Ask ten people for advice on becoming a better writer and you’re likely to get ten unique responses. Some will be helpful, some will be useless, and some might even be harmful. There are a few things, however, that everyone can agree on. Walk into any writing class, read any book on craft, or talk to any successful author and there is one piece of advice you are certain to get: A writer reads. The more you read, the better you’ll write.
Such advice usually leads to an obvious question: what do I read? As a program assistant and advisor for the Writers’ Program, I get asked all the time. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“Where do you work?”
“I work at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program,” I’ll say proudly.
“Oh really? Got a good book recommendation?”
This is where I falter.
“I…uh…yeah. One Hundred Years of Solitude is great. Oh, and, um, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is good, but that’s Chabon and he’s got a very particular style. There’s East of Eden by Steinbeck, that’s classic. I really like Nick Hornby, if you’re willing to read more recent authors. In Cold Blood is fantastic, or you could try something more bizarre like The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov…”
I’ll stumble along a bit longer before they cut me off.
“OK, but which one should I read?”
As you can see, I’m no good at picking favorites. So, adopting a doctrine of pre-emptive attack, I decided to take advantage of the diverse but uniformly excellent group of authors that make up the Writers’ Program. What books do they love? Which writers inspire them and make them better at what they do?
It wasn’t easy for them either:
“Wow, what a hard question,” says instructor Amy Friedman. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night because all these years later I remember how important story is, and because I can still see everyone and everything, can still smell the air, can still feel my heart expanding, and breaking. City Life by Donald Barthelme, because he taught me the power of brilliant and beautiful sentences and satire and that we could laugh at our foibles, because with immense wisdom and pointed humor, he nails the ways we behave and ways we might become better. And for all those days when being a writer feels–well, hard–there’s On Being Blue by William Gass, a writer’s must-read.”
“I’d have to say The Lord of the Rings,” says Clea Simon. “I think Tolkien made me realize that books could take you to a different place, a place I wanted to be. And so, of course, I wanted to be able to do the same thing: to create an alternate universe that would suck readers in and be real, at least within the confines of the page!”
Rochelle Shapiro had no trouble selecting Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier. “It has the Gothic romance of a Bronte sister novel plus the wild adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And the language of the book is as haunting as the spellbinding plot and the characters.”
“The book I always come back to as a writer and suggest as a book for other writers to read is A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway,” says new instructor Linzi Glass. “I know it’s a far cry from a group of writers sitting around at Starbucks talking about the struggles of being a writer in 2008 but there is no better book that tells of a writer’s life than this one.”
Rebecca Forster recommends The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. “As a writer, I return to that book to remind me about the element of surprise, how important the unexpected is, the need for an author to think just one step further in order to keep the reader engaged. I love this book; I love the lessons it continually teaches me.”
“When I was twelve,” says Caroline Leavitt, “I read in some fashion magazine that a model was reading The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I asked my father to buy me the book and he did, and I was instantly transfixed. Bradbury showed me that you could write about other worlds and make it seem as real as planet Earth, and that you could write about planet Earth and make it seem as strange and compelling as Mars! I still have that book and I still love it.”
Nonfiction instructor Jennie Nash describes Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as, “The book that most recently took my breath away. As I got into it, I became caught up in the story of the soldiers of Vietnam, and then in the whole question of perception, memory and storytelling that O’Brien raises. It’s been several months since I finished reading, but I still think about certain phrases, scenes and ideas, and am inspired and awed by them all over again.”
Waxing poetic, Les Plesko puts forth for Dostoyevsky: “I remember wandering along Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, twenty-seven cents somewhere in the bottom of my backpack, a red, white, and blue job, going up to the market for spare change, walking while reading Crime and Punishment, mile after mile in the dusty heat, a blasted past, no future, and forgetting all that.”
Obviously, there are a lot of amazing books out there for writers to read and explore, each one a treasure trove of wisdom and inspiration. But if you’re still confused about which one book a writer should read, here’s poet Suzanne Lummis‘ advice:
“I recommend The Collected Works of Shakespeare, for this reason: it contains a little project called Hamlet. And if one rereads this play in seven year intervals throughout a lifetime, in each reading it will unfold in a new way. Shakespeare poured the essence of his mind into Hamlet; therefore it contains everything.”
Daniel Sanchez is the Program Assistant in Creative Writing Onsite and Online.