Taking Stock of the Books That Brought Me Here

My husband and I recently moved out of the one-bedroom condo we’d been trying to sell for the past two and a half years and into a four-bedroom house 10 minutes away.

On moving day, I was giddy at the sight of the boxes upon boxes (upon boxes) of books that made their way to my new home office. Reunited at last! I thought, as they had been in storage this entire time. My TBR pile was ridiculous — and my Amazon Wish List was eight pages long — but I was suddenly seized by the desire to re-read every single book in those boxes.

Yesterday, I finally got the chance to open up those boxes and place my books on the gorgeous new double bookcase my husband and brother strong-armed into place against the wall. (I think it’s actually supposed to be a china cabinet, but watch me not care.) As I alphabetized my books by author’s last name, I was mindful of the limited space I had, and of how my collection of books might grow in the future.

Several weeks ago, I received a review copy of Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Mount paints “portraits of people through the spines of their favorite books: the ones that changed your life, that defined who you are, that you read again and again.” I had admired Mount’s artwork for years, and had been coveting my own custom painting. Getting my hands on a copy of the book — filled with the ideal bookshelves of a slew of notable creatives — allowed me to at least experience a vicarious thrill.

Flipping through the book, and reading the accompanying first-person essays by the book owners, also made me think about why we love the books we love, and how they change the course of our lives. What would be on my ideal bookshelf? How could I possibly pare down my collection to the handful of books that truly define me as a person?

Weeks later, as I placed my books on the shelf, I thought about that again. Which of these books truly changed me? I asked myself. Which books am I most likely to return to again and again?

With that mindset, I culled my collection until I had three full boxes of books to give away. The remaining books sat there on the shelves, ready to be re-read (or at least referred to) for the rest of eternity.

As I looked over my books again, it occurred to me that they could easily be organized into four distinct sections: Writing. Yoga. Sex. Other. But for the purposes of this post, I’m just going to share with you my most treasured writing books… the ones that helped me become the freelance writer I am today. What would be on my Ideal (Writing) Bookshelf?

1. Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism, for making me fall in love with narrative journalism.

2. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, for teaching me to take it just one “bird” at a time.

3. Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, for giving me an in-depth lesson in personal essay and memoir writing, at a time when I really needed it.

4. Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees. It was one of my first glimpses into the publishing industry.

5. Marci Alboher’s One Person / Multiple Careers, for letting me know it was okay to be bursting with ideas and passions and goals… and to pursue them all.

6. The Boss of You, by Lauren Bacon and Emira Mears. When I first went full-time freelance, it gave me the lowdown on being my own boss. And when I eventually launched Career Coaching for Word Nerds, it still had more to teach me.

7. My copy of Bartlett’s Roget’s Thesaurus. I used to keep it next to my bed and, every so often, my husband and I would look up synonyms for fun. Because. Um. ??? I really don’t know how to explain myself here without sounding like a crazy person.

8. Lawrence Grobel’s The Art of the Interview, for showing me that an interview should be a conversation.

9. & 10. Michelle Goodman’s Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life, for giving me the foundation I needed to rock out this freelance writing life.

Which books would be on your Ideal (Writing) Bookshelf?

Related: Which Books Have Inspired Your Writing?


  1. Bird by Bird and both of Michelle Goodman’s books are definitely on my list. Also, Kelly James-Enger’s Six Figure Freelancer (which I probably need to reread) and Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell’s The Renegade Writer.

  2. Oh, what a fun exercise! Bird by Bird is already on mine. 🙂

    I have one called Off the Page by Carole Burns, and the subtitle tells it all “Writers talk about beginnings, endings, and everything in between.”

    Then there’s The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera.

    On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

    The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman.

    And for fun, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by Jane Casagrande.

    • Most of what’s already been mentioned:
      –Michelle Goodman’s two books
      –Renegade Writer’s Guide to Query Letters That Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell (read that when I was first starting out by writing queries and have recently re-read to get a refresher)
      –The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman
      –On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I’ve referred to this liberally in the composition classes I teach
      –Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara
      –Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Can’t believe it took me so long to read this one–it’s just amazing!

      Fun post!

  3. The Artist’s Way is the book I always open when I don’t know what my next step is going to be. It taught me to write every day, even when I don’t feel like it, and to constantly “feed my well” (get out from behind the pen/computer. (Supplies, also by Julia Cameron, is very good, too.)

    I am reading The Boss of You right now and it is helping me refine the vision I have for my business. I’m glad that one made your list!

  4. Hi Steph. Remember me from Routledge / Taylor & Francis? I highly recommend Stephen King’s memoir/manual On Writing. Say what you like about King but he knows some things about the creative process and about telling a story. And his book is a reminder, for writers who are struggling, that it’s something like a universal condition for most of us at some point. Again, highly recommended for writers regardless of what point in their creative evolution they may have reached.

    • Hey there Michael – Of course I remember you! How have you been? And I love Stephen King’s On Writing. I actually re-read it in 2012, just because it had been awhile…

  5. Well that’s great. Are you writing any fiction these days, or sticking with journalism?

    • Fiction is never something I’ve felt really capable of pulling off with depth and skill. I’ve stuck to reported pieces and personal essays, and have also been busy lately with copywriting, ghostwriting, and social media management. I’m also working on a reported memoir.

      I see from your site that you’re maintaining a healthy mix of fiction and journalism. Anything in particular you’re focusing on right now?

  6. I am writing a lot of fiction and I have gotten an agent for my first novel. So you may be seeing my name a lot soon!

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