The best non-songwriting books for songwriters

The Books I Picked & Why

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

By Rebecca Solnit

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Why this book?

Feeling lost as a writer—or as a person? Good! Instead of having an anxiety attack, it helps to reimagine that feeling as a kind of diving board into the deep end of transformation. Solnit: “Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration—how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” Which is all a fancy way of saying: It’s our job to be lost. Solnit inspired the line in my book, “If you suddenly feel like you’re walking in the dark, then you’re in the right room.” 


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The Writing Life

By Annie Dillard

The Writing Life

Why this book?

Read this and tell me if you think it’s funny: “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” If you just burst out laughing, you may be a writer. This book is full of gems like that, and I laughed out loud in the way one might while driving off a cliff. You know, in the good way? 


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Several Short Sentences about Writing

By Verlyn Klinkenborg

Several Short Sentences about Writing

Why this book?

Do not come to this book in search of warm hugs about the beauty of the process. True to the title, Klinkenborg (best name ever?) offsets each of his sentences like an epic poem in verse. The epic he describes is how epically bad your writing is, and—hopefully—how to improve. He returns to the word "notice" over and over, and that's really it. You're blowing sentences by not noticing what the sentence itself is doing. You're over-emphasizing "meaning" at the expense of the vehicle that delivers it. I sense there's a kind man in there, somewhere, who's working a side of the street he feels has been neglected by years of misguided education. But here, he's dedicated to the larger cause of clean, clear sentences. Not hugs.


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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

By Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Why this book?

This book has some breathtaking imagery—and some of the most raw, unsettling scenes I’ve ever read through my fingers (“no, no...don’t please don’t...”). It’s the combination that, to me, elevates an equally compelling plot (no spoilers) and places the whole reading experience somewhere between poetry and prose. It reminded me of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, where you feel form has exploded, and all you have to hold onto is the writer and the words themselves. That strikes me as a very musical experience. 


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Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

By Mary Ruefle

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

Why this book?

A series of poetry lectures not intended for publication, they combine to form an astounding journey into language and art. You don’t need to be a poet to love the casual way she delivers bomb after bomb, and to wish you’d been her student. I guess this is as close as I’ll get, and it’s taken a long time (I’m still not done) because I can just sit on a phrase or a page for an entire subway ride. Definitely would have failed her class, but having the lectures written out is like getting an extension without needing to grovel for it.


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