rescue: A Seven-Step Strategy for Reconnecting with Your Partner (Hyperion, 2000). While McGraw’s advice appears solid enough, his insistence on following a very specific plan as the only way to make your marriage truly happy goes against the grain for many. Highly structured methods are often very hard to stick to, and very hard to get the other partner to agree to. Other problems are the vagueness of the prescriptions, such as “banish immaturity,” “become the kind of person who commands quality and inspires respect,” which is tantamount to saying you have to perfect yourself before you can find a loving relationship. It’s actually possible for flawed people to love and be loved deeply.
Mitchell, Stephen A. Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time (W.W.Norton, 2001). Recently-deceased clinician Mitchell took a philosophical approach toward the nature of love and relationship. But the book is practical, too, in that Mitchell’s examples are always well grounded in real life. You’ll come away from this short book with a renewed excitement about keeping your love alive - and vibrant - which you can do by respecting the process of change rather than trying to make everything stay put. Spontaneity is good for passion.
Pearlman, Ann. Infidelity (MacAdam/Cage, 2000). This personal memoir of the author’s own husband’s infidelity and subsequent end of a long marriage is entertainingly written, but readers may be left wondering what lessons to take from it. Pearlman seems unable to look back and determine the origins of her marriage’s collapse.
Pittman, Frank. Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy (Norton, 1990). Pittman is a funny psychiatrist who very frankly tells people how to behave like adults, particularly in their relationships. His work on infidelity is priceless, based on his work with couples who have come to him in deep distress. I’d recommend it be read early in every relationship, so that when temptation occurs, you’ll know exactly what’s going on and how to keep your primary relationship in the forefront of your mind. It may feel emotionally risky to be as open and honest as Pittman suggests, but if you seek deep intimacy, his book is one of the clearest—and most amusing—around.
Popcak, Gregory K., MSW. Exceptional Seven Percent, The: The Nine Secrets of the World’s Happiest Couples (Citadel, 2000). Not research-based, this book by a social worker talks about how important it is to live up to some high-level virtues, such as what Popcak calls “exceptional service,” “exceptional gratitude,” and “exceptional sexuality.” Some interesting and inspiring ideas.
Schnarch, David. Passionate Marriage: Sex, Love, and Intimacy in Emotionally Committed Relationships (Holt, 1998). Authored masterfully by a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, this book focuses on the role of sexuality in relationships and is insightful and growth-enhancing, rather than quick-fix-oriented. It’s filled with rich, candid, and personal anecdotes. One of his trademark prescriptions is to look into your lover’s eyes during lovemaking, rather than imagining someone else entirely or focusing entirely on sensation.
Schwartz, Mimi. Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed (University of Nebraska Press, 2002). For those times when you’re not seeking advice, but simply want to hear how someone else has made it through the rough spots. In amusing vignettes and without sugarcoating, Schwartz tells of everyday life in her marriage of 39 years. You’re left with a warm awareness of how precious a good relationship becomes over time.
Schwartz, Pepper. Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong: Twenty-Five Relationship Myths Redefined to Achieve Happiness and Fulfillment in Your Intimate Life (Putnam, 2000). Following on her Peer Marriage: How Love Between Equals Really Works, this author takes the approach that the best relationships are not based on what we thought they were. For instance, she insists that you can’t have passion if you’re best friends—as though the passion can last indefinitely as long as you don’t expect too much outside the bedroom. Yet she disregards what happens if you’re not friends. Her conclusions are rather back-and-forth, and thus not much help in the real world, and I suspect that she was mainly seeking a controversial way to talk about what we already know about marriage: that it changes over time and it doesn’t pay to expect too much perfection. I’ve found it is possible to have an extremely happy union over time, being both deep and close friends and lovers, though of course the nature of the passion evolves over time.
Sharlin, Shlomo A., et al. Together Through Thick and Thin: A Multinational Picture of Long-Term Marriages (Haworth Clinical Practice Press, 2000). Very scholarly write-up of a series of studies. Valuable for the researcher.
Sternberg, Robert J. Love is a Story: A New Theory of Relationships (Oxford, 1998). An original if somewhat academic take on relationships, dividing real lives into the stories they represent (police story, cookbook story, etc.).
Sternberg, Robert J. Cupid’s Arrow: The Course of Love Through Time (Cambridge, 1998). Another scholarly work that describes Sternberg’s theory of “seven kinds of love,” and his views of love over time.
Tessina, Tina B., Ph.D. It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction by (New Page Books, 2003). Still suffering from your miserable childhood? According to author Tessina, you can learn to get past all that—at any point in your life—by finally understanding yourself and how you have been affected by your early experiences. This book shows you how to stop repeating old and painful patterns with a series of questions, insights, and easy and organic exercises. Use instead of or along with a therapist or to help you decide if you would benefit from therapy.
Vaughan, Peggy & Vaughan, James, Ph.D. Making Love Stay: Everything You Ever Knew About Love But Forgot (Dialog Press, 1999, www.vaughan-vaughan.com). This e-book (also available in audiocassette form) is written by a married couple (Peggy also authored The Monogamy Myth), who share their personal lives with readers in detail. Relationship experts who work with couples, the Vaughans take what we all think we know about how to be happy as a couple and remind us in ways that make it possible to use that knowledge effectively. For instance, losing touch with one another due to the pressures of childrearing and career—how much more common a quandary than this is there among couples? The Vaughans paid the price for that neglect, as did my husband and I in our own marriage. This is a very wise book, never oversimplifying the complexities of relationship, but always passing along to the careful reader a sense of hope and inspiration. Written in warm, personable, conversational style.
Allen, Moira Anderson. writing.com: Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career (Allworth Press, 1999). This is one of those rare books that has something new to teach even the most sophisticated writer (after all, I promote my own books via the Internet, and Allen’s book managed to clue me into several sites that were unknown to me). Whether you’re debating over whether or how to put up your own Web site, wondering what to look for and look out for in an e-publisher, or somehow missed the page on an online bookseller’s site that tells you what to add to your page there to help sell your books — you’ll learn a great deal from writing.com. Although not 100 per cent comprehensive (for instance, in her list of sites that offer writing courses, she omits some I know about) there’s a lot of solid info. Well laid-out, with valuable appendices.
Baker, John F. Literary Agents: A Writer’s Introduction (Macmillan, 1999). Reading through the 44 profiles in this volume should give any writer a much clearer picture of the whole publishing process. Agents, according to Baker, who is Vice President and Editorial Director of Publishers Weekly, act as gatekeepers to the publishing world the way legendary editors and publishers used to do. Thus it behooves any writer who wants to get a foot in the door to choose and stick with the best agent possible. What “best” means, of course, is impossible to say in a definitive way, but the more you know about what’s out there, the better a decision you can make. The agents included in this volume are independent practitioners, not employees of some of the most well-known agencies. Though my own agent isn’t in it, what it says about particular agents may not be the most salient aspect of the book. If you’re like me and want to know everything you can about the business itself, this frank and readable book will prove satisfying.
Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1997). Many of us long to write a memoir, perhaps because this form seems almost halfway between nonfiction and fiction, or because it offers us the chance to be as creative as we wanna be for a change. Barrington’s book offers some thought-provoking guidelines to the would-be memoirist, such as how to handle writing about living people, when to name names, moving around in time, and finding the right form for your personal story. Nicely written, with plenty of examples and an intelligent, flexible approach.
Baxter, Charles (Editor). The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting (Graywolf Press, 1999). This is a collection of 13 essays about turning memory into art by writers who have published fiction, essays, and memoirs. Take Bernard Cooper’s piece, “Marketing Memory,” for instance. It’s a beautifully detailed evocation of how the memoir he wrote and published took on an odd life of its own as he promoted it, causing him much misery (the negative reviews of his LIFE hit very hard), and teaching him a lot about popular culture. Fascinating reading for anyone contemplating writing a memoir or reading one.
Beattie, L. Elizabeth (Editor). Conversations with Kentucky writers (The University Press of Kentucky, 1996). Includes interviews with 20 writers with a Kentucky connection. Topics include what the writer recalls about her childhood, her reading and writing history, and how and why she writes. Barbara Kingsolver, for example, admits that her favorite teachers were often the ones generally considered to be less adept. She also tells us she partly attributes her becoming a writer to her sense of being a social misfit, which researcher Howard Gardner found to be a commonality in his study of eminently creative individuals. Kingsolver explains why she began a journal at age seven: “What I feel is that writing is the thing that makes my experience real to me.” Bobbie Ann Mason’s description of her writing process might serve as excellent advice for would-be writers: “I just try to find the muse, . . . try to take advantage of it, try to get it out as quickly and as painlessly and as intensely as I can, and then I’ve got something to work with.” And listen to Marsha Norman explain why she feels lucky: “Writing is still the only thing I want to do at ten o’clock in the morning.” Each writer explores his or her writing’s regional connections in depth, while also noting the ways even regional writing offers more universal meanings.
Bell, Marvin. A Marvin Bell reader: Selected poetry and prose (Middlebury College Press, 1994). Personal revelations by a highly personable, amusing, complex, yet accessible poet.
Bloom, Lary. The Writer Within: A Guide to Creative Nonfiction (Bibliopola Press, 1-800-U-READ-IT, 1997). Bloom, editor of The Hartford Courant’s Northeast Magazine, offers numerous examples of how Sunday supplement pieces evolve, along with specific tips, such as, “Go there” to get the details that make all the difference in a good story. He also reminds us that it can take longer to find the proper focus for a good piece than to write it, and that you can’t always tell what the story really means until you’ve written a version of it and realized, “That’s not right.”
Bolker, Joan, Ed.D. (Editor) The writer’s home companion: an anthology of the world’s best writing advice, from Keats to Kunitz (Henry Holt, 1997). “World’s best” is a little too overarching a description for this collection of 26 essays, and Keats’ contribution is only a manuscript page of one of his poems, showing how he revised it. Yet I found a few excellent and useful pieces, particularly Ursula LeGuin’s “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” LeGuin discusses preparation for writing, stating that although an outside event appears to trigger a particular piece, its true beginning “arises in the mind, from psychic concerns that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted.” Several contributors advocate freewriting and make a pretty good case for it, though I don’t necessarily agree with Natalie Goldberg that we need to do writing exercises daily to warm up. Rather, many successful writers have learned to warm up and loosen up in the actual writing that matters most. One essay contains a couple hundred extremely brief exercises along the lines of “Draw a mask for yourself,” and “Write a poem, using the whole page in some way, and using different colors.” Only you know whether this sort of activity liberates you from your internal critic or simply makes you impatient to get to work. It’s hard to understand why a few of the entries in this volume were included: B.F. Skinner’s is terribly earnest and stiff.
Bowerman, Peter. The Well-Fed Writer: Financial Self-Sufficiency as a Freelance Writer in Six Months or Less (Fanove Publishing, 2000). An extended pep-talk-with-specifics, this book shows beginners how to become and succeed as commercial writers. A good example of a self-published book that hides its provenance well, it has an excellent appendix containing sample letters, contracts, brochures, and much more. Another appendix offers Web sites and interviews with at-home moms who have made a success of this kind of writing. Written in a very conversational style.
Brown, Kurt (editor). Writing It Down for James: Writers on Life and Craft (Beacon Press, 1995). This volumne gathers lectures given at writers’ conferences around the country. “The Nature of Poetry: Poetry in Nature,” an essay by Alison Deming explores how “everything is embedded in everything else,” and then connects her insights to poetry. Pattiann Rogers, the author of five books of poetry, writes about how “we mentally place ourselves in time and space.” This “scaffolding” we use to orient ourselves is, for the most part, a legacy of modern science, so that we imagine ourselves very tiny in a very large universe; our physical selves adapting very slowly over long periods of time according to the dictates of our DNA. Rogers treats the way we make connections (again, the interconnectedness of everything as a feminist theme) so as to feel at one with this vast universe, as a way to make meaning out of meaninglessness. Among the other delights of this book is Alan Cheuse, a short story writer and novelist, on the joys of reading a good story (and wanting to “write it down” for James, a recently literate trucker he met). Not every essay in this book is about connections, as the ones I’ve cited all seem to be. Yet I found something in each entry that I could connect to my own experience—the sign, for me, of a worthwhile compendium.
Brown, Rita Mae. Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual (Bantam, 1989). Novelist Brown (Rubyfruit Jungle) shares her idiosyncratic suggestions for living a writer’s life (“don’t try to lose weight while you’re working on a major project,” “don’t be sexually rigid”). She is of the opinion that, if you want to write fiction but you’re doing journalism for the money, “journalism really is your mother. You’ve got to be weaned.” Basic, yet amusing and potentially motivating reading.
Boice, Robert. How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency (Praeger, 1994). By a psychologist, this tome advises a specific program for overcoming the blank page and the blank mind. Even if you choose not to follow Boice’s rules, based on his workshops for blocked writers, you may gain some insight regarding the primacy of motivation, control, and resilience.
Camenson, Blythe, & Marshall J. Cook Your Novel Proposal from Creation to Contract: The Complete Guide to Writing Query Letters, Synopses and Proposals for Agents and Editors (Writer’s Digest Books, 1999). A fine addition to the aspiring or just-finished-my-first-novel novelist’s shelf (right up there with my previous favorite, Elizabeth Lyon’s Sell-Your-Novel Toolkit). Camenson and Cook write in a friendly tone, including plenty of quotes from authors, agents, and editors. You’ll find query letters (first drafts and polished versions that avoid typical missteps), as well as clear instructions for the all-important synopsis. While they say many novelists hate the process of summarizing their work in a synopsis — and you can’t usually avoid this step until you’ve already “made it” — the guidelines here make it seem less repugnant. Some good tips, too, about avoiding agent scams.
Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998). Cameron, best known for her bestseller The Artist’s Way, here offers more motivation for writers, would-be writers, and, interestingly, everyone else too, since she firmly believes that EVERYONE is a writer at heart and everyone SHOULD write. I don’t think everyone should be a writer any more than everyone should be a dog trainer. Once you get past that premise, is her advice for freeing up your writing useful? What she terms “initiation” tools include freewriting, positive affirmations, writing postcards to five friends in 15 minutes, listing 50 things that make you happy or 100 things you love, and so on. Though, clearly, such tools are most helpful to writers who aren’t flooded by ideas from morning ‘til night, it’s possible that if you’re feeling stymied by your current project, one of Cameron’s exercises might unrust your creative gears. (But don’t limit yourself to listing “things I love.” How about “things that make me want to strangle someone”?)
Cardoza, Monica McCabe. You Can Write a Column (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000). A handy compendium of the basic facts about getting yourself one of those regular writing gigs. Of course, there is no one right way to snag a column, as even the columnists interviewed in the back of this book prove. If you don’t blunder into one or have one fall in your lap while seeking other assignments from a publication, you can always follow Cardoza’s sound advice, write a bunch of samples, and send them around with a superb pitch letter, which she describes in explicit detail. She also includes how to avoid common mistakes when writing your column. My one quibble is that she suggests we allow our work to be placed online without pay because “At this time, most newspaper Web sites are not profitable.” (Probably the fact that Cardoza edited columns for The New York Times Syndicate for six years has colored her views.)
Cherry, Kelly. Writing the world. (University of Missouri, 1995). Many of the essays in this volume, while written away from home, are not travel essays. Cherry, a poet, fiction writer, and teacher, tells us they are an attempt to explore the writer’s place in the world. One of my favorites is the short piece called Beginning. In it, Cherry ruminates on why she writes, finally answering that, by reading her words, you’re now “obliged to recognize the writer of this piece as a conscious being. . . . A writer is someone who makes the tracks of her mind’s thinking visible for anyone who wants to follow her.” Cherry’s writing is insightful, erudite, personal, funny, and surprising.
Cooper, Susan. Dreams and wishes: Essays on writing for children (Margaret K. McElderberry Books, 1996). Susan Cooper, a Newberry Award-winning author (for one of the books in her fantasy sequence The Dark is Rising), has collected 15 of her essays and talks for this inspiring volume. She has a devious flair with anecdotes, a delicious control of language, and a genuine passion for good literature. Though her most famous books are, as she says, “immensely British,” she wrote them in the U.S. or on a small island in the Caribbean. In fact, “every stick is real” in her books’ settings, based on places she knew as a child. She doesn’t write for a particular age, she says, adding, “I write for me, I suppose.” And though place is reality-based, time in Cooper’s novels is not. Time is, in fact, as malleable as it is in the typical child’s half-formed mental reality. She concocts fantastic imaginary new worlds by having her characters walk through doors in time, for example. She tells us, “When working on a book which turns out to be a fantasy novel, I exist in a state of continual astonishment.” Cooper’s description of her getting-ready-to-write process is instructive. To find her “way back into the world apart,” she has to do all kinds of things, from watering the plants to blowing bubbles and “staring at the colors that swirl over their brief surfaces.” As many writers have indicated about their writing-in-flow experiences, “Trance is fragile.” By this, Cooper means as long as she can get herself to that mental place where she feels she is living in her stories, she can write them. “‘Open sesame!’ I am shouting, silently, desperately to the door of my imagination,” she tells us.
D’Vari, Marisa. Script Magic: Subconscious Techniques to Conquer Writer’s Block (Michael Wiese Productions, 2000). Focusing on the fun of writing, D’Vari offers advice on how to formulate a winning script along with tips on delving into the depths of your creative self to come up with fresh material. A couple of nitpicks: she mentions brain research from the 70s, which has been somewhat reshaped and complexified in recent years, and her discussion of goal-setting and affirmations has a distinctly, to me, New Age feel (though I admit I’m probably biased because I tackled the same subject in my own work in a very different way). Nevertheless, Script Magic offers plenty of very solid-sounding ideas about how to create memorable characters who speak realistically and perform compelling actions. She even includes information about pitching and selling your script. So if you’ve been longing to turn your writing skills towards this more lucrative and perhaps even more fun direction, D’Vari’s book is a very upbeat and enjoyable introduction.
Edwards, Jane. Travel Writing in Fiction and Fact (Blue Heron Publishing, 1999). When Edwards began writing travel articles, she’d already had 20 novels published for teens and adults. In many of those, she incorporated her travel experiences, fictionalizing them to make her stories both more realistic and more entertaining. This particular how-to book is an amalgam: half on how to weave travel into fiction, and the other half on what we think of as actual travel writing. She covers in detail how to find the right focus for a travel piece that will be irresistible to editors, as well as how to zero in on that little something “extra,” the perfect sidebar. Lots of specifics.
Elbow, Peter. Writing with power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (Oxford University Press, Second Edition, 1998). This book, reprinted consistently since 1981, is now out in a revised edition. By “writing with power,” Elbow means having control and not feeling stuck or helpless. He offers a variety of methods for getting going, from freewriting (again) to using a list of metaphorical questions that he provides to inspire fresh ideas. One of his techniques, which he explains in great and useful detail, is called loop writing or directed freewriting. For instance, one way to get started is to write out all your prejudices about a topic before you begin writing it. Interesting chapters on audience, feedback, and revision. Here’s an astute suggestion: “Never do major revising when nauseated by your writing.”
Els, Susan McBride. Into the Deep: A Writer’s Look at Creativity (Heinemann, 1994). “I write. It’s that simple. However, against this straight and sturdy fence pushes a jungle of complication and contradiction.” Thus begins Susan McBride Els’ intensely introspective volume of musings about a writer’s—about her own—creative life. When trying to describe the process of writing a novel, she studied her formal computer notes, most of which detailed the “floundering and regaining footing, wondering where the story was going, following trails of connections and associations among ideas, and talking to myself about who the characters were.” Missing from these notes, she realized, was some essence, something almost indescribable she had captured in her “confetti notes,” those slips of paper on which she jotted while walking, driving, and cooking. This essence? She calls it “the deep.” “Other ways of knowing enable the mind to dip beneath the surface sources of originality and ladle out the nectar of creation.” In other words, explains Els, it’s intuition, the “how it feels” more than the “how it works.” Els began this book hoping to match theories of creativity with her own way of creating. She came to see that the artist’s reality is not the same as the theorist’s. The latter catches and dissects fireflies, while the former is about needing “to know fireflies whole, in the dark.” Els’ chapters are short and meant to be inspiring to other writers. She realizes the uniqueness of each artist’s creative process: “There seem to be no rules, at least in my process.”
Fetherling, Dale. Comrades in Ink: How to Work with a Co-Author to Make Your Book a Reality (Summerland Press, 1999). Useful for those who may be considering collaborating with someone, this slight book contains much of the information needed to decide whether a particular collaborative project and co-author are viable. Chapter 8, “Fashioning an Agreement That Works for Everyone,” offers food for thought that can make your first collaboration less troublesome. Contains a couple of sample agreements, one that includes an agent.
Fletcher, Ralph. Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s Notebook (Heinemann, 1996). A writer in any genre, or perhaps especially one who works in more than one genre, will get fresh ideas from leafing through this 94-page discussion of all the ways writers use their notebooks to capture fragments, ideas, insights, and to inspire themselves anew. It seems most writers write their notebooks, rather than type them, and I’m still trying to figure out how to meld a computerized mindset with the traditional writer’s notebook. While Fletcher is no help there, he does offer numerous suggestions that make a person who loves her work itch to get back at it.
Flynn, Nancy. The $100,000 Writer: How to make a six-figure income as a freelance business writer (Adams Media, 2000). Once, under financial duress, I aspired to write press releases and even ad copy. I chickened out when it came to seem, to me, a whole other field from the feature writing I was used to. Yet business writing of all kinds uses many of the same skills needed for any journalistic writing, and more than a little creativity can come in quite handy. Flynn’s book is stuffed with facts and figures about acquiring and keeping business clients, negotiating fees, subcontracting, self-promotion, and why an intense focus on your work is so necessary to getting the big bucks eventually. She seems to love her work and shares her secrets freely. One of her key ideas is to “stop thinking like a creative artist and start acting like a successful editorial services consultant with skills that extend beyond writing.” If this resonates with you, you may learn a lot from Flynn’s successes.
Friedman, Bonnie. Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life (HarperPerennial, 1994). Bonnie Friedman has the right idea: it’s the emotional side of a writer’s life that makes the difference between a satisfying level of writing production and giving up. In my own interviews with successful writers, I’ve learned that, while craft is crucial, a writer frequently isn’t able to make use of lessons until the psychological demons are under control. And, as Friedman puts it, “Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing.” How, then, does one go about gaining confidence while pursuing this most lonely of occupations? So little feedback comes from outside, and often, the feedback that does arrive comes in the form of rejection and criticism. And, on top of that, it’s common for writers to struggle with feelings of envy—there are always so many others doing so much better, it seems—and with ever-present distractions. Friedman’s answers are simple, really: in order to avoid envy, get to work. When you’re focusing on your own work, your intrinsic motivation will become stronger, and you’ll be more likely to forget about what everyone else is doing. Pay attention to the work itself and forget about the outer world and some ideal you may have had for the work. Getting excited by the story you want to tell or the image you want to convey makes it more likely the work will be good.
Gerard, Philip. Writing a Book that Makes a Difference (Story Press, 2000). Got a BIG book simmering inside you? One that might change the world a little, or at least tell your own story in a way that will make a difference to more people than just you? Gerard leads us through the process of tackling such a “I’ll-start-it-one-of-these-days” projects, including deciding on your point of view, the rhythm of a well written book, and whether there are ever stories too personal to be told. He includes a great many examples from current and classic nonfiction books, as well as from novels, in case that’s where your heart is headed.
Goldberg, Bonni. Room to write: Daily invitations to a writer’s life (Tarcher/G. P. Putnam, 1996). Very much in the self-help genre, this slight book contains some prescriptions that might be useful. For instance, Goldberg suggests changing your imagined audience, if you’re having trouble with a piece, to a single particular person. Her upbeat style might just unlock a block or two, or help you make the switch to more creative writing in any genre. Each page contains two or three paragraphs of advice, such as why “writing what you know” can be too limiting, followed by an exercise (in this case, to write about something you’ve never done, say piloting a plane, without fussing over accuracy), and punctuated by a pithy quote.
Griffiths, Sarah, and Kehrwald, Kevin J. (editors). Delicious Imaginations: Conversations with Contemporary Writers (NotaBell Books/Purdue University Press, 1998). Featuring interviews with 16 novelists and poets, including Margot Livesey, Russell Banks, and Robert Olen Butler. They were all quite competently done by grad students and originally appeared in Sycamore Review. Rick Bass comments that he makes the switch to fiction when he’s in a “fiction frame of mind,” and he finds that fiction, when it works, is more of a process of discovery and is far more fun. Obviously, not every writer feels this way, but in my own interviews with novelists, I frequently heard about this “fun” aspect. Such an attitude is less often mentioned by nonfiction authors, no matter how much we may love and believe in—and be suited to—what we do. Perhaps a more “serious” atttitude is endemic to the beast.
Gutkind, Lee (editor). The Essayist at Work: Profiles of Creative Nonfiction Writers (Heinemann, 1998). Here you’ll find 19 profiles or essays about and by successful writers, including Annie Dillard, Mary Kay Blakely, Phillip Lopate, Gay Talese, Diane Ackerman, and Tracy Kidder. Dillard, in “Schedules,” talks about her own writing process in her usual evocative way (“During that time, I let all the houseplants die.”). In “The Power of Self-Revelation,” Catherine Wald interviews Mary Kay Blakely, who points to her “good sentence shelf,” where she goes “whenever I need the taste of a good sentence in my mouth.” In Melinda Corey’s profile of Phillip Lopate, we learn that Lopate appreciates essays partly because he likes the unreliable narrator (“I liked a kind of cheekiness, a quality of mischief.”). All in all, what stands out in this collection is the varied personalities of those profiled.
Hall, Donald. Life work (Beacon Press, 1993). Compelling reading about Hall’s love of writing and remarkable productivity. Writing is what keeps him going no matter what.
Harrington, Walt. Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life (Sage, 1997). This volume contains an essay on intimate journalism by the author, a former staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine, followed by a sterling collection of articles by top journalists (Pulitzer and other award winners). Intended for use in courses on literary journalism and magazine writing, it’s also, per the author’s prologue, “a corrective — both a call for change and a how-to manual.” Especially interesting are the authors’ afterwords, a page or two in which they talk about how they came to write each piece, their actual writing process, and how they thought about the piece that might have contributed to its being so good. If you want to raise your level of skill, it can’t hurt to read carefully those whose work you’d love to be able to emulate. This book deserves a place in the “gotta-read-pile.”
Heard, Georgia. Writing toward home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way (Heinemann, 1995). Heard, a writer, artist, poet, and teacher, shares reassurance and writing exercises in 57 brief chapters that are reminiscent of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. She insists a would-be writer consider every experience, no matter how mundane, as a potential metaphor to feed the writing. Heard herself pre-writes during a daily walk, and she motivates herself to stick with the work by offering herself the reward of a piece of chocolate cake or a good movie later on. A suggested exercise is to imagine a day in your childhood: list the sunny nostalgic positives of the day in one column, the shadowy foreboding aspects in another. Then think how you might blend the two for a fuller picture of the truth. Another is to fall in love three times a day: “Describe in detail what you fall in love with. . . . Each time we fall in love something that before was closed inside us opens and creativity begins to flow.”
Heffron, Jack (editor). The Best Writing on Writing (Volume One, Story Press, 1994; Volume Two, Story Press, 1995). These two volumes contain a total of 50 reprinted pieces about writing and the writing life, half of them authored by women. Among the treasures you’ll find Nancy Mairs’ exploration of why she frequently reads books and writes reviews about illness, disability and death, and why others read such works: it may have something to do with women’s drive to console, the intimacy and immediacy of women’s writing. “Some may share my aesthetic drive: to transmute dross—my own hastening physical deterioration, my husband’s wretched, retching progress through chemotherapy—into lapidary reality.” Bonnie Friedman writes about advice she was given that it would someday be necessary—and okay—to hurt someone with her writing. She asks, “What sort of morality is this? That your own work is more important than someone else’s suffering? That your own particular art is more important than your aunt or neighbor?” Among the other well-known authors are Adrienne Rich, Edna O’Brien, Ann Beattie, Margaret Atwood, and Joyce Carol Oates. Every piece offers nuggets of insight for readers and writers alike. Editor Heffron, who was also my editor for Writing in Flow, does an excellent job.
Heffron, Jack. The Writer’s Idea Book: How to develop great ideas for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and screenplays (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000). Contains more than 400 thoughtful prompts and exercises to release the muse, always a happy result, whatever your writing genre. Heffron, the senior acquisitions editor for Writer’s Digest Books, who by the way edited my book Writing in Flow, here takes on the same territory from a different angle. He obviously recognizes how common a problem it is to find new ways to reach deep down for something original. Each of the “ideas” is a solid paragraph long, rather than a simple phrase, so that your imagination can’t help but be inspired.
Herman, Jeff; Deborah Levine Herman; and Julia Devillers. You Can Make It Big Writing Books: A Top Agent Shows You How To Develop a Million-Dollar Bestseller (Prima, 1999). I’m not fond of the title or the bald ambition, and some of the stories inside by million-dollar bestselling writers might curl your hair (talk about self-promotion!), but all in all, this is valuable for showing the many possible routes to writing success. Features how-they-did-it essays by 60 writers of everything from mysteries to far-out (but incredibly popular) spiritual guides.
Herman, Jeff, and Deborah M. Adams. Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 Proposals that Sold and Why (Wiley, 1993). Half the book is a how-to, the other half (or more) features actual selling proposals with commentary in the margins. Most of them are how-to’s and self-help.
Johnson, Bill. A Story is a Promise: Good Things to Know Before You Write that Screenplay, Novel, or Play (Blue Heron Press). Johnson, a playwright and script developer, focuses on how to create compelling story lines. In short chapters, he suggests tried-and-true ways, for example, to get your story started with a bang on page one (what sets the story in motion, what obstacles will your character encounter, what questions will form in the reader’s mind), and how to go from your idea to your first sentence (which involves figuring out your idea, going from there to your premise to a story line and plot line, and then to that all-important first sentence). Johnson makes it clear, though, that writing is not about rules and outlines, but about finding your free voice, whatever it takes to access that. His final section consists of reviews of several popular films, plays, and novels, analyzing their early sentences and paragraphs and describing how the audience is drawn into the story.
Junker, Howard (editor). Lucky Break: How I Became a Writer (Heinemann, 1999). Junker, the founding editor of the literary journal ZYZZYVA, has collected essays from 19 writers of all kinds: poets, memoirists, nonfiction writers, novelists, playwrights. It’s the variety that makes these essays so fascinating. For some it was a particular book that compelled them into writing as a way of life, while for others the route was circuitous. One author, David Wong Louie, whose parents came from China, describes movingly how his mission in life as a young boy was to NOT be seen or heard. And then he discovered, when his teacher read one of his bits of writing aloud, that he could be heard in the world without making a sound.
Kallet, Margaret, and Judith Ortiz Cofer (editors). Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival (University of Georgia Press, 1999). A batch of entertaining female writers, mostly literary, are gathered here, talking about how they overcome the dailiness of their lives to create their work. It’s a common quandary, certainly, whether you have young children or a full-time job or assorted other responsibilities, or all of the above. These authors tell how they deal with guilt, how they learn to be patient while waiting for time to write without being eternally submissive to the needs of others, and how they invest themselves willingly in the distractions of life (kids, lovemaking, work) and then get right back to writing.
Lamb, Sandra. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write (Ten Speed Press, 1998). Especially worth seeking out for some of the templates it features, including several related to public relations projects (for example, how to write a pitch letter, press release, and backgrounder). Lots of social and job-search related guidance, for those whose skills in those areas are rusty from disuse.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Pantheon, 1994). This is a very funny book, and most of the humor is the endearingly self-deprecating kind. Lamott speaks openly of her own jealousy of any writer friend who is slightly more successful at the moment than she is. I’m a sucker for honesty. Don’t read this book to be entertained however. Read it to find out something about designing a plot, creating characters, and writing dialogue. Read it to find out how good writing happens. According to Lamott, it happens when “you sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your subconscious to kick in for you creatively.” The honest part comes next: “You turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child.” This quick-reading book is filled with fresh anecdotes, personal revelations, and practical tips about taking notes, writing groups, and who should read your drafts. You complete it all in a rush, ending with the reassuring sense that regular people, like the author and yourself, if you work harder than you expected to have to, can produce something very good.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998). This is for anyone engaged in creative writing, whether the outcome is fiction or narrative nonfiction. Her exercises are meant to be consciousness-raisers, she says. For instance, she covers how to show characters thinking, shifting points of view, the uses of repetition, and so on. Although I normally don’t care for exercises as such, hers are fresh and flexible (write a page of descriptive narrative without adjectives or adverbs or dialogue; you can do this as part of whatever you’re working on).
Levinson, Jay Conrad; Rick Frishman; & Michael Larsen. Guerilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001). Another volume on how to do your own book promotion (Marilyn & Tom Ross’s Jump Start Your Book Sales is another recent favorite of mine — but you should have at LEAST two such books if you’re serious about your book’s success). No matter how much help your publisher’s publicist actually provides, what YOU do will make the difference. As with any other how-to book, of course, some of the suggestions won’t apply to your situation. For instance, the authors suggest you “buy a lifetime supply of your books if you can,” lest they go out of print before you get the chance to stock up. Since books can be resold or republished in one way or another these days, and a lifetime supply might find itself cluttering up your garage for years to come, long after you’re burned out on giving workshops and trying to sell them from your web site, that advice might or might not apply to you. Another tip is to get your exercise walking in high-traffic locations while carrying your book so everyone can read your title, or by wearing a t-shirt with your book’s photo on it. As a matter of fact, I had such a t-shirt made, but find myself feeling too silly to wear it many places. I did get some high-quality license plate frames made that say, “I’d Rather Be... Writing in Flow” (Writing in Flow is the title of my book), but I can’t imagine I’ve sold many books from passersby who noticed it. Still, I get a kick out of it whenever I see it myself. Guerilla Marketing for Writers has hundreds of truly useful ideas to try (i.e., make your site the one that people go to for information and advice in your field, rather than just a place to sell stuff), and the best part is that when you read them, you’ll find yourself brainstorming even more of your own.
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (Fireside, 2000). The author, a literary agent, combines writing advice for both novelists and nonfiction writers in this one volume, though much more of it would apply to fiction. He covers such topics as showing versus telling, pacing and progression, common problems with dialogue, and why subtlety is often what signals a better writer. Though Lukeman is a bit wordy himself, his advice about how to catch an editor or agent’s attention very quickly and not lose it just as quickly seems quite sound. End-of-chapter exercises relate directly to what you’re working on, rather than being the usual airy fairy type.
Lyon, Elizabeth. Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write (Blue Heron Publishing, 1995). Everyone who teaches courses in nonfiction book writing has his or her own favorite guide to recommend, and as soon as I discovered this one, it became mine. Lyons’ book differs from others in its extraordinary specificity. She tells you how to write every section of a salable proposal, with details about how to correct common weaknesses and lots of examples and comments on what works, what doesn’t, and why. Her headings, boxes, and bulleted lists work well for this subject.
Lyon, Elizabeth. The Sell-Your-Novel Toolkit: Everything You Need to Know about Queries, Synopses, Marketing, & Breaking In (Blue Heron Publishing, 1997). Lyon has filled a real gap on my shelf. I’ve been using her book on nonfiction book proposals in my classes, but whenever someone asks me something about the marketing of fiction, I haven’t been sure where to refer them — until now. Toolkit is clear, realistic, and complete. She even has a sidebar that suggests lengths various kinds of novels “should” be. It might sound rigid, but it’s intelligently authoritative.
Maisel, Eric. Deep Writing: 7 Principles That Bring Ideas to Life (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999). Maisel, a therapist who specializes in counseling artists, and who is himself an author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, aims this volume at helping writers deal with psychological blocks. He uses fictionalized case studies of five writers, all somehow feeling held back from achieving the level of writing success they seek. By deep writing, Maisel means writing that is deeply engaging. In a way, he’s approaching the topic from a different angle but arriving where I did in my own writing book. That is, how do you get into flow, into that place where you’re doing the work you’re really meant to do and are enjoying it immensely regardless of extrinsic results? Maisel is marvelously frank, sharing with us tales of his own books that failed to be published, as well as how much he received as advances for his previous books.
Maisel, Eric. Living the Writer’s Life: A Complete Self-Help Guide (Watson-Guptill, 1999). Help for any writer, even those of us way past the beginning of a career. Whenever you want to shift gears, try another genre, notch up toward greater creativity or bigger markets or more productivity, it’s useful to be reminded of what you probably figured out when you first began. Maisel, a psychotherapist and creativity consultant, shares his “One-Day Writing Workshop,” which is quite simple actually, but pretty much guaranteed to get you writing regularly. It involves creating your own writing bubble (hardest for me personally is finding the focus to shut out all the necessary tasks and petty annoyances that dealing with bureaucracies entails — they can all wait, but it’s a trick to learn to believe that); choosing your “mission piece” and beginning to write it, without lists, notes, outlines; and so on through the day, with breaks and some planning at the end of the work day. Other chapters tackle a broad miscellany of writers’ challenges. If you’re never stuck and you’re totally satisfied with your writing life at all times, you don’t need this book. But you probably know someone who does.
Murray, Donald M. Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem (Heinemann, 1996). Novelist, poet, and writing instructor Donald M. Murray, in his seventies, writes that he often beats his alarm to rise at 5:30, “eager to get to the desk where I craft my life.” Here he offers sensible advice on all the common quandaries, such as how to find your voice, choose your genre, and cultivate a writing habit.
Oliver, Mary. Blue Pastures (Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 1995). Like so many of us, Mary Oliver felt powerless as a child. Happily, she found relief in the twin escapes of nature and literature. “These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place,” she tells us in this slim volume of essays. In one essay Oliver describes why daily responsibilities and distractions are a terrible hindrance to creative work. Phoning the dentist, refilling the mustard, remembering an uncle’s birthday—each of these obligations are frustrating fetters to the poet. “In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.” What is required, Oliver writes, is discipline, concentration, solitude—and being prepared to be struck by inspiration wherever and whenever it arrives. For her, it often happens outdoors. It’s not hard to understand the appeal of nature for a wordsmith: natural wonders so often leave us awestruck that the effort to find fresh means of expression keeps the writer’s task challenging, invigorating.
In other essays, Oliver speaks of her gratitude to the poems of Whitman, which were the first she encountered; of the notebooks she has carried in back pockets for 30 years, and in which she records phrases and ideas that may or may not make it into finished work; and of the owls and ponds and “blue pastures”—the sea—that figure into both her daily life and literary output.
While many women writers struggle endlessly for the right to write, caught between their desire to create and their need to live in the real world, Oliver is certain of her priorities. “The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My loyalty is to the inner vision.”
Olmstead, Robert. Elements of the Writing Craft: Excerpts from the Masters, Analyses and Exercises to Apply What You’ve Learned (Story Press, 1997). Subtitled “More than 150 lessons for fiction and nonfiction writers,” this book contains chapter headings like Storytelling, Character, Setting, Time, Point of View, and Voice and Language. Olmstead’s book can be useful for reminding us of the elements of a winning piece of work. Read his brief (a paragraph or two) excerpts from top writers in all genres, then the “lesson,” where he points out why each piece is so exemplary. If so inclined, try out some of the “writing possibilities” that follow, whether in a journal or in a current project. The chapter on time, for instance, offers ways to go backwards and forwards in time, provide backstory, make quick time shifts, show time passing, and other subtle time‑related writing suggestions.
Page, Susan. The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book (Broadway Books, 1997). Some very good tips, plus a helpful timeline as to what to do when. Sometimes she generalizes in a way I find unhelpful, but if you read more than one book, you’ll get a more well-rounded picture of the process.
Palumbo, Dennis. Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within (Wiley, 2000). Like a soothing session with your friendly neighborhood therapist, only in this case, Palumbo is a writer, too, and really knows the terrain. This book is based on his columns for Written By, the magazine of the Writer’s Guild of America. Each chapter takes on one piece of the writing world, from procrastination to how hard writing really can be. He writes in first-person, shares anecdotes from his own life and those of his clients, and he’s funny, too. You might learn some new ways of thinking about your work, your art, and yourself, all in the interest of making this hard way of making a living become more gratifying, more consistently.
Pettit, Michael (editor). The Writing Path 2: Poetry and Prose from Writers’ Conferences (University of Iowa Press, 1996). Pairing teacher and writer’s-conference-attendee work for this volume was an interesting idea, and don’t let it lead you to expect the student contributions to be any less riveting than the teachers’ pieces. They’re mostly quite accomplished in their own right (some are college instructors themselves), and some of their works that are collected here are reprinted from prestigious literary journals.
The contents are divided among fiction and poetry. “Hunger” by Gail Holloway Adams offers up empathy for an anorexic victim of her father’s infidelity and death, along with compassion for the flawed, betrayed, suffering mother. Adams’ student, E. Bruce Hoch, penned “The Cleaning Woman,” a delightfully quirky look at the beginning and inevitable pained aftermath of an unlikely relationship between a young woman and an aging man. Other names that might be familiar are poets Kelly Cherry, Linda Gregg, and Philip Levine, and novelist and short story writer Francine Prose. What these stories and poems share—instructors’ and students’ alike—is what always makes stories and poems work best: the telling detail and emotion shown, not told.
Plimpton, G. (Ed.). (1976-92). Writers at work: The Paris Review interviews (Fourth - Ninth Series). New York: Penguin. The whole series is highly recommended for the insights it offers into the psyches of famous writers in all genres, as well as the fine writing of the interviews themselves.
Reeves, Judy. A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Lively Muse (New World Library, 1999). Best suited for those who need the tiniest nudge in the direction of their keyboard, but would also provide extra inspiration and motivation to anyone putting off moving toward more creative writing or writing in a new genre. She reiterates the common-sense advice that you’ve got to be loose, rid your mind of expectations during first draft composing, dethrone your internal censor, and give up some of your favorite excuses for NOT writing. For some of us, that might mean releasing a few of the blocks that keep us from writing what we say we REALLY want to write.
Roorbach, Bill. Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature (Story Press, 1998). Roorbach, an author of both fiction and nonfiction, has written an inspirational volume that should be of use to advanced writers as well as, more obviously, those starting out or hoping to crack larger, more sophisticated markets. In his chapter called “Characters and Character,” for instance, he details how one of his essays came to evolve (and got published as a memoir in Harper’s Magazine), how to decide how much to tell about the lives of those near to you, and how to see everyone around you as character, as sets of traits, in a drama, whether real or imagined. Roorbach is very good at explaining things like why certain kinds of dialogue techniques are to be avoided (we’re all likely to recognize mistakes we and others have made). The exercises are truly integral to the text, rather than being tacked on, and seem adaptable to enhance any kind of personal writing we might consider.
Rosenthal, Nadine (editor). Speaking of Reading (Heinemann, 1995) Featured here are 77 essays by readers about how reading affects their lives. Some of the narratives are by well-known names (including Isabel Allende, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Gloria Steinem), while the rest are by more or less ordinary folks. For example, listen to Isabel Allende on growing up with books: “My uncle... had a lot of books—he collected them like holy relics.... the only contact I had with the world was through my uncle’s books. No one censored or guided my reading.” She began with Shakespeare and later read Latin American authors. Interestingly, Allende says she can’t relate to the genre of North American books in which daughters write against their mothers. “But if I read a book by Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich that deals with being a woman and part of an ethnic minority, I can relate to its content.”
Themes run the gamut from the insecurity of a reader who can’t seem to finish any of the books she starts, to an architect who finds inspiration mostly in books about architecture. I especially found myself in the section on “Habitual Readers.” Bookaholics may suspect we are compulsive, even neurotic, but you know you belong in this group if you agree with adult student Tara Thirtyacre’s assertion: “My absolute favorite thing to do is to sit all day Sunday and never move, just read.”
Ross, Marilyn & Tom. Jump Start Your Book Sales: A Money-Making Guide for Authors, Independent Publishers and Small Presses (Communication Creativity, 1999). Quite up-to-date, includes many Internet addresses. My copy is loaded with yellow stickies.
Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books (Beacon Press, 1996). Why should we care why a terrific novelist loves to read? Schwartz’s elegant paean to the written word will surely add to your understanding of yourself. Have you ever wondered if maybe you read “too much”? And then said to yourself, “Oh, but what would life be worth without my books?” Schwartz discusses her reading as an addiction, but a happy one. We learn that she no longer feels obligated to finish every book she starts. “Gradually I lost the Mount Everest syndrome. Bookshelves still tease and tantalize, but like a woman with a divining rod, I know now where the water will be, I do not have to scrape earth and dig holes seeking, only there where the rod begins to tremble.”
Like so many of us, Schwartz went through stages in her reading. She used to read Reader’s Digest condensed books before she grew to care about what was left out. At age eight, she loved Little Women so intensely that she began copying it into a notebook. “Only later did I understand that I wanted to have written Little Women, conceived and gestated it and felt its words delivered from my own pen.”
And anyone who has bemoaned the fact of so many books, so little time, will resonate to Schwartz’s words: “At times the ramifications of choice verge on the metaphysical, the moral, even the absurd. To read the dead or the living, the famous or the ignored, the kindred spirits or the bracingly unfamiliar?” After Schwartz, one can’t help but feel hugely vindicated (especially if you’re a writer!) for all one’s quiet hours spent doing nothing—but reading.
Silet, Charles L. P. Talking Murder: Interviews with 20 Mystery Writers (Ontario Review Press, 1999). I keep running into writers, often nonfiction writers, who are embarking on their first novel, and it’s often a mystery. Silet provides inspiration and information to the neophyte by way of a peek inside the lives of a group of successful authors. Short questions lead into lengthy revealing answers. Among the authors included are Michael Connolly, James Ellroy, Laurie R. King, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert P. Parker, and Donald Westlake. It’s particularly instructive to learn that not everyone outlines and that each writer finds his or her own way to keep engaged in spite of the constraints of the genre.
Simon, Rachel. The Writer’s Survival Guide (Story Press, 1997). While, in my opinion, this book suffers from a common malady—the author generalizes too much from her own experience—she is certainly correct when she says that “the biggest impediment to writing is you.” Simon writes at length on the various psychological issues that confront writers, a discussion that might be motivating and enlightening if you’re having trouble getting down to work or moving ahead to more complex, and better-paying, projects.
Smith, James V., Jr. Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer: Hundreds of Strategies, Tools, Exercises, Puzzlers, Graphs, Checklists and Solutions for Creating Full-Force Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000). One of those handy, chock-full-of-tips books that Writer’s Digest is famous for. In this case, if you’ve ever dreamed of turning fiction writer, you’ll find more than enough to get you started and keep you writing creatively. Author Smith has written an equal number (five each) of thrillers and nonfiction books, as well as having written features, so he knows the full gamut of the field. This is the sort of guidebook one could happily keep at one’s elbow at any stage of the writing process and find something to juice up the brain cogs and find flow. I especially appreciate his straightforward answers to questions like “What’s a good length for paragraphs?” (doesn’t matter, but vary them, be sure there’s plenty of white space, and don’t expect to avoid being boring by simply breaking up your stuff into little bitty chunks). Seems like this would be the next best thing to having an experienced novelist nearby when you get stuck.
Steinberg, Sybil, and Bing, Jonathan (editors). Writing for Your Life #3: Authors Talk about the Art of Writing and the Job of Publishing (Pushcart, 1997). This collection of 55 interviews originally published in Publishers Weekly offers occasional and tantalizing insight into the craft of writing, though the focus is juicy data about the selling end (leaving you with the feeling that getting well published may depend on luck as much as on persistence). Some of the more well known authors profiled include A.S. Byatt, Jimmy Breslin, Salman Rushdie, Mona Simpson, and Tobias Wolff. Again and again you’ll hear (briefly) about incidents of flow, when the author finds the right subject and the work finally begins to take shape quickly. A few speak of their writing habits, as when poet Mark Doty says, “I need to work while I’m fresh and before my head has been stuffed with other language and business.” Olivia Goldsmith admits her novels are “soup, but it’s nourishing, well-prepared soup. Sure, I wish it were more, but it pays the rent.”
Stewart, James B. Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1998). Stewart, a lawyer, writes for The New Yorker, Smart Money, and The Wall Street Journal, won the Pulitzer for his nonfiction, and authored the bestsellers Den of Thieves and Bloodsport. In this book, he shares his personal biases (“If I could put a stake in the heart of the nut graf, I would”), exactly how he builds suspense, the complexities of structure, and lots of great anecdotes from his own stories and books. He explains precisely why he chooses to end a book with an anecdote from earlier in the story chronologically: to showcase a character who had changed in the course of the story, and to lead readers to reflect on questions that aren’t easily answered. Stewart clearly puts a lot of effort and thought into his successful writing, and I can’t imagine a more relevant book for nonfiction writers at levels beyond beginner.
Strickland, Bill (Editor). On being a writer (Writer’s Digest Books, 1989). Contains interviews with 31 major writers, that first appeared in Writer’s Digest. Includes Norman Mailer, Ellen Goodman, Erica Jong, Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Carver, others.
Tillius, John, & Elizabeth Engstrom and the presenters of the Maui Writers Conference. Word by Word: An Inspirational Look at the Craft of Writing (Writers House Books, 2000). Transcribed presentations from a conference might not seem exciting, but when they’re from the first six years of a writers’ conference that most of us probably didn’t make it to, that’s another story. For the price of a book, you get chapters by David Guterson and Susan Isaacs on fiction; Mitch Albom, Barbara DeAngelis, and Eric Marcus on nonfiction; Ron Howard on screenwriting; and numerous others. Very real-life and marketing oriented, with lots of specifics shared by successful book authors.
Vonnegut, Kurt, and Stringer, Lee. Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation About Writing (SevenStories Press, 1999). In this slight volume (only 46 actual pages of transcribed talk), Vonnegut, the novelist, and Stringer, who wrote a book of memoir essays (Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street), carry on an enthusiastic conversation about why and how they write. This seems one of those brief dips into the psyche of very good authors that can be so motivating to all of us at various stages of our careers, no matter what we write or aspire to write. Vonnegut and Stringer are both passsionate about their work. The latter tells of how he realized he could write by describing his first extended flow experience, when he decided to use his pencil, which he otherwise normally used as a drug implement (to push screens into his pipe) to write. After five hours of nonstop focus, he realized this was something, besides seeking drug highs, that he could really do well. They both talk about the primary importance of answering the big questions for themselves in their writing, and how publishing the results is almost an afterthought. Reminding us that even nonfiction authors write to find out where we’re going, Stringer says, “I had a lot of fun trying to figure out how I was going to fill up these pages, and then, convinced that I’m not going to figure it out, bingo! something happens. It’s like shaking hands with God.”
Windrath, Helen (editor). They Wrote the Book: Thirteen Women Mystery Writers Tell All (Spinsters Ink, 2000). Unlike a number of other compilations by fiction writers, this one is organized by theme. What you get is more than simply the not-necessarily-helpful story of how each author came by her own success, but rather a literate discussion of such topics as character creation and development, research, plot, style, pace, writing the villain, suspense, pace, and how to write a proper ending. Some of the British contributors’ names may not sound familiar — Gillian Linscott, Val McDermid, Stella Duffy, Jean Bedford — but the writing is fine throughout. Abigail Padgett, whose second series features a lesbian social psychologist, writes, “I have learned that suspense hides in everyday situations, and that it may be revealed through the language of mood,” and later, “Mysteries created the illusion of conquered darkness.” I suppose that’s why so many people read them, and why so many nonfiction authors dream of writing one.
Wood, John. How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters (Writer’s Digest Books, 1996). I found Wood’s style personable, and I relished his advice that editors do, within reason, appreciate and respond to offbeat, quirky, creative letters.
Woodruff, Jay (Editor). A piece of work: Five writers discuss their revisions (University of Iowa Press, 1993). Contains work by Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Tess Gallagher, Robert Coles, and Donald Hall, followed by an enlightening interview with each author about the piece along with a copy of an early draft.