“So I would imagine you have to do a lot of reading in an MFA program,” I am sometimes asked. The answer is yes, and appropriately so: some believe the best way to learn to write is to read a lot, and to read critically. So what have I been reading the last two years while earning an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts? I’ve provided a partial list below.
Note that MFA programs vary in terms of reading requirements. I almost attended Bennington College’s program, which I believe includes a required reading list. There’s a lot to be said for reading a core canon. But one of the reasons I chose VCFA is the ability to craft a specialized reading list each semester with your instructor focused on your particular growth needs. In this program I’ve completed a draft of a travel memoir while working on personal essays and biographical writing; the reading list below reflects that.
The list is not fully comprehensive of what I read; I’ve left a few novels off the list, for example, because in my pursuit of a creative nonfiction specialization, they weren’t central to my learning. I’ve broken them into categories–memoir, travel/nature, essay, biography, and craft–but those are a bit arbitrary. The travel books largely could also fall under memoir, as well as some of the biographies, for example. But the list seemed too long to not break up.
While it is almost impossible to rank these books in terms of quality, I have marked a few of my favorites in boldface.
Feel free to use the comments to either ask me to provide more detail on one or more of these books, or to recommend books in these categories (or others) you recommend.
- Caswell, Kurt. An Inside Passage. A series of personal essays not in chronological order that paint the picture of a wanderer connected to nature. My first semester VCFA advisor.
- Didion, Joan. Blue Nights. A sequel of sorts to the memoir below that chronicles the author’s loss of her daughter.
- Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. A master work about the loss of her husband, Gregory Dunne, that manages deep emotional reveals while maintaining a reserved, journalistic voice. Truly marvelous.
- Feinstein, Sascha. Black Pearls: Improvisations on a Lost Year. A series of personal essays chronicling the death of his artist mother as he becomes an adult and embraces jazz. My fourth semester VCFA advisor.
- Fowler, Connie May. When Katie Wakes: A Memoir. A chronicle of the author’s time in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. One of my workshop advisors at VCFA.
- McCann, Richard. Mother of Sorrows. A series of personal essays about growing up and coming to terms with his homosexuality. A VCFA instructor who gives stunning lectures.
- Silverman, Sue William. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. A chilling memoir about her years-long sexual abuse by her diplomat father, told with a childhood voice. My third semester VCFA advisor.
- Silverman, Sue William. Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction. A sequel to the memoir above, a memoir framed around her treatment as an adult of misplaced sexual behavior stemming from her childhood abuse. Both memoirs are moving; this one speaks to me a bit more from a craft perspective.
- Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The former Dear Sugar advice columnist for The Rumpus crafts a moving memoir of a young woman going to extremes to deal with the loss of a mother and the failure of a marriage.
- Sutin, Lawrence. A Postcard Memoir. An innovative memoir that frames personal essays with postcards the author has collected over the years. My second semester VCFA advisor.
- Wolff, Geoffrey. The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father. A memoir chronicling being raised by a scam artist.
- Wolff, Tobias. This Boy’s Life: A Memoir. A stunning work by Geoffrey’s brother (above) that records his separate childhood with a mother who doesn’t always make the best life choices. This is my touchstone book for the program; his style and voice manages deep reveals while maintaining an observer perspective, and also contains many moments of dry humor.
- Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Chronicling his winter as the caretaker of Arches National Park during its offseason. A phenomenal combination of personal connection to and learning from nature.
- Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. One of the author’s many travel chronicles, containing interesting observations and dry humor.
- Heat-Moon, William Least. Blue Highways: A Journey into America. A man whose life has taken a turn for the worse takes off on a drive around the country, encountering interesting individuals and growing as a result. An inspiration for my own road-trip memoir.
- Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. A journalistic work documenting a misguided youth who died alone in an Alaska wilderness that contains some interesting reveals of the author’s life story.
- Lawrence, D.H. D.H. Lawrence and Italy. A series of essays on the author’s travels in Italy that grab the reader with strong argumentation and brilliant description.
- Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. The author braves death exploring the Himalayas while wrestling with spirituality and his life choices as a husband and father.
- Moore, Dinty W. The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American Style. Exploring a personal reinvention through the exploration of Eastern wisdom, laced with the author’s signature humor.
- O’Hanlon, Redmond. No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo. A dramatic and insightful travel memoir chronicling a trip I would rather not attempt myself.
- Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. A stunning pairing of motorcycle road trip with exploration of wisdom and insanity.
- Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley in Search of America. An entertaining work that is really a vehicle for the aging author to shake his fist at changes in society. As I wrote on this blog recently, it has been found to have an element of “truthiness” in that some of the incidents chronicled did not in fact occur.
- D’Agata, John, ed. The Next American Essay. Speaking of truthiness (above), D’Agata embraces emphasizing the ‘creative” in creative nonfiction to the point of fiction; not my cup of tea. This book compiles groundbreaking essays of recent authorship, some of which are bit too experimental for my taste.
- Epstein, Joseph. Essays in Biography. Liberals will need to put aside his at-times conservative bent and embrace his masterful approach to painting a portrait of a figure from history (sometimes his contemporaries) in sparkling prose.
- Hurd, Barbara. Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling through the Dark. A series of essays that educate the reader both on spelunking and the author’s own exploration of her hopes and fears.
- Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. The definitive collection of personal essays across centuries and continents. Montaigne essays dominate more than I might have liked due to the editor’s obsession with him, but there are brilliant essays in here that truly inspired my writing, by such authors as James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Lopate himself. I have cribbed much of his introduction for my instructional materials in my Loft Literary Center course, XXXXX.
- Madden, Patrick. Quotidiana. A compelling collection of essays that provide moving personal insights combined with interesting cultural observations and doses of humor. One of my workshop advisors at VCFA.
Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. Can you really study the art of biography writing without reading one of the fathers of the genre? It’s quite long, but contains compelling prose and humor on the level of Henry James.
- Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. A masterpiece of creative nonfiction–a “true story well told,” as Lee Gutnick categorizes the genre–depicting the brutal murder of an innocent farm family and the arrest and execution of the killers.
- Feinstein, Sascha. Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz and Literature. I listed his memoir above. This is a collection of journalistic profiles of jazz artists and writers done in Q&A style. Again, my fourth semester VCFA advisor.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. A stunning work about a 15th Century papal secretary unearthing a Lucretius poem that helped inspire the Renaissance.
- Hurston, Zora Neale, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. Hurston demonstrates how a journalistic work–well, really an anthropological study–can be advanced through the introduction of the observer’s own inclusion in the story. An inspiration to anyone writing immersion journalism.
- Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. The profile of an Olympic runner who survived weeks at sea and years in a Japanese prison camp.
- Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. A biography of two individuals entwined by an event–the Chicago World’s Fair–with one the architect of the fair and the other a serial killer. I gather it’s being made into a movie.
- Malcolm, Janet. In the Freud Archives. A profile of Freud scholars in which the author, through careful questioning, leads her subjects to reveal their character flaws.
- Mann, Charles C. 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created. A masterful study of how both the Old and New Worlds changed due to the “Columbian exchange” of flora and fauna.
- Mehta, Ved. Fly and the Fly Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals. A good example of how an author can paint a portrait of his view of the world through interviews with others. My memoir is constructed on interviews with artists.
- Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time. The inspiring story of a clockmaker’s lifelong quest to receive appropriate recognition for his innovation that revolutionized exploration by sea.
- Sobel, Dava. A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. Perhaps the most significant thing to note in this book, about how a German Protestant convinced the Catholic Copernicus to publish his heretical thesis of the Earth circling the sun is that she did so in a 3-act play inserted in the middle of the book.
- Symons, A.J.A., The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography. A compelling read in which the author becomes obsessed with an obscure novelist; we follow him as he tracks down information on the elusive figure.
- Turkel, Studs. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. A collection of profiles of everyday people by a master interviewer.
- Winchester, Simon. The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. A moderately interesting account of the creation of an English map that changed the understanding of geology, but oversells the significance somewhat.
- Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. A much more compelling read than the one above, but is troubling in that the preface is a work of fiction, but insufficiently labeled in my opinion.
- Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir: A Practical Guide to the Craft, the Personal Challenges, and Ethical Dilemmas of Writing Your True Stories. This is considered one of the must-reads for memoirists, and I can understand why.
- Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. I suspect many readers of this blog are familiar with this work, that I would consider a combination of memoir and craft book. It makes a lot of craft book short lists.
- Gutkind, Lee. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between. A choppy compilation of Gutkind’s past writing. He has a lot to teach about CNF, but this feels sloppily assembled.
- Kramer, Mark and Wendy Call, eds. Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Compiled largely from public interviews, each chapter provides insight on CNF from successful writers.
- Roorbach, Bill, and Kristen Keckler. Writing Life Stories. This book is a bit uneven, but it still provided me insights on the choices memoirists make in what to include and what to leave out.
- Silverman, Sue. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. An interesting combination of pedagogy and personal experience, appropriate for a memoirist. Again, she was my third semester VCFA advisor.
- Zinsser, William, ed. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Like the Nieman book above, this provides insights from a wide variety of memoirists.
Okay, I’m tired now just from compiling this list! No wonder I now find myself resisting picking up even a short work of literature to read…