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Essential Reading: The Creative Crunch

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When I am in a creative slump, I turn to books for a boost. This month is no exception, even as I participate in #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and I'm happy to dedicate this special edition of Essential Reading to books that nudge us to be creative.

Unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo? The month-long writing boot camp encourages participants to write between 1,000 and 2,000 words a day, every day of November. By the end of the month, you could complete a first draft of your book!

The Writing Craft

Social Media Editor Caryn Mohr (@carmohr) writes, "As a creative nonfiction writer, the biggest threat to my creativity is fear. I'm afraid of hurting people and of making a mistake. People-pleasing and perfectionism—it's not a great creative-writing combination. Knowing my concern for others was impeding my writing, a friend gave me a copy of A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement by Barbara Abercrombie. The book offers 365 snippets of encouragement to support writers through a year of concerted writing. So hungry was I for a nudge forward in my work that I read all 365 in a single day. Addressing the book's title, Abercrombie writes,

'Writing your own truth, even under the veils and masks of fiction, will always feel dangerous. It will also feel liberating.'

Mohr continues, "The other book that provided powerful inspiration was Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Shapiro shares her considerable experience and wisdom in an encouraging, thought-provoking book that sheds new light on the creative process. Brief, easily digestible reflections are organized in three sections: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Through Shapiro's eyes, we're offered new ways of seeing familiar stumbling blocks, freeing us to move forward. In a chapter titled 'Exposure,' Shapiro writes,

'…I can tell you that the writing of a book, no matter how deeply, profoundly personal—if it is literature, if you have attended to the formidable task of illuminating the human heart in conflict with itself—will do the opposite of expose you. It will connect you. With others. With the world around you. With yourself.'"

Mohr concludes, "I haven't yet read Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, a trending book on the topic of creativity right now, but I've listened to several of her podcasts, and I want to read it. I have a strange relationship with her work; I haven't always been taken with her memoirs, but I love things she has to say on social media and in these podcasts, and think she plays an important role in encouraging women to live the lives they want to live."

Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani notes, "I have two shelves of writing books, and while I've learned something from each one, the book that continues to inform my writing practice on a regular basis is Gabriele Lusser Rico's Writing the Natural Way. The primary exercise in the book—clustering—is intended to override the bossy, linear left brain and get in touch with the more creative and free-flowing right brain. Clustering helps me find connections among disparate ideas and develop the flow of a complicated essay. I almost always spend some time clustering before I begin a writing project, and my notebooks are filled with little interconnected bubbles. I've even found clustering a good way of storing a thought process when I don't have time to sit down and write—when I return to the cluster later, my brain sinks easily into the thought patterns that were aroused during the original exercise, and my words begin to flow. I recommend this book to everyone I know who writes, or wants to write."


Creative Nonfiction Editor Rae Pagliarulo (@noshingshiksa) asserts, "I am sure—no, positive—I'm about the millionth person to chime in on Mary Karr's newest offering, The Art of Memoir. Personally, I blame Karr herself—had she written a flat, poorly researched, self-serving ode to the genre, I'm sure we'd all have moved on by now.

"But no, Karr has put forth an incredible book, which will remain a touchstone in the tome of creative nonfiction craft texts for years to come. Where some writers focus on the writer's inner struggle and freeing oneself from imagined roadblocks and fear, and others provide insight on the construction, format, and history of the genre, Karr deftly walks the line between camps and provides history laced with inspiration, prompts underpinned with support and forgiveness. It is at once a book for confirmed genre lovers and newcomers alike. If you find yourself wondering what the state of creative nonfiction is in today's world, and where it's likely to head in the future, look no further than The Art of Memoir. And as its author would say, 'That's no horse dookey.'"

Building a Business

Poetry Editor Ginny Kaczmarek shares, "I have been using Christina Katz's Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids as a reference tome for several years, and it still offers fresh ideas. Organized into sections—Preparation, Practice, Professionalism, and Poise—this is a nuts-and-bolts guide for building a freelance writing career. Katz writes in a cheerful, we-can-do-it tone as she covers everything from identifying your target audiences to handling procrastination to developing multiple income streams, all the while acknowledging the realities of raising children (and tips for working around them). I particularly like her ideas for taking advantage of bite-sized bits of time when waiting in the carpool line or while the kids are otherwise occupied. This book reminds me that making a living as a writer, while raising kids, is an achievable dream."

Writing for Children

Creative Nonfiction and Fiction Editorial Assistant Lisa Katzenberger (@FictionCity) recommends, "My writing journey has had lots of twists and turns, and it currently has me settled into the world of picture books. When I got started in the KidLit field, I found the wonderful craft-focused Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul. This book takes you through everything from story structure to publication, and each breezy chapter has an exercise at the end. I had thought writing for children would be easier than writing a full novel (it's not), but I learned that picture books still require good bones—plot, character development, conflict, stakes. This book has also assured me that writing for children is as much of an art as writing for adults. I was able to elevate my thought process from 'I'm just writing books that have pictures in them,' to 'I am writing children's literature—the first beautiful leap a child has into the amazing world of reading.' I was able to value my work writing for children as much as any other type."

Reader Input

For this #NaNoWriMo edition of Essential Reading, I also took to Twitter to see what some of our readers and fellow writers had to say about their creativity boosters. I rounded up their recommendations in the following list, beginning with the name of each recommender:


We'd love to read the books that nudge YOU into the creative mode. What book do you turn to for The Creative Crunch? Tweet us @LiteraryMama, #crunchtime.

Keep up with our selections at the Literary Mama Goodreads page.

Justine Uhlenbrock is a writer and doula. She writes about motherhood and heritage on her blog, Heirloom Mothering. Her work has also appeared on Mamalode, The Good Men Project, and The Mid. Justine lives with her family in Decatur, Georgia. She is a former editorial assistant for Literary Mama.

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