The best books about learning to write

Carl Vigeland Author Of October Calf
By Carl Vigeland

Who am I?

The author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper pieces, I taught writing for many years as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. My passion for learning to write is lifelong, beginning in a musical childhood that led me from notes to words. A voracious reader, I set my ambition early-on to create stories that worked like the music I love, articulated most fully in recent books that take off from the many years I spent traveling with the iconic jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, with whom I also collaborated on Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life. My focus in both learning and doing is the intersection of memory and experience in a process that is ongoing in the intertwining of life and work.


I wrote...

October Calf

By Archibald MacLeish, Carl Vigeland,

Book cover of October Calf

What is my book about?

Accidental neighbors half a century ago, a young writer and an old poet begin a correspondence that continues through the last decade of the poet’s life and echoes years later in the memory and short stories of his final student. Beginning with a portrait of the poet and the western Massachusetts hilltown where he and the young would-be author lived, October Calf crosses practical advice with wisdom and offers as well many suggestions for other reading.

The book reaches its dramatic climax with the eponymous title story--the subject of several of the poet’s letters and the product of numerous revisions—and closes with a single, short evocation set in the present and called “Covid Blues.”

The books I picked & why

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Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction

By J.D. Salinger,

Book cover of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction

Why this book?

One of four novella-length stories the legendary author of Catcher in the Rye published, this so-called introduction of the fictional author’s older, fictional brother—a literary conceit, as the portrait never gets past Seymour’s face—includes a long letter, ostensibly written by Seymour to his author-brother Buddy, which encompasses the best advice about writing that I know. "Were most of your stars out?" Seymour asks rhetorically...no, not asks...pleads.


A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of A Moveable Feast

Why this book?

Much, though not all, of the book becomes the very feeling Hemingway describes, but the chapter, "Hunger Was Good Discipline," especially takes flight in its evocation of craft and creation, closing with a reference to Hemingway’s greatest short story, “Big Two-Hearted River” (Part I and Part II). It is as if we are reading the actual experience of writing the story…no, not reading, experiencing!


Death in the Afternoon

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of Death in the Afternoon

Why this book?

Officially a book about bullfighting, with so many digressions that they become the book, the finest such sections delve deeply into the art and practice of writing, most extraordinarily in the thrilling, moving final pages. It is also in this great book that for the first time in print Hemingway articulates his principle that you can leave something out of what you are writing if you know you are leaving it out.


Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1

By Marcel Proust, Lydia Davis (translator), Christopher Prendergast (editor)

Book cover of Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1

Why this book?

Where to begin? Proust’s gigantic masterpiece is the proverbial gift that keeps giving, none more so than in its explication and then repeated “demonstration” of the very thing it describes, the sensory triggers of what Proust calls involuntary memory but that here become the emotional propulsion for this book about writing the very beautiful book (or books—it comes in six volumes) you are reading.


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King,

Book cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Why this book?

Though not a fan of his fiction, I recommend this “how-to” that King wrote after a near-death car accident for its entertaining, cogent advice. Beyond the numerous pieces of helpful, “nuts and bolts” guidance, the book also becomes an example of the very narrative the storyteller is teaching a writer how to do.


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