If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself. A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For some winter inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. Note: there are many, many, many great essays on writing. Bias has been extended here to personal favorites and those available to read online. Also of note but not included: full books on the subject like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, or, in a somewhat different sense, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, for those looking for a longer commitment. Read on, and add your own favorite essays on writing to the list in the comments.
“Not-Knowing,” Donald Barthelme, from Not Knowing: the Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Read it here.
In which Barthelme, a personal favorite and king of strange and wonderful stories, muses on not-knowing, style, our ability to “quarrel with the world, constructively,” messiness, Mallarmé, and a thief named Zeno passed out wearing a chastity belt.
“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”
George Orwell Henry Miller Joan Didion Jonathan Lethem Kurt Vonnegut robert frost Susan Sontag T.S. Eliot
Slouching Towards Bethlehemby Joan Didion
I read this in Glasgow in one big sitting when I was a teenager, and I couldn’t speak for like a week and a half. These essays capture the moral temperament of the 1960s and the weather as well as the inner life of the author.
Table Talkby William Hazlitt
This guy was a friend of the great romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, and he shared their project to marry politics and culture—and to do so into lines filled with common sense and beautiful thought. Read his essay on boxing and you’ll feel your pulse quicken.
Essays of Eliaby Charles Lamb
Perfection is the objective in the good essay. And Lamb would find it in subjects as small (and yet as universal) as chimney sweeps and “The Londoner.” His writing seems as fresh as this morning’s milk, and two times as nourishing.
Pieces and Pontificationsby Norman Mailer
People have forgotten how daring and how charming Mailer was, but not how offensive. He could turn his hand to anything, and was a prodigious and brilliant essayist. In a way that today’s timid, prize-loving American novelists almost never do, he went underneath the culture in his essays and pulled out some unforgettable insights.
Essaysby George Orwell
He was never afraid to go inside his own life, his own experience, his own past, and his own prejudices. Yet he was a writer for everyone. He would look around the subject of Boys’ Weeklies, for instance, and find the essence of boyhood, the essence of heroism, and the habits of reading for a certain class at a certain time. Magical.
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denimby David Sedaris
I once spat a whole mouthful of cornflakes at my beloved child because of Sedaris. It was an essay of his about Anne Frank’s house. Please read it. I can’t remember if it’s in this book or not, but, it doesn’t matter—he’s never written a bad essay.