The best books about failing to write a book

Who am I?

Alongside writing, I’ve been running workshops, teaching and mentoring writers for nearly twenty years, helping people get unstuck and keep going. So I spend most of my working life thinking about creativity and writing—then suddenly I, too, couldn’t write the book I needed to write. Every book in this list is about not-writing for different reasons, in different circumstances, but between them they tell us so much about how we write, why we write, how we get writing to happen—and what’s happening when we can’t. These very different stories resonate with each other, and I hope some of them resonate with you.


I wrote...

This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin: a writer’s journey through my family

By Emma Darwin,

Book cover of This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin: a writer’s journey through my family

What is my book about?

Books about my great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin are legion, so when I agreed to write a novel about my family, I took the road less travelled: there were the fascinating real lives of Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar Society; Tom Wedgwood, the first photographer; composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and his extraordinary love story; and poet John Cornford, first Briton to be killed in the Spanish Civil War. But where among my family was a space to create a novel that would be truly my own? Caught between my heritage and my identity as a writer, the struggle nearly killed me. In the end, the only way to write about the creative lives of my family was through the lens of my own creative disaster.

The books I picked & why

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Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

By Geoff Dyer,

Book cover of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

Why this book?

First, because it’s incredibly funny. Geoff Dyer set out—he says—to write a sober, serious study of D. H. Lawrence, but life, travel arrangements, random people and his own inertia kept getting in the way. The story of his odyssey doesn’t just evoke all the things about writing that we’ve always suspected (that it’s hard; that it’s easy; that we often wonder why on earth we do it; that we never question that we want to do it). It also, by stealth, evokes and explains an amazing amount about Lawrence, and why he’s a writer that so many people love—or hate—so passionately. 


Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World

By Nell Stevens,

Book cover of Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World

Why this book?

This was the book that had just sold to great acclaim when my own book was looking for a publisher. Like almost all of us, Stevens was desperate for peace, quiet and freedom from distractions so she could write her first novel. But she went further than most of us would dare: an uninhabited island off the Falklands. Yet on Bleaker Island every forward move she tried to make with the novel got tangled up in the impossibility of avoiding her self, her past, and how she got here. Writing does that—and it’s often also absurd, as Stevens knows too. I loved this book.


Notes Made While Falling

By Jenn Ashworth,

Book cover of Notes Made While Falling

Why this book?

“What’s wrong with fiction, my best, most precious thing? What’s wrong with me?” asks novelist Jenn Ashworth. She set out on writing her fifth novel, then abruptly, excruciatingly, extendedly, found she couldn’t. Instead, in a broken and braided narrative which I found un-putdownable, she digs into the nightmares and strange waking states that PTSD and psychosis left her in, the stuffs and dreams of reading, writing and watching movies, and the painfully live legacies of a childhood caught between a violent father and an embattled religion. Writing is my best, most precious thing too: this is a disturbing, often bleakly comic and heartbreaking account of how illness and madness can be both the ruin and the making of art and an artist.


The Summer of the Elder Tree

By Marie Chaix, Harry Matthews (translator),

Book cover of The Summer of the Elder Tree

Why this book?

After eight successful books, Marie Chaix was abruptly dropped by her publisher. An editor-in-chief of another publisher picked her up, helped her dust herself down, became her writing support, friend and best reader, and published her next book. Three months later, he went to bed and never woke up. Shattered, Chaix decided that she couldn’t—wouldn’t—just didn’t write, not for thirteen years. In finally breaking her silence, Chaix draws a strange, delicate self-portrait of a writer paradoxically both stubborn and profoundly unconfident. I’m not Chaix, and I don’t always like autofiction, but as she weaves in and around the causes and consequences of her decision, her story seems to be about all writers.


The Artist's Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self

By Julia Cameron,

Book cover of The Artist's Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self

Why this book?

There are lots of how-to-write books with a chapter or two on motivation, inspiration, perspiration, and how to get over writer’s block. But The Artist’s Way is all about what’s happening when the creative part of your life gets stuck, or never started in the first place. It goes to the sources of your human creative energy, and helps you to understand how to find them and feed them, and then how to unblock the channels which prevent that energy from actually flowing into your art, writing, or anything else. You can work your way through the book to establish a creative practice or, like me, return to it at different times, cherry-picking her ideas and processes to suit different kinds of stuckness. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in creativity, travel, and the creative process?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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