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famous writers essays

The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade

Ever tried. ever failed. no matter..

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels , the best short story collections , the best poetry collections , and the best memoirs of the decade , and we have now reached the fifth list in our series: the best essay collections published in English between 2010 and 2019.

The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.

The Top Ten

Oliver sacks, the mind’s eye (2010).

Toward the end of his life, maybe suspecting or sensing that it was coming to a close, Dr. Oliver Sacks tended to focus his efforts on sweeping intellectual projects like On the Move (a memoir), The River of Consciousness (a hybrid intellectual history), and Hallucinations (a book-length meditation on, what else, hallucinations). But in 2010, he gave us one more classic in the style that first made him famous, a form he revolutionized and brought into the contemporary literary canon: the medical case study as essay. In The Mind’s Eye , Sacks focuses on vision, expanding the notion to embrace not only how we see the world, but also how we map that world onto our brains when our eyes are closed and we’re communing with the deeper recesses of consciousness. Relaying histories of patients and public figures, as well as his own history of ocular cancer (the condition that would eventually spread and contribute to his death), Sacks uses vision as a lens through which to see all of what makes us human, what binds us together, and what keeps us painfully apart. The essays that make up this collection are quintessential Sacks: sensitive, searching, with an expertise that conveys scientific information and experimentation in terms we can not only comprehend, but which also expand how we see life carrying on around us. The case studies of “Stereo Sue,” of the concert pianist Lillian Kalir, and of Howard, the mystery novelist who can no longer read, are highlights of the collection, but each essay is a kind of gem, mined and polished by one of the great storytellers of our era.  –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (2011)

The American essay was having a moment at the beginning of the decade, and Pulphead was smack in the middle. Without any hard data, I can tell you that this collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s magazine features—published primarily in GQ , but also in The Paris Review , and Harper’s —was the only full book of essays most of my literary friends had read since Slouching Towards Bethlehem , and probably one of the only full books of essays they had even heard of.

Well, we all picked a good one. Every essay in Pulphead is brilliant and entertaining, and illuminates some small corner of the American experience—even if it’s just one house, with Sullivan and an aging writer inside (“Mr. Lytle” is in fact a standout in a collection with no filler; fittingly, it won a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize). But what are they about? Oh, Axl Rose, Christian Rock festivals, living around the filming of One Tree Hill , the Tea Party movement, Michael Jackson, Bunny Wailer, the influence of animals, and by god, the Miz (of Real World/Road Rules Challenge fame).

But as Dan Kois has pointed out , what connects these essays, apart from their general tone and excellence, is “their author’s essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects’ and his own foibles.” They are also extremely well written, drawing much from fictional techniques and sentence craft, their literary pleasures so acute and remarkable that James Wood began his review of the collection in The New Yorker with a quiz: “Are the following sentences the beginnings of essays or of short stories?” (It was not a hard quiz, considering the context.)

It’s hard not to feel, reading this collection, like someone reached into your brain, took out the half-baked stuff you talk about with your friends, researched it, lived it, and represented it to you smarter and better and more thoroughly than you ever could. So read it in awe if you must, but read it.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (2013)

Such is the sentence-level virtuosity of Aleksandar Hemon—the Bosnian-American writer, essayist, and critic—that throughout his career he has frequently been compared to the granddaddy of borrowed language prose stylists: Vladimir Nabokov. While it is, of course, objectively remarkable that anyone could write so beautifully in a language they learned in their twenties, what I admire most about Hemon’s work is the way in which he infuses every essay and story and novel with both a deep humanity and a controlled (but never subdued) fury. He can also be damn funny. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo and left in 1992 to study in Chicago, where he almost immediately found himself stranded, forced to watch from afar as his beloved home city was subjected to a relentless four-year bombardment, the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. This extraordinary memoir-in-essays is many things: it’s a love letter to both the family that raised him and the family he built in exile; it’s a rich, joyous, and complex portrait of a place the 90s made synonymous with war and devastation; and it’s an elegy for the wrenching loss of precious things. There’s an essay about coming of age in Sarajevo and another about why he can’t bring himself to leave Chicago. There are stories about relationships forged and maintained on the soccer pitch or over the chessboard, and stories about neighbors and mentors turned monstrous by ethnic prejudice. As a chorus they sing with insight, wry humor, and unimaginable sorrow. I am not exaggerating when I say that the collection’s devastating final piece, “The Aquarium”—which details his infant daughter’s brain tumor and the agonizing months which led up to her death—remains the most painful essay I have ever read.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)

Of every essay in my relentlessly earmarked copy of Braiding Sweetgrass , Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s gorgeously rendered argument for why and how we should keep going, there’s one that especially hits home: her account of professor-turned-forester Franz Dolp. When Dolp, several decades ago, revisited the farm that he had once shared with his ex-wife, he found a scene of destruction: The farm’s new owners had razed the land where he had tried to build a life. “I sat among the stumps and the swirling red dust and I cried,” he wrote in his journal.

So many in my generation (and younger) feel this kind of helplessness–and considerable rage–at finding ourselves newly adult in a world where those in power seem determined to abandon or destroy everything that human bodies have always needed to survive: air, water, land. Asking any single book to speak to this helplessness feels unfair, somehow; yet, Braiding Sweetgrass does, by weaving descriptions of indigenous tradition with the environmental sciences in order to show what survival has looked like over the course of many millennia. Kimmerer’s essays describe her personal experience as a Potawotami woman, plant ecologist, and teacher alongside stories of the many ways that humans have lived in relationship to other species. Whether describing Dolp’s work–he left the stumps for a life of forest restoration on the Oregon coast–or the work of others in maple sugar harvesting, creating black ash baskets, or planting a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, she brings hope. “In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship,” she writes of the Three Sisters, which all sustain one another as they grow. “This is how the world keeps going.”  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Hilton Als, White Girls (2013)

In a world where we are so often reduced to one essential self, Hilton Als’ breathtaking book of critical essays, White Girls , which meditates on the ways he and other subjects read, project and absorb parts of white femininity, is a radically liberating book. It’s one of the only works of critical thinking that doesn’t ask the reader, its author or anyone he writes about to stoop before the doorframe of complete legibility before entering. Something he also permitted the subjects and readers of his first book, the glorious book-length essay, The Women , a series of riffs and psychological portraits of Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson, and the author’s own mother, among others. One of the shifts of that book, uncommon at the time, was how it acknowledges the way we inhabit bodies made up of variously gendered influences. To read White Girls now is to experience the utter freedom of this gift and to marvel at Als’ tremendous versatility and intelligence.

He is easily the most diversely talented American critic alive. He can write into genres like pop music and film where being part of an audience is a fantasy happening in the dark. He’s also wired enough to know how the art world builds reputations on the nod of rich white patrons, a significant collision in a time when Jean-Michel Basquiat is America’s most expensive modern artist. Als’ swerving and always moving grip on performance means he’s especially good on describing the effect of art which is volatile and unstable and built on the mingling of made-up concepts and the hard fact of their effect on behavior, such as race. Writing on Flannery O’Connor for instance he alone puts a finger on her “uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” From Eminem to Richard Pryor, André Leon Talley to Michael Jackson, Als enters the life and work of numerous artists here who turn the fascinations of race and with whiteness into fury and song and describes the complexity of their beauty like his life depended upon it. There are also brief memoirs here that will stop your heart. This is an essential work to understanding American culture.  –John Freeman, Executive Editor

Eula Biss, On Immunity (2014)

We move through the world as if we can protect ourselves from its myriad dangers, exercising what little agency we have in an effort to keep at bay those fears that gather at the edges of any given life: of loss, illness, disaster, death. It is these fears—amplified by the birth of her first child—that Eula Biss confronts in her essential 2014 essay collection, On Immunity . As any great essayist does, Biss moves outward in concentric circles from her own very private view of the world to reveal wider truths, discovering as she does a culture consumed by anxiety at the pervasive toxicity of contemporary life. As Biss interrogates this culture—of privilege, of whiteness—she interrogates herself, questioning the flimsy ways in which we arm ourselves with science or superstition against the impurities of daily existence.

Five years on from its publication, it is dismaying that On Immunity feels as urgent (and necessary) a defense of basic science as ever. Vaccination, we learn, is derived from vacca —for cow—after the 17th-century discovery that a small application of cowpox was often enough to inoculate against the scourge of smallpox, an etymological digression that belies modern conspiratorial fears of Big Pharma and its vaccination agenda. But Biss never scolds or belittles the fears of others, and in her generosity and openness pulls off a neat (and important) trick: insofar as we are of the very world we fear, she seems to be suggesting, we ourselves are impure, have always been so, permeable, vulnerable, yet so much stronger than we think.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief 

Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (2016)

When Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” was published in 2008, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon unlike almost any other in recent memory, assigning language to a behavior that almost every woman has witnessed—mansplaining—and, in the course of identifying that behavior, spurring a movement, online and offline, to share the ways in which patriarchal arrogance has intersected all our lives. (It would also come to be the titular essay in her collection published in 2014.) The Mother of All Questions follows up on that work and takes it further in order to examine the nature of self-expression—who is afforded it and denied it, what institutions have been put in place to limit it, and what happens when it is employed by women. Solnit has a singular gift for describing and decoding the misogynistic dynamics that govern the world so universally that they can seem invisible and the gendered violence that is so common as to seem unremarkable; this naming is powerful, and it opens space for sharing the stories that shape our lives.

The Mother of All Questions, comprised of essays written between 2014 and 2016, in many ways armed us with some of the tools necessary to survive the gaslighting of the Trump years, in which many of us—and especially women—have continued to hear from those in power that the things we see and hear do not exist and never existed. Solnit also acknowledges that labels like “woman,” and other gendered labels, are identities that are fluid in reality; in reviewing the book for The New Yorker , Moira Donegan suggested that, “One useful working definition of a woman might be ‘someone who experiences misogyny.'” Whichever words we use, Solnit writes in the introduction to the book that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” This storytelling work has always been vital; it continues to be vital, and in this book, it is brilliantly done.  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends (2017)

The newly minted MacArthur fellow Valeria Luiselli’s four-part (but really six-part) essay  Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions  was inspired by her time spent volunteering at the federal immigration court in New York City, working as an interpreter for undocumented, unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Written concurrently with her novel  Lost Children Archive  (a fictional exploration of the same topic), Luiselli’s essay offers a fascinating conceit, the fashioning of an argument from the questions on the government intake form given to these children to process their arrivals. (Aside from the fact that this essay is a heartbreaking masterpiece, this is such a  good  conceit—transforming a cold, reproducible administrative document into highly personal literature.) Luiselli interweaves a grounded discussion of the questionnaire with a narrative of the road trip Luiselli takes with her husband and family, across America, while they (both Mexican citizens) wait for their own Green Card applications to be processed. It is on this trip when Luiselli reflects on the thousands of migrant children mysteriously traveling across the border by themselves. But the real point of the essay is to actually delve into the real stories of some of these children, which are agonizing, as well as to gravely, clearly expose what literally happens, procedural, when they do arrive—from forms to courts, as they’re swallowed by a bureaucratic vortex. Amid all of this, Luiselli also takes on more, exploring the larger contextual relationship between the United States of America and Mexico (as well as other countries in Central America, more broadly) as it has evolved to our current, adverse moment.  Tell Me How It Ends  is so small, but it is so passionate and vigorous: it desperately accomplishes in its less-than-100-pages-of-prose what centuries and miles and endless records of federal bureaucracy have never been able, and have never cared, to do: reverse the dehumanization of Latin American immigrants that occurs once they set foot in this country.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Zadie Smith, Feel Free (2018)

In the essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” in Feel Free , Zadie Smith writes that her interest in Justin Bieber is not an interest in the interiority of the singer himself, but in “the idea of the love object”. This essay—in which Smith imagines a meeting between Bieber and the late philosopher Martin Buber (“Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname,” she explains in one of many winning footnotes. “Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”). Smith allows that this premise is a bit premise -y: “I know, I know.” Still, the resulting essay is a very funny, very smart, and un-tricky exploration of individuality and true “meeting,” with a dash of late capitalism thrown in for good measure. The melding of high and low culture is the bread and butter of pretty much every prestige publication on the internet these days (and certainly of the Twitter feeds of all “public intellectuals”), but the essays in Smith’s collection don’t feel familiar—perhaps because hers is, as we’ve long known, an uncommon skill. Though I believe Smith could probably write compellingly about anything, she chooses her subjects wisely. She writes with as much electricity about Brexit as the aforementioned Beliebers—and each essay is utterly engrossing. “She contains multitudes, but her point is we all do,” writes Hermione Hoby in her review of the collection in The New Republic . “At the same time, we are, in our endless difference, nobody but ourselves.”  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (2019)

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an academic who has transcended the ivory tower to become the sort of public intellectual who can easily appear on radio or television talk shows to discuss race, gender, and capitalism. Her collection of essays reflects this duality, blending scholarly work with memoir to create a collection on the black female experience in postmodern America that’s “intersectional analysis with a side of pop culture.” The essays range from an analysis of sexual violence, to populist politics, to social media, but in centering her own experiences throughout, the collection becomes something unlike other pieces of criticism of contemporary culture. In explaining the title, she reflects on what an editor had said about her work: “I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick.” One of the most powerful essays in the book is “Dying to be Competent” which begins with her unpacking the idiocy of LinkedIn (and the myth of meritocracy) and ends with a description of her miscarriage, the mishandling of black woman’s pain, and a condemnation of healthcare bureaucracy. A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Thick confirms McMillan Cottom as one of our most fearless public intellectuals and one of the most vital.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed (2010)

In The Possessed Elif Batuman indulges her love of Russian literature and the result is hilarious and remarkable. Each essay of the collection chronicles some adventure or other that she had while in graduate school for Comparative Literature and each is more unpredictable than the next. There’s the time a “well-known 20th-centuryist” gave a graduate student the finger; and the time when Batuman ended up living in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for a summer; and the time that she convinced herself Tolstoy was murdered and spent the length of the Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana considering clues and motives. Rich in historic detail about Russian authors and literature and thoughtfully constructed, each essay is an amalgam of critical analysis, cultural criticism, and serious contemplation of big ideas like that of identity, intellectual legacy, and authorship. With wit and a serpentine-like shape to her narratives, Batuman adopts a form reminiscent of a Socratic discourse, setting up questions at the beginning of her essays and then following digressions that more or less entreat the reader to synthesize the answer for herself. The digressions are always amusing and arguably the backbone of the collection, relaying absurd anecdotes with foreign scholars or awkward, surreal encounters with Eastern European strangers. Central also to the collection are Batuman’s intellectual asides where she entertains a theory—like the “problem of the person”: the inability to ever wholly capture one’s character—that ultimately layer the book’s themes. “You are certainly my most entertaining student,” a professor said to Batuman. But she is also curious and enthusiastic and reflective and so knowledgeable that she might even convince you (she has me!) that you too love Russian literature as much as she does. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

Roxane Gay’s now-classic essay collection is a book that will make you laugh, think, cry, and then wonder, how can cultural criticism be this fun? My favorite essays in the book include Gay’s musings on competitive Scrabble, her stranded-in-academia dispatches, and her joyous film and television criticism, but given the breadth of topics Roxane Gay can discuss in an entertaining manner, there’s something for everyone in this one. This book is accessible because feminism itself should be accessible – Roxane Gay is as likely to draw inspiration from YA novels, or middle-brow shows about friendship, as she is to introduce concepts from the academic world, and if there’s anyone I trust to bridge the gap between high culture, low culture, and pop culture, it’s the Goddess of Twitter. I used to host a book club dedicated to radical reads, and this was one of the first picks for the club; a week after the book club met, I spied a few of the attendees meeting in the café of the bookstore, and found out that they had bonded so much over discussing  Bad Feminist  that they couldn’t wait for the next meeting of the book club to keep discussing politics and intersectionality, and that, in a nutshell, is the power of Roxane. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Rivka Galchen, Little Labors (2016)

Generally, I find stories about the trials and tribulations of child-having to be of limited appeal—useful, maybe, insofar as they offer validation that other people have also endured the bizarre realities of living with a tiny human, but otherwise liable to drift into the musings of parents thrilled at the simple fact of their own fecundity, as if they were the first ones to figure the process out (or not). But Little Labors is not simply an essay collection about motherhood, perhaps because Galchen initially “didn’t want to write about” her new baby—mostly, she writes, “because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Like many new mothers, though, Galchen soon discovered her baby—which she refers to sometimes as “the puma”—to be a preoccupying thought, demanding to be written about. Galchen’s interest isn’t just in her own progeny, but in babies in literature (“Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions”), The Pillow Book , the eleventh-century collection of musings by Sei Shōnagon, and writers who are mothers. There are sections that made me laugh out loud, like when Galchen continually finds herself in an elevator with a neighbor who never fails to remark on the puma’s size. There are also deeper, darker musings, like the realization that the baby means “that it’s not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” It is a slim collection that I happened to read at the perfect time, and it remains one of my favorites of the decade. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Charlie Fox, This Young Monster (2017)

On social media as in his writing, British art critic Charlie Fox rejects lucidity for allusion and doesn’t quite answer the Twitter textbox’s persistent question: “What’s happening?” These days, it’s hard to tell.  This Young Monster  (2017), Fox’s first book,was published a few months after Donald Trump’s election, and at one point Fox takes a swipe at a man he judges “direct from a nightmare and just a repulsive fucking goon.” Fox doesn’t linger on politics, though, since most of the monsters he looks at “embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention.”

If clichés are loathed because they conform to what philosopher Georges Bataille called “the common measure,” then monsters are rebellious non-sequiturs, comedic or horrific derailments from a classical ideal. Perverts in the most literal sense, monsters have gone astray from some “proper” course. The book’s nine chapters, which are about a specific monster or type of monster, are full of callbacks to familiar and lesser-known media. Fox cites visual art, film, songs, and books with the screwy buoyancy of a savant. Take one of his essays, “Spook House,” framed as a stage play with two principal characters, Klaus (“an intoxicated young skinhead vampire”) and Hermione (“a teen sorceress with green skin and jet-black hair” who looks more like The Wicked Witch than her namesake). The chorus is a troupe of trick-or-treaters. Using the filmmaker Cameron Jamie as a starting point, the rest is free association on gothic decadence and Detroit and L.A. as cities of the dead. All the while, Klaus quotes from  Artforum ,  Dazed & Confused , and  Time Out. It’s a technical feat that makes fictionalized dialogue a conveyor belt for cultural criticism.

In Fox’s imagination, David Bowie and the Hydra coexist alongside Peter Pan, Dennis Hopper, and the maenads. Fox’s book reaches for the monster’s mask, not really to peel it off but to feel and smell the rubber schnoz, to know how it’s made before making sure it’s still snugly set. With a stylistic blend of arthouse suavity and B-movie chic,  This Young Monster considers how monsters in culture are made. Aren’t the scariest things made in post-production? Isn’t the creature just duplicity, like a looping choir or a dubbed scream? –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (2017)

Elena Passarello’s collection of essays Animals Strike Curious Poses picks out infamous animals and grants them the voice, narrative, and history they deserve. Not only is a collection like this relevant during the sixth extinction but it is an ambitious historical and anthropological undertaking, which Passarello has tackled with thorough research and a playful tone that rather than compromise her subject, complicates and humanizes it. Passarello’s intention is to investigate the role of animals across the span of human civilization and in doing so, to construct a timeline of humanity as told through people’s interactions with said animals. “Of all the images that make our world, animal images are particularly buried inside us,” Passarello writes in her first essay, to introduce us to the object of the book and also to the oldest of her chosen characters: Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. It was an occasion so remarkable and so unfathomable given the span of human civilization that Passarello says of Yuka: “Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘woolly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.” The essay ends with a character placing a hand on a cave drawing of a woolly mammoth, accompanied by a phrase which encapsulates the author’s vision for the book: “And he becomes the mammoth so he can envision the mammoth.” In Passarello’s hands the imagined boundaries between the animal, natural, and human world disintegrate and what emerges is a cohesive if baffling integrated history of life. With the accuracy and tenacity of a journalist and the spirit of a storyteller, Elena Passarello has assembled a modern bestiary worthy of contemplation and awe. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019)

Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays is a kaleidoscopic look at mental health and the lives affected by the schizophrenias. Each essay takes on a different aspect of the topic, but you’ll want to read them together for a holistic perspective. Esmé Weijun Wang generously begins The Collected Schizophrenias by acknowledging the stereotype, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy.” From there, she walks us through the technical language, breaks down the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ( DSM-5 )’s clinical definition. And then she gets very personal, telling us about how she came to her own diagnosis and the way it’s touched her daily life (her relationships, her ideas about motherhood). Esmé Weijun Wang is uniquely situated to write about this topic. As a former lab researcher at Stanford, she turns a precise, analytical eye to her experience while simultaneously unfolding everything with great patience for her reader. Throughout, she brilliantly dissects the language around mental health. (On saying “a person living with bipolar disorder” instead of using “bipolar” as the sole subject: “…we are not our diseases. We are instead individuals with disorders and malfunctions. Our conditions lie over us like smallpox blankets; we are one thing and the illness is another.”) She pinpoints the ways she arms herself against anticipated reactions to the schizophrenias: high fashion, having attended an Ivy League institution. In a particularly piercing essay, she traces mental illness back through her family tree. She also places her story within more mainstream cultural contexts, calling on groundbreaking exposés about the dangerous of institutionalization and depictions of mental illness in television and film (like the infamous Slender Man case, in which two young girls stab their best friend because an invented Internet figure told them to). At once intimate and far-reaching, The Collected Schizophrenias is an informative and important (and let’s not forget artful) work. I’ve never read a collection quite so beautifully-written and laid-bare as this. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Ross Gay, The Book of Delights (2019)

When Ross Gay began writing what would become The Book of Delights, he envisioned it as a project of daily essays, each focused on a moment or point of delight in his day. This plan quickly disintegrated; on day four, he skipped his self-imposed assignment and decided to “in honor and love, delight in blowing it off.” (Clearly, “blowing it off” is a relative term here, as he still produced the book.) Ross Gay is a generous teacher of how to live, and this moment of reveling in self-compassion is one lesson among many in The Book of Delights , which wanders from moments of connection with strangers to a shade of “red I don’t think I actually have words for,” a text from a friend reading “I love you breadfruit,” and “the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything .”

Gay does not linger on any one subject for long, creating the sense that delight is a product not of extenuating circumstances, but of our attention; his attunement to the possibilities of a single day, and awareness of all the small moments that produce delight, are a model for life amid the warring factions of the attention economy. These small moments range from the physical–hugging a stranger, transplanting fig cuttings–to the spiritual and philosophical, giving the impression of sitting beside Gay in his garden as he thinks out loud in real time. It’s a privilege to listen. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings (2010) · Joyce Carol Oates, In Rough Country (2010) · Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011) · Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (2011) ·  Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer, Between Parentheses (2011) · Dubravka Ugresic, tr. David Williams, Karaoke Culture (2011) · Tom Bissell, Magic Hours (2012)  · Kevin Young, The Grey Album (2012) · William H. Gass, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012) · Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012) · Herta Müller, tr. Geoffrey Mulligan, Cristina and Her Double (2013) · Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)  · Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable (2014)  · Daphne Merkin, The Fame Lunches (2014)  · Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (2015) · Wendy Walters, Multiply/Divide (2015) · Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop (2015) ·  Renee Gladman, Calamities (2016)  · Jesmyn Ward, ed. The Fire This Time (2016)  · Lindy West, Shrill (2016)  · Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016)  · Emily Witt, Future Sex (2016)  · Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (2016)  · Mark Greif, Against Everything (2016)  · Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood (2017)  · Sarah Gerard, Sunshine State (2017)  · Jim Harrison, A Really Big Lunch (2017)  · J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006-2017 (2017) · Melissa Febos, Abandon Me (2017)  · Louise Glück, American Originality (2017)  · Joan Didion, South and West (2017)  · Tom McCarthy, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017)  · Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until they Kill Us (2017)  · Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017)  ·  Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (2017)  · Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018)  · Alice Bolin, Dead Girls (2018)  · Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (2018)  · Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done (2018)  · Maggie O’Farrell, I Am I Am I Am (2018)  · Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)  · Rachel Cusk, Coventry (2019)  · Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror (2019)  · Emily Bernard, Black is the Body (2019)  · Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard (2019)  · Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations (2019)  ·  Rachel Munroe, Savage Appetites (2019)  · Robert A. Caro,  Working  (2019) · Arundhati Roy, My Seditious Heart (2019).

Emily Temple

Emily Temple

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Rafal Reyzer

40 Best Essays of All Time (Including Links & Writing Tips)

EB White, Writing Great Essays in His Cabin

I wanted to improve my writing skills. I thought that reading the forty best essays of all time would bring me closer to my goal.

I had little money (buying forty collections of essays was out of the question) so I’ve found them online instead.

I’ve hacked through piles of them, and finally, I’ve found the great ones. Now I want to share the whole list with you (with the addition of my notes about writing). Each item on the list has a direct link to the essay, so please click away and indulge yourself.

Also, next to each essay, there’s an image of the book that contains the original work.

About this essay list:

There’s a similarity between reading essays and eating candy. Once you open the package, you eat the whole thing. I tried to find essays that were well-written and awe-inspiring at the same time. I wanted them to have the power to change my thinking and change my life. And they delivered.

Now, you may have a different motivation to peruse these amazing essays. Whether you are reading for just sheer pleasure or with an aim to improve your writing skills,  I’m sure that these essays will have some sort of impact on your life.

It’s interesting how we’re influenced by a piece of writing for hours and days. When a year later someone asks you “what was this essay about?” you barely remember reading it.

But a part of it is still with you. It changed you the very moment you read its last line.

I did not list these essays from the best to worst – they’re all great. Just browse through them, read the summary, writing tips , and check the bonus material at the end.

And if you still need more essay inspiration, grab the “Best American Essays” collection by Joyce Carol Oates or “101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think” collected by Brianna Wiest.

George Orwell Typing

40 Best Essays of All Time (With Links And Writing Tips)

1. david sedaris – laugh, kookaburra.

david sedaris - the best of me essay collection

A great family drama takes place against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. And the Kookaburra laughs… This is one of the top essays of the lot. It’s a great mixture of family reminiscences, travel writing, and advice on what’s most important in life. You’ll also learn an awful lot about the curious culture of the Aussies.

Writing tips from the essay:

  • Use analogies (you can make it funny or dramatic to achieve a better effect): “Don’t be afraid,” the waiter said, and he talked to the kookaburra in a soothing, respectful voice, the way you might to a child with a switchblade in his hand”.
  • You can touch a few cognate stories in one piece of writing . Reveal the layers gradually. Intertwine them and arrange for a grand finale where everything is finally clear.
  • Be on the side of the reader. Become their friend and tell the story naturally, like around the dinner table.
  • Use short, punchy sentences. Tell only as much as is required to make your point vivid.
  • Conjure sentences that create actual feelings: “I had on a sweater and a jacket, but they weren’t quite enough, and I shivered as we walked toward the body, and saw that it was a . . . what, exactly?”
  • You may ask a few tough questions in a row to provoke interest, and let the reader think.

2. Charles D’Ambrosio – Documents

Do you think your life punches you in the face all too often? After reading this essay, you will change your mind. Reading about loss and hardships often makes us sad at first, but then enables us to feel grateful for our lives . D’Ambrosio shares his personal documents (poems, letters) that had a major impact on his life, and brilliantly shows how not to let go of the past.

Charles D'Ambrosio - Loitering - New and Collected Essays

  • The most powerful stories are about your family and the childhood moments that shaped your life.
  • You don’t need to build up tension and pussyfoot around the crux of the matter. Instead, surprise the reader by telling it like it is: “The poem was an allegory about his desire to leave our family.” Or: “My father had three sons. I’m the eldest; Danny, the youngest, killed himself sixteen years ago”.
  • You can use real documents and quotes from your family and friends. It makes it so much more personal and relatable.
  • Don’t cringe before the long sentence if you know it’s a strong one.
  • At the end of the essay, you may come back to the first theme to close the circuit.
  • Using slightly poetic language is totally acceptable, as long as it improves the story.

3. E. B. White – Once more to the lake

What does it mean to be a father? Can you see your younger self, reflected in your child? This beautiful essay tells the story of the author, his son, and their traditional stay at a placid lake hidden within the forests of Maine. This place of nature is filled with sunshine and childhood memories. It also provides for one of the greatest meditations on nature and the passing of time.

E.B. White - Essays

  • Use sophisticated language, but not at the expense of readability.
  • Use vivid language to trigger the mirror neurons in the reader’s brain: “I took along my son, who had never had any freshwater up his nose and who had seen lily pads only from train windows”.
  • It’s important to mention universal feelings that are rarely talked about (it helps to create a bond between two minds): “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings when the lake was cool and motionless”.
  • Animate the inanimate: “this constant and trustworthy body of water”.
  • Mentioning tales of yore is a good way to add some mystery and timelessness to your piece.
  • Using double, or even triple “and” in one sentence is fine. It can make the sentence sing.

4. Zadie Smith – Fail Better

Aspiring writers feel a tremendous pressure to perform. The daily quota of words often turns out to be nothing more than gibberish. What then? Also, should the writer please the reader or should she be fully independent? What does it mean to be a writer, anyway? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions, but its contents are not only meant for scribblers. Within it, you’ll find some great notes about literary criticism, how we treat art , and the responsibility of the reader.

Zadie Smith - Changing My Mind

  • A perfect novel ? There’s no such thing.
  • The novel always reflects the inner world of the writer. That’s why we’re fascinated with writers.
  • Writing is not simply about craftsmanship, but about taking your reader to the unknown lands. In the words of Christopher Hitchens: “Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”
  • Style comes from your unique personality and the perception of the world. It takes time to develop it.
  • Never try to tell it all. “All” can never be put into language. Take a part of it and tell it the best you can.
  • Avoid being cliché. Try to infuse new life into your writing .
  • Writing is about your way of being. It’s your game. Paradoxically, if you try to please everyone, your writing will become less appealing. You’ll lose the interest of the readers. This rule doesn’t apply in the business world where you actually have to write for a specific person (a target audience).
  • As a reader, you have responsibilities too. According to the critics, every thirty years, there’s just a handful of great novels. Maybe it’s true. But there’s also an element of personal connection between the reader and the writer. That’s why for one person a novel is a marvel, while for the other, nothing special at all. That’s why you have to search and find the author who will touch you.

5. Virginia Woolf – Death of the Moth

Amid an ordinary day, sitting in a room of her own, Virginia Woolf tells about the epic struggle for survival and the evanescence of life. This short essay is truly powerful. In the beginning, the atmosphere is happy. Life is in full force. And then, suddenly, it fades away. There’s this sense of melancholy that would mark the last years of Woolf’s life.

Virginia Woolf - Essays

  • The melody of language… A good sentence is like music: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow- underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us”.
  • You can show the grandest in the mundane (for example, the moth at your window and the drama of life and death).
  • Using simple comparisons makes the style more lucid: “Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure”.

6. Meghan Daum – My Misspent Youth

Many of us, at some point or another, dream about living in New York. Meghan Daum’s take on the subject differs slightly from what you might expect. There’s no glamour, no Broadway shows, and no fancy restaurants. Instead, there’s the sullen reality of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. You’ll get all the juicy details about credit cards, overdue payments and scrambling for survival. It’s a word of warning. But it’s also a great story about shattered fantasies of living in a big city. Word on the street is: “You ain’t promised mañana in the rotten manzana.”

Meghan Daum - My Misspent Youth - Essays

  • You can paint a picture of your former self. What did that person believe in? What kind of world did he or she live in?
  • “The day that turned your life around” is a good theme you may use in a story. Memories of a special day are filled with emotions. Strong emotions often breed strong writing.
  • Use cultural references and relevant slang to create a context for your story.
  • You can tell all the details of the story, even if in some people’s eyes you’ll look like the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived. It adds to the originality.
  • Say it in a new way: “In this mind-set, the dollars spent, like the mechanics of a machine no one bothers to understand, become an abstraction, an intangible avenue toward self-expression, a mere vehicle of style”.
  • You can mix your personal story with the zeitgeist or the ethos of the time.

7. Roger Ebert – Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Probably the greatest film critic of all time, Roger Ebert, tells us not to rage against the dying of the light. This essay is full of courage, erudition, and humanism. From it, we learn about what it means to be dying (Hitchens’ “Mortality” is another great work on that theme). But there’s so much more. It’s a great celebration of life too. It’s about not giving up, and sticking to your principles until the very end. It brings to mind the famous scene from Dead Poets Society where John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students: “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.

Roger Ebert - The Great Movies

  • Start with a powerful sentence: “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear.”
  • Use quotes to prove your point -”‘Ask someone how they feel about death’, he said, ‘and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die’. Ask them, ‘In the next 30 seconds?’ No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen”.
  • Admit the basic truths about reality in a childlike way (especially after pondering quantum physics) – “I believe my wristwatch exists, and even when I am unconscious, it is ticking all the same. You have to start somewhere”.
  • Let other thinkers prove your point. Use quotes and ideas from your favorite authors and friends.

8. George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant

Even after one reading, you’ll remember this one for years. The story, set in British Burma, is about shooting an elephant (it’s definitely not for the squeamish). It’s also the most powerful denunciation of colonialism ever put to writing. Orwell, apparently a free representative of British rule, feels to be nothing more than a puppet succumbing to the whim of the mob.

George Orwell - A collection of Essays

  • The first sentence is the most important one: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me”.
  • You can use just the first paragraph to set the stage for the whole piece of prose.
  • Use beautiful language that stirs the imagination: “I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains.” Or: “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.”
  • If you’ve ever been to war, you will have a story to tell: “(Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.)”
  • Use simple words, and admit the sad truth only you can perceive: “They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching”.
  • Share words of wisdom to add texture to the writing: “I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”
  • I highly recommend reading everything written by Orwell, especially if you’re looking for the best essay collections on Amazon or Goodreads.

9. George Orwell – A Hanging

It’s just another day in Burma – time to hang a man. Without much ado, Orwell recounts the grim reality of taking another person’s life. A man is taken from his cage and in a few minutes, he’s going to be hanged. The most horrible thing is the normality of it. It’s a powerful story about human nature. Also, there’s an extraordinary incident with the dog, but I won’t get ahead of myself.

George Orwell - Essays

  • Create brilliant, yet short descriptions of characters: “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting mustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the mustache of a comic man on the films”.
  • Understand and share the felt presence of a unique experience: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man”.
  • Make your readers hear the sound that will stay with them forever: “And then when the noose was fixed, the prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
  • Make the ending original by refusing the tendency to seek closure or summing it up.

10. Christopher Hitchens – Assassins of The Mind

In one of the greatest essays written in defense of free speech, Christopher Hitchens shares many examples of how modern media kneel to the explicit threats of violence posed by Islamic extremists. He recounts the story of his friend, Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses who, for many years, had to watch over his shoulder because of the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini. With his usual wit, Hitchens shares various examples of people who died because of their opinions and of editors who refuse to publish anything related to Islam because of fear (and it was written long before the Charlie Hebdo massacre). After reading the essay, you realize that freedom of expression is one of the most precious things we have and that we have to fight for it. I highly recommend all essay collections penned by Hitchens, especially the ones written for Vanity Fair.

Christopher Hitchens - Arguably - Essays

  • Assume that the readers will know the cultural references. When they do, their self-esteem goes up – they are a part of an insider group.
  • When proving your point, give a variety of real-life examples from eclectic sources. Leave no room for ambiguity or vagueness. Research and overall knowledge are essential here.
  • Use italics to put emphasis on a specific word or phrase (here I use the underlining): “We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal. In consequence, there are a number of things that have not happened.”
  • Think about how to make it sound more original: “So there is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and the broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table.”

11. Christopher Hitchens – The New Commandments

It’s high time to shatter the tablets and amend the biblical rules of conduct. Watch, as Christopher Hitchens slays one commandment after the other on moral, as well as historical grounds. For example, did you know that there are actually many versions of the divine law dictated by God to Moses which you can find in the Bible? Aren’t we thus empowered to write our own version of a proper moral code? If you approach it with an open mind, this essay may change the way you think about the Bible and religion.

Christopher Hitchens - Essays

  • Take the iconoclastic approach. Have a party on the hallowed soil.
  • Use humor to undermine orthodox ideas (it seems to be the best way to deal with an established authority).
  • Use sarcasm and irony when appropriate (or not): “Nobody is opposed to a day of rest. The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labor seven days a week”.
  • Defeat God on legal grounds: “Wise lawmakers know that it is a mistake to promulgate legislation that is impossible to obey”.
  • Be ruthless in the logic of your argument. Provide evidence.

12. Phillip Lopate – Against Joie de Vivre

While reading this fantastic essay, this quote from Slavoj Žižek kept coming back to me: “I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves”. Personally, I can bear the onus of happiness or joie de vivre for some time. But there’s also this force that enables me to get free and wallow in the sweet feelings of melancholy and nostalgia. By reading this work of Lopate, you’ll enter into a world of an intelligent man who finds most social rituals a drag. It’s worth exploring.

Philip Lopate - The Art Of Personal Essay

  • Go against the grain. Be flamboyant and controversial (if you can handle it).
  • Treat the paragraph like a group of thoughts on one theme. Next paragraph, next theme.
  • Use references to other artists to set the context and enrich the prose: “These sunny little canvases with their talented innocence, the third-generation spirit of Montmartre, bore testimony to a love of life so unbending as to leave an impression of rigid narrow-mindedness as extreme as any Savonarola. Their rejection of sorrow was total”.
  • Capture the emotions in life that are universal, yet remain unspoken.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your intimate experiences.

13. Philip Larkin – The Pleasure Principle

This piece comes from the Required Writing collection of personal essays. Larkin argues that reading in verse should be a source of intimate pleasure – not a medley of unintelligible thoughts that only the author can (or can’t?) decipher. It’s a sobering take on modern poetry and a great call to action for all those involved in it. Well worth a read.

Philip Larkin - Jazz Writings, and other essays

  • Write about complicated ideas (such as poetry) in a simple way. You can really change how people look at things if you express yourself plainly enough.
  • Go boldly. The reader wants a bold writer: “We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry, not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try”.
  • Play with words and sentence length. Create music: “It is time some of you playboys realized, says the judge, that reading a poem is hard work. Fourteen days in stir. Next case”.
  • Persuade the reader to take action. Here, direct language is the most effective.

14. Sigmund Freud – Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

This essay reveals Freud’s disillusionment with the whole project of Western civilization. How the peaceful European countries could engage in a war that would eventually cost over 17 million lives? What stirs people to kill each other? Is it their nature, or are they puppets of imperial forces with agendas of their own? From the perspective of time, this work by Freud doesn’t seem to be fully accurate. Even so, it’s well worth your time.

Sigmund Freud - On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia

  • Commence with long words derived from Latin. Get grandiloquent, make your argument incontrovertible and leave your audience discombobulated.
  • Use unending sentences, so that the reader feels confused, yet impressed.
  • Say it well: “In this way, he enjoyed the blue sea and the grey; the beauty of snow-covered mountains and of green meadowlands; the magic of northern forests and the splendor of southern vegetation; the mood evoked by landscapes that recall great historical events, and the silence of untouched nature”.
  • Human nature is the subject that never gets dry.

15. Zadie Smith – Some Notes on Attunement

“You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing” – Francis Dolarhyde. This one is about the elusiveness of change occurring within you. For Zadie, it was hard to attune to the vibes of Joni Mitchell – especially her Blue album. But eventually, she grew up to appreciate her genius, and all the other things changed as well. This top essay is all about the relationship between human, and art. We shouldn’t like art because we’re supposed to. We should like it because it has an instantaneous, emotional effect on us. Although, according to Stansfield (Gary Oldman) in Léon, liking Beethoven is rather mandatory.

  • Build an expectation of what’s coming: “The first time I heard her I didn’t hear her at all”.
  • Don’t be afraid of repetition if it feels good.
  • Psychedelic drugs let you appreciate things you never appreciated.
  • Intertwine a personal journey with philosophical musings.
  • Show rather than tell: “My friends had pity in their eyes. The same look the faithful give you as you hand them back their “literature” and close the door in their faces”.
  • Let the poets speak for you: “That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no
  • more, / And all its dizzy raptures”.
  • By voicing your anxieties, you can heal the anxieties of the reader. In that way, you say: “I’m just like you. I’m your friend in this struggle”.
  • Admit your flaws to make your persona more relatable.

16. Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse

My imagination was always stirred by the scene of the solar eclipse in Pharaoh, by Boleslaw Prus. I wondered about the shock of the disoriented crowd when they saw how their ruler could apparently switch off the light. Getting immersed in this essay by Annie Dillard has a similar effect. It produces amazement and some kind of primeval fear. It’s not only the environment that changes; it’s your mind and the perception of the world. After the eclipse, nothing is going to be the same again.

Annie Dillard - Teaching A stone to talk

  • Yet again, the power of the first sentence that draws you in: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass”.
  • Don’t miss the extraordinary scene. Then describe it: “Up in the sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring”.
  • Use colloquial language. Write as you talk. Short sentences often win.
  • Contrast the numinous with the mundane to enthrall the reader.

17. Édouard Levé – When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue

This suicidally beautiful essay will teach you a lot about the appreciation of life and the struggle with mental illness. It’s a collection of personal, apparently unrelated thoughts that show us the rich interior of the author. You look at the real-time thoughts of another person, and then recognize the same patterns within yourself… It sounds like a confession of a person who’s about to take their life, and it’s striking in its originality.

Édouard Levé - Suicide

  • Use the stream-of-consciousness technique and put random thoughts on paper. Then, polish them: “I have attempted suicide once, I’ve been tempted four times to attempt it”.
  • Place the treasure deep within the story: “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss”.
  • Don’t worry about what people might think. The more you expose, the more powerful the writing. Readers also take part in the great drama. They experience universal emotions that mostly stay inside.  You can translate them into writing.

18. Gloria E. Anzaldúa – How to Tame a Wild Tongue

Anzaldúa, who was born in south Texas, had to struggle to find her true identity. She was American, but her culture was grounded in Mexico. In this way, she and her people were not fully respected in either of the countries. This essay is an account of her journey of becoming the ambassador of the Chicano (Mexican-American) culture. It’s full of anecdotes, interesting references and different shades of Spanish. It’s a window into a new cultural dimension that you’ve never experienced before.

Gloria Anzaldúa - Reader

  • If your mother tongue is not English, but you write in English, use some of your unique homeland vocabularies.
  • You come from a rich cultural heritage. You can share it with people who never heard about it, and are not even looking for it, but it is of immense value to them when they discover it.
  • Never forget about your identity. It is precious. It is a part of who you are. Even if you migrate, try to preserve it. Use it to your best advantage and become the voice of other people in the same situation.
  • Tell them what’s really on your mind: “So if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language”.

19. Kurt Vonnegut – Dispatch From A Man Without a Country

In terms of style, this essay is flawless. It’s simple, conversational, humorous, and yet, full of wisdom. And when Vonnegut becomes a teacher and draws an axis of “beginning – end”, and, “good fortune – bad fortune” to explain literature, it becomes outright hilarious. It’s hard to find an author with such a down-to-earth approach. He doesn’t need to get intellectual to prove a point. And the point could be summed up by the quote from Great Expectations – “On the Rampage, Pip, and off the Rampage, Pip – such is Life!”

Kurt Vonnegut - A man without a country

  • Start with a curious question: “Do you know what a twerp is?”
  • Surprise your readers with uncanny analogies: “I am from a family of artists. Here I am, making a living in the arts. It has not been a rebellion. It’s as though I had taken over the family Esso station.”
  • Use your natural language without too many special effects. In time, the style will crystalize.
  • An amusing lesson in writing from Mr. Vonnegut: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college”.
  • You can put actual images or vignettes between the paragraphs to illustrate something.

20. Mary Ruefle – On Fear

Most psychologists and gurus agree that fear is the greatest enemy of success or any creative activity. It’s programmed into our minds to keep us away from imaginary harm. Mary Ruefle takes on this basic human emotion with flair. She explores fear from so many angles (especially in the world of poetry-writing) that at the end of this personal essay you will look at it, dissect it, untangle it, and hopefully be able to say “f**k you” the next time your brain is trying to stop you.

Mary Ruefle - Madness, rack and honey

  • Research your subject thoroughly. Ask people, have interviews, get expert opinions, and gather as much information as possible. Then scavenge through the fields of data, and pull out the golden bits that will let your prose shine.
  • Use powerful quotes to add color to your story: “The poet who embarks on the creation of the poem (as I know by experience), begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart”. – Lorca.
  • Writing advice from the essay: “One of the fears a young writer has is not being able to write as well as he or she wants to, the fear of not being able to sound like X or Y, a favorite author. But out of fear, hopefully, is born a young writer’s voice”.

21. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation

In this highly intellectual essay, Sontag fights for art and its interpretation. It’s a great lesson, especially for critics and interpreters who endlessly chew on works that simply defy interpretation. Why don’t we just leave the art alone? I always hated when at school they asked me: “what the author had in mind when he did X or Y?” Iēsous Pantocrator! Hell if I know! I will judge it through my subjective experience!

Susan Sontag - Against Interpretation

  • Leave the art alone: “Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities”.
  • When you have something really important to say, style matters less.
  • There’s no use for creating a second meaning or inviting interpretation of our art. Just leave it be and let it speak for itself.

22. Nora Ephron – A Few Words About Breasts

This is a heartwarming, coming-of-age story about a young girl who waits in vain for her breasts to grow. It’s simply a humorous and pleasurable read. The size of breasts is a big deal for women. If you’re a man, you may peek into the mind of a woman and learn many interesting things. If you’re a woman, maybe you’ll be able to relate and at last, be at peace with your bosom.

Nora Ephron - The most of Nora Ephron

  • Touch an interesting subject and establish a strong connection with the readers (in that case, women with small breasts). Let your personality shine through the written piece. If you are lighthearted, show it.
  • Use hyphens to create an impression of real talk: “My house was full of apples and peaches and milk and homemade chocolate chip cookies – which were nice, and good for you, but-not-right-before-dinner-or-you’ll-spoil-your-appetite.”
  • Use present tense when you tell a story to add more life to it.
  • Share the pronounced, memorable traits of characters: “A previous girlfriend named Solange, who was famous throughout Beverly Hills High School for having no pigment in her right eyebrow, had knitted them for him (angora dice)”.

23. Carl Sagan – Does Truth Matter – Science, Pseudoscience, and Civilization

Carl Sagan was one of the greatest proponents of skepticism, and an author of numerous books, including one of my all-time favorites – The Demon-Haunted World . He was also a renowned physicist and the host of the fantastic Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series, which inspired a whole generation to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. He was also a dedicated weed smoker – clearly ahead of his time. The essay that you’re about to read is a crystallization of his views about true science, and why you should check the evidence before believing in UFOs or similar sort of crap.

Carl Sagan - The Demon Haunted World

  • Tell people the brutal truth they need to hear. Be the one who spells it out for them.
  • Give a multitude of examples to prove your point. Giving hard facts helps to establish trust with the readers and show the veracity of your arguments.
  • Recommend a good book that will change your reader’s minds – How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life

24. Paul Graham – How To Do What You Love

How To Do What You Love should be read by every college student and young adult. The Internet is flooded with a large number of articles and videos that are supposed to tell you what to do with your lives. Most of them are worthless, but this one is different. It’s sincere, and there’s no hidden agenda behind it. There’s so much we take for granted – what we study, where we work, what we do in our free time… Surely we have another two hundred years to figure it out, right? Life’s too short to be so naïve. Please, read the essay and let it help you gain fulfillment from your work.

Paul Graham - Hackers and Painters

  • Ask simple, yet thought-provoking questions (especially at the beginning of the paragraph) to engage the reader: “How much are you supposed to like what you do?”
  • Let the readers question their basic assumptions: “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like”.
  • If you’re writing for a younger audience, you can act as a mentor. It’s actually beneficial for younger people to read a few words of advice from a person with experience.

25. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Mister Lytle

A young, aspiring writer is about to become a nurse of a fading writer – Mister Lytle (Andrew Nelson Lytle), and there will be trouble. This essay by Sullivan is probably my favorite one from the whole list. The amount of beautiful sentences it contains is just overwhelming. But that’s just a part of its charm. It also takes you to the Old South which has an incredible atmosphere. It’s grim and tawny but you want to stay there for a while.

John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead

  • Short, distinct sentences are often the most powerful ones: “He had a deathbed, in other words. He didn’t go suddenly”.
  • Stay consistent with the mood of the story. When reading Mister Lytle you are immersed in that southern, forsaken, gloomy world, and it’s a pleasure.
  • The spectacular language that captures it all: “His French was superb, but his accent in English was best—that extinct mid-Southern, land-grant pioneer speech, with its tinges of the abandoned Celtic urban Northeast (“boyned” for burned) and its raw gentility”.
  • This essay is just too good. You have to read it.

26. Joan Didion – On Self Respect

Normally, with that title, you would expect some straightforward advice about how to improve your character and get on with your goddamn life – but not from Joan Didion. From the very beginning, you can feel the depth of her thinking, and the unmistakable style of a true woman who’s been hurt. You can learn more from this essay than from whole books about self-improvement . It reminds me of the scene from True Detective, where Frank Semyon tells Ray Velcoro to “own it” after he realized he killed the wrong man all these years ago. I guess we all have to “own it”, recognize our mistakes, and move forward sometimes.

Joan Didion - The white album

  • Share your moral advice: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs”.
  • It’s worth exploring the subject further from a different angle. It doesn’t matter how many people already wrote on self-respect or self-reliance – you can still write passionately about it.
  • Whatever happens, you must take responsibility for it. Brave the storms of discontent.

27. Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp

I’ve never read anything so thorough and lucid about an artistic current. After reading this essay, you will know what camp is. But not only that – you will learn about so many artists you’ve never heard of. You will follow their traces and go to places where you’ve never been before. You will vastly increase your appreciation of art. It’s interesting how something written as a list could be so amazing. All the listicles we usually see on the web simply cannot compare with it.

Susan Sontag - Essays of the 1960 and 1970

  • Talking about artistic sensibilities is a tough job. When you read the essay, you will see how much research, thought and raw intellect came into it. But that’s one of the reasons why people still read it today, even though it was written in 1964.
  • You can choose an unorthodox way of expression in the medium for which you produce. For example, Notes on Camp are a listicle – one of the most popular content formats on the web. But in the olden days, it was uncommon to see it in a print form.
  • Just think about what is camp: “And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling”.

28. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance

That’s the oldest one from the lot. Written in 1841, it still inspires generations of people. It will let you understand what it means to be self-made. It contains some of the most memorable quotes of all time. I don’t know why, but this one especially touched me: “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design, and posterity seems to follow his steps as a train of clients”. Now isn’t it purely individualistic, American thought? Emerson told me (and he will tell you) to do something amazing with my life. The language it contains is a bit archaic, but that just adds to the weight of the argument. You can consider it to be a meeting with a great philosopher who really shaped the ethos of the modern United States.

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Self Reliance and other essays

  • You can start out with a powerful poem that will set the stage for your work.
  • Be free in your creative flow. Do not wait for the approval of others: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness”.
  • Use rhetorical questions to strengthen your argument: “I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word?”

29. David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster

When you want simple field notes about a food festival, you needn’t send there the formidable David Foster Wallace. He sees right through the hypocrisy and cruelty behind killing hundreds of thousands of innocent lobsters – by boiling them alive. This essay uncovers some of the worst traits of modern American peoples. There are no apologies or hedging one’s bets. There’s just plain truth that stabs you in the eye like a lobster claw. After reading this essay, you may reconsider the whole animal-eating business.

David Foster Wallece - Consider the lobster and other essays

  • When it’s important, say it plainly and stagger the reader: “[Lobsters] survive right up until they’re boiled. Most of us have been in supermarkets or restaurants that feature tanks of live lobster, from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point”.
  • In your writing, put exact quotes of the people you’ve been interviewing (including slang and grammatical errors). It makes it more vivid, and interesting.
  • You can use humor in serious situations to make your story grotesque.
  • Use captions to expound on interesting points of your essay.

30. David Foster Wallace – The Nature of the Fun

The famous novelist and author of the most powerful commencement speech ever done is going to tell you about the joys and sorrows of writing a work of fiction. It’s like taking care of a mutant child that constantly oozes smelly liquids. But you love that child and you want others to love it too. It’s a very humorous account of what does it mean to be an author. If you ever plan to write a novel, you should definitely read that one. And the story about the Chinese farmer is just priceless.

David Foster Wallece - a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

  • Base your point on a chimerical analogy. Here, the writer’s unfinished work is a “hideously damaged infant”.
  • Even in expository writing, you may share an interesting story to keep things lively.
  • Share your true emotions (even when you think they won’t interest anyone). Often, that’s exactly what will interest the reader.
  • Read the whole essay for marvelous advice on writing fiction.

31. Margaret Atwood – Attitude

This is not an essay per se, but I included it on the list for the sake of variety. It was delivered as a commencement speech at The University of Toronto, and it’s about keeping the right attitude. Soon after leaving university, most graduates have to forget about safety, parties, and travel and start a new life – one filled with a painful routine that will last until they drop. Atwood says that you don’t have to accept that. You can choose how you react to everything that happens to you (and you don’t have to stay in that dead-end job for the rest of your days).

Margaret Atwood - Writing with Intent - Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005

  • At times, we are all too eager to persuade, but the strongest persuasion is not forceful. It’s subtle. It speaks to the heart. It affects you gradually.
  • You may be tempted to tell about a subject by firstly stating what it is not, rather than what it is. Try to avoid that.
  • Simple advice for writers (and life in general): “When faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it”.

32. Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter

Read that one as soon as possible. It’s one of the most masterful and impactful essays you’ll ever read. It’s like a good horror – a slow build-up, and then your jaw drops to the ground. To summarize the story would be to spoil it, so I recommend that you just dig in and devour this essay during one sitting. It’s a perfect example of “show, don’t tell” writing, where actions of characters are enough to create the right effect. No need for flowery adjectives here.

Jo Ann Beard - The boys of my youth

  • The best story you will tell is going to come from your personal experience.
  • Use unsolved mysteries that will nag the reader. For example, at the beginning of the essay, we learn about the “vanished husband” but there’s no explanation. We have to keep reading to get the answer.
  • Explain it in simple terms: “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma”. Why complicate?

33. Terence McKenna – Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness

To me, Terence McKenna was one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century. He’s many lectures (now available on YouTube) attracted millions of people who suspect that consciousness holds secrets yet to be unveiled. McKenna consumed psychedelic drugs for most of his life and it shows (in a positive way). Many people consider him a looney, and a hippie, but he was so much more than that. He had the courage to go into the abyss of his own psyche and come back to tell the tale. He also wrote many books (most famous being Food Of The Gods ), built a huge botanical garden in Hawaii , lived with shamans, and was a connoisseur of all things enigmatic and obscure. Take a look at this essay, and learn more about the explorations of the subconscious mind.

Terrence McKenna - Food of gods

  • Become the original thinker, but remember that it may require extraordinary measures: “I call myself an explorer rather than a scientist, because the area that I’m looking at contains insufficient data to support even the dream of being a science”.
  • Learn new words every day to make your thoughts lucid.
  • Come up with the most outlandish ideas to push the envelope of what’s possible. Don’t take things for granted or become intellectually lazy. Question everything.

34. Eudora Welty – The Little Store

By reading this little-known essay, you will be transported into the world of the old American South. It’s a remembrance of trips to the little store in a little town. It’s warm, straightforward, and when you read it, you feel like a child once more. There are all these beautiful memories that live inside of us. They lay somewhere deep in our minds, hidden from sight. The work by Eudora Welty is an attempt to uncover some of them and let you get reacquainted with some smells and tastes of the past.

Eudora Welty - The eye of the story

  • When you’re from the South, flaunt it. It’s still good old English but sometimes it sounds so foreign. I can hear the Southern accent too: “There were almost tangible smells – licorice recently sucked in a child’s cheek, dill-pickle brine that had leaked through a paper sack in a fresh trail across the wooden floor, ammonia-loaded ice that had been hoisted from wet Croker sacks and slammed into the icebox with its sweet butter at the door, and perhaps the smell of still-untrapped mice”.
  • Yet again, never forget your roots.
  • Childhood stories can be the most powerful ones. You can write about how they shaped you.

35. John McPhee – The Search for Marvin Gardens

The Search for Marvin Gardens contains many layers of meaning. It’s a story about a Monopoly championship, but also, it’s the author’s search for the lost streets visible on the board of the famous board game. It also presents a historical perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations, and on Atlantic City, which once was a lively place, and then, slowly declined, the streets filled with dirt and broken windows.

John Mc Phee - The John Mc Phee reader

  • There’s nothing like irony: “A sign- ‘Slow, Children at Play’- has been bent backward by an automobile”.
  • Telling the story in apparently unrelated fragments is sometimes better than telling the whole thing in a logical order.
  • Creativity is everything. The best writing may come just from connecting two ideas and mixing them to achieve a great effect. Shush! The muse is whispering.

36. Maxine Hong Kingston – No Name Woman

A dead body at the bottom of the well makes for a beautiful literary device. The first line of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red delivers it perfectly: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well”. In fact, there’s something creepy about the idea of the well. Just think about the “It puts the lotion in the basket” scene from The Silence of the Lambs. In the first paragraph of Kingston’s essay, we learn about a suicide committed by uncommon means of jumping into the well. But this time it’s a real story. Who was this woman? Why did she do it? Read the essay.

Maxine Hong Kingston - Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston

  • Mysterious death always gets attention. The macabre details are like daiquiris on a hot day – you savor them – you don’t let them spill.
  • One sentence can speak volumes: “But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space”.
  • It’s interesting to write about cultural differences – especially if you have the relevant experience. Something that is totally normal for us is unthinkable for others. Show this different world.
  • The subject of sex is never boring.

37. Joan Didion – On Keeping A Notebook

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of the most famous collections of essays of all time. In it, you will find a curious piece called On Keeping A Notebook. It’s not only a meditation about keeping a journal. It’s also Didion’s reconciliation with her past self. After reading it, you will seriously reconsider your life’s choices and look at your life from a wider perspective.

Joan Didion - We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

  • When you write things down in your journal, be more specific – unless you want to write a deep essay about it years later.
  • Use the beauty of the language to relate to the past: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing ‘How High the Moon’ on the car radio”.
  • Drop some brand names if you want to feel posh.

38. Joan Didion – Goodbye To All That

This one touched me because I also lived in New York City for a while. I don’t know why, but stories about life in NYC are so often full of charm and this eerie-melancholy-jazz feeling. They are powerful. They go like this: “There was a hard blizzard in NYC. As the sound of sirens faded, Tony descended into the dark world of hustlers and pimps.” That’s pulp literature but in the context of NYC, it always sounds cool. Anyway, this essay is amazing in too many ways. You just have to read it.

Joan Didion - Slouching Towards Bethlehem

  • Talk about New York City. They will read it.
  • Talk about the human experience: “It did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?”
  • Look back at your life and reexamine it. Draw lessons from it.

39. George Orwell – Reflections on Gandhi

George Orwell could see things as they were. No exaggeration, no romanticism – just facts. He recognized totalitarianism and communism for what they were and shared his worries through books like 1984 and Animal Farm . He took the same sober approach when dealing with saints and sages. Today, we regard Gandhi as one of the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century – and rightfully so. But did you know that when asked about the Jews during World War II, Gandhi said that they should commit collective suicide and that it: “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” He also recommended utter pacifism in 1942, during the Japanese invasion, even though he knew it would cost millions of lives. But overall he was a good guy. Read the essay and broaden your perspective on the Bapu of the Indian Nation.

  • Share a philosophical thought that stops the reader for a moment: “No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid”.
  • Be straightforward in your writing – no mannerisms, no attempts to create ‘style’ and no invocations of the numinous – unless you feel the mystical vibe.

40. George Orwell – Politics and the English Language

Let Mr. Orwell give you some writing tips. Written in 1946, this essay is still one of the most helpful documents on writing in English. Orwell was probably the first person who exposed the deliberate vagueness of political language. He was very serious about it and I admire his efforts to slay all unclear sentences (including ones written by distinguished professors). But it’s good to make it humorous too from time to time. My favorite examples of that would be the immortal Soft Language sketch by George Carlin or the “Romans Go Home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, it’s a great essay filled with examples from many written materials. It’s a must-read for any writer.

  • Listen to the master: “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.” Do something about it.
  • This essay is all about writing better, so go to the source if you want the goodies.

The thinker

Other Essays You May Find Interesting

The list that I’ve prepared is by no means complete. The literary world is full of exciting essays and you’ll never know which one is going to change your life. I’ve found reading essays very rewarding because sometimes, a single one means more than reading a whole book. It’s almost like wandering around and peeking into the minds of the greatest writers and thinkers that ever lived. To make this list more comprehensive, below I included more essays you may find interesting.

Oliver Sacks – On Libraries

One of the greatest contributors to the knowledge about the human mind, Oliver Sacks meditates on the value of libraries and his love of books.

Noam Chomsky – The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Chomsky did probably more than anyone else to define the role of the intelligentsia in the modern world . There is a war of ideas over there – good and bad – intellectuals are going to be those who ought to be fighting for the former.

Sam Harris – The Riddle of The Gun

Sam Harris, now a famous philosopher and neuroscientist, takes on the problem of gun control in the United States. His thoughts are clear of prejudice. After reading this, you’ll appreciate the value of logical discourse overheated, irrational debate that more often than not has real implications on policy.

Tim Ferriss – Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide

This piece was written as a blog post , but it’s definitely worth your time. Author of the NYT bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek shares an emotional story about how he almost killed himself, and what can you do to save yourself or your friends from suicide.

Edward Said – Reflections on Exile

The life of Edward Said was a truly fascinating one. Born in Jerusalem, he lived between Palestine and Egypt and finally settled down in the United States, where he completed his most famous work – Orientalism. In this essay, he shares his thoughts about what it means to be in exile.

Richard Feynman – It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…

Richard Feynman is clearly one of the most interesting minds of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant physicist, but also an undeniably great communicator of science, an artist, and a traveler. By reading this essay, you can observe his thought process when he tries to figure out what affects our perception of time. It’s a truly fascinating read.

Rabindranath Tagore – The Religion of The Forest

I like to think about Tagore as my spiritual Friend. His poems are just marvelous. They are like some of the Persian verses that praise love, nature, and the unity of all things. By reading this short essay, you will learn a lot about Indian philosophy and its relation to its Western counterpart.

Richard Dawkins – Letter To His 10-Year-Old Daughter

Every father should be able to articulate his philosophy of life to his children. With this letter that’s similar to what you find in the Paris Review essays , the famed atheist and defender of reason, Richard Dawkins, does exactly that. It’s beautifully written and stresses the importance of looking at evidence when we’re tryi3ng to make sense of the world.

Albert Camus – The Minotaur (or, The Stop In Oran)

Each person requires a period of solitude – a period when one’s able to gather thoughts and make sense of life. There are many places where you may attempt to find quietude. Albert Camus tells about his favorite one.

Koty Neelis – 21 Incredible Life Lessons From Anthony Bourdain

I included it as the last one because it’s not really an essay, but I just had to put it somewhere. In this listicle, you’ll find 21 most original thoughts of the high-profile cook, writer, and TV host, Anthony Bourdain. Some of them are shocking, others are funny, but they’re all worth checking out.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca – On the Shortness of Life

It’s similar to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because it praises life. Seneca shares some of his stoic philosophy and tells you not to waste your time on stupidities. Drink! – for once dead you shall never return.

Bertrand Russell – In Praise of Idleness

This old essay is a must-read for modern humans. We are so preoccupied with our work, our phones, and all the media input we drown in our business. Bertrand Russell tells you to chill out a bit – maybe it will do you some good.

James Baldwin – Stranger in the Village

It’s an essay on the author’s experiences as an African-American in a Swiss village, exploring race, identity, and alienation while highlighting the complexities of racial dynamics and the quest for belonging.

Bonus – More writing tips from two great books

The mission to improve my writing skills took me further than just going through the essays. I’ve come across some great books on writing too. I highly recommend you read them in their entirety. They’re written really beautifully and contain lots of useful knowledge. Below you’ll find random (but useful) notes that I took from The Sense of Style and On Writing.

The Sense of Style – By Steven Pinker

  • Style manuals are full of inconsistencies. Following their advice might not be the best idea. They might make your prose boring.
  • Grammarians from all eras condemn students for not knowing grammar. But it just evolves. It cannot be rigid.
  • “Nothing worth learning can be taught” – Oscar Wilde. It’s hard to learn to write from a manual – you have to read, write and analyze.
  • Good writing makes you imagine things and feel them for yourself – use word-pictures.
  • Don’t fear using voluptuous words.
  • Phonesthetics – or how the words sound.
  • Use parallel language (consistency of tense).
  • Good writing finishes strong.
  • Write to someone. Never write for no one in mind. Try to show people your view of the world.
  • Don’t tell everything you are going to say in summary (signposting) – be logical, but be conversational.
  • Don’t be pompous.
  • Don’t use quotation marks where they don’t “belong”. Be confident about your style.
  • Don’t hedge your claims (research first, and then tell it like it is).
  • Avoid clichés and meta concepts (concepts about concepts). Be more straightforward!
  • Not prevention – but prevents or prevented – don’t use dead nouns.
  • Be more vivid while using your mother tongue – don’t use passive where it’s not needed. Direct the reader’s gaze to something in the world.
  • The curse of knowledge – the reader doesn’t know what you know – beware of that.
  • Explain technical terms.
  • Use examples when you explain a difficult term.
  • If you ever say “I think I understand this” it probably means you don’t.
  • It’s better to underestimate the lingo of your readers than to overestimate it.
  • Functional fixedness – if we know some object (or idea) well, we tend to see it in terms of usage, not just as an object.
  • Use concrete language instead of an abstraction.
  • Show your work to people before you publish (get feedback!).
  • Wait for a few days and then revise, revise, revise. Think about clarity and the sound of sentences. Then show it to someone. Then revise one more time. Then publish (if it’s to be serious work).
  • Look at it from the perspective of other people.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Put the heaviest words at the end of the sentence.
  • It’s good to use the passive, but only when appropriate.
  • Check all text for cohesion. Make sure that the sentences flow gently.
  • In expository work, go from general to more specific. But in journalism start from the big news and then give more details.
  • Use the paragraph break to give the reader a moment to take a breath.
  • Use the verb instead of a noun (make it more active) – not “cancellation”, but “canceled”. But after you introduced the action, you can refer to it with a noun.
  • Avoid too many negations.
  • If you write about why something is so, don’t spend too much time writing about why it is not.

On Writing Well – By William Zinsser

  • Writing is a craft. You need to sit down every day and practice your craft.
  • You should re-write and polish your prose a lot.
  • Throw out all the clutter. Don’t keep it because you like it. Aim for readability.
  • Look at the best examples of English literature . There’s hardly any needless garbage there.
  • Use shorter expressions. Don’t add extra words that don’t bring any value to your work.
  • Don’t use pompous language. Use simple language and say plainly what’s going on (“due to the fact that” equals “because”).
  • The media and politics are full of cluttered prose (because it helps them to cover up for the mistakes).
  • You can’t really add style to your work (and especially, don’t add fancy words to create an illusion of style). That will look fake. You need to develop a style.
  • Write in the “I” mode. Write to a friend or just for yourself. Show your personality. There is a person behind the writing.
  • Choose your words carefully. Use the dictionary to learn different shades of meaning.
  • Remember about phonology. Make music with words .
  • The lead is essential. Pull the reader in. Otherwise, your article is dead.
  • You don’t have to make the final judgment on any topic. Just pick the right angle.
  • Do your research. Not just obvious research, but a deep one.
  • When it’s time to stop, stop. And finish strong. Think about the last sentence. Surprise them.
  • Use quotations. Ask people. Get them talking.
  • If you write about travel, it must be significant to the reader. Don’t bother with the obvious. Choose your words with special care. Avoid travel clichés at all costs. Don’t tell that the sand was white and there were rocks on the beach. Look for the right detail.
  • If you want to learn how to write about art, travel, science, etc. – read the best examples available. Learn from the masters.
  • Concentrate on one big idea (“let’s not go peeing down both legs”).
  • “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.”
  • One very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “what the piece is about?”)

Now immerse yourself in the world of essays

By reading the essays from the list above, you’ll become a better writer , a better reader, but also a better person. An essay is a special form of writing. In fact, it is the only literary form that I know of that is an absolute requirement for career or educational advancement. Nowadays, you can use an AI essay writer, or an AI essay generator that will get the writing done for you, but if you have personal integrity and strong moral principles, avoid doing this at all costs.

I mean, you wouldn’t be asked to pen a poem when you take the LSAT to get into law school or write a play in your MCAT to qualify for med school . Instead, there are essay questions, right?

But for me as a writer, the effect of these authors’ masterpieces is often deeply personal. You won’t be able to find the beautiful thoughts they contain in any other literary form. I hope you enjoy the read and that it will inspire you to do your own writing.

This list is only an attempt to share some of the best essays available online. Do you know any other pieces that could be included in that list? Do you have any essay collections that are worth mentioning?

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Rafal Reyzer

essays on writing - writers on writing

Writers on Writing: 20 Best Essays on Writing from Famous Authors

By Jason Boyd

Updated August 7, 2021

What better way to learn about writing novels, short stories, or any creative work than from essays on writing from legendary writers.

Whether you’re gearing up for your first run at a novel ( NaNoWriMo approaches) or looking for a tune-up before embarking on your umpteenth creative writing project, you need inspiration.

May as well be inspired by the best. And maybe be taught a thing or two along the way!

Books vs Essays on Writing Fiction

Why did we choose essays?

Firstly, we certainly may write an article in the future on books from writers on writing. So, there’s no harm in leaving that topic to the side.

But chiefly, our concern is wanting to lend a hand that can be used right now. Right away. With speed.

An essay can be read in a sitting or on the way from one thing to the next, but a book is a time investment. We wanted the delivery to be quick.

Not only do we live in a fast paced world, it can be a bit of a waste to read an entire book about writing a book. Most writers would likely say you’re better off reading a great novel. Or writing one.

Not that we discourage books or any written work on the subject of writing. We don’t . But we wanted a solution for the busy working class person looking to learn the craft.

Someone with limited time but boundless spirit.

This is for you.

20 Essays from Famous Writers on Writing Fiction

We chose to not repeat authors, although quite a few writers that made this list penned multiple essays worth reading.

We picked our favorite and tried to mention the other noteworthy reads somewhere in their entry.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at our selection of essays from writers on writing.

20) Quick Cuts: The Novel Follows Film Into a World of Fewer Words by E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow - writing film vs books

E.L. Doctorow , noted essayist and author of Ragtime , is no stranger to Hollywood.

With many adaptations under his belt, including Ragtime and Billy Bathgate , Doctorow is well suited to discuss the differences between film and literature.

This essay, published in The New York Times , opines on the changes in literature since the advent of the motion picture.

Notable differences include quickening of pace, shortening of exposition, and more personal narratives.

It’s an especially fine read for anyone looking to find distinction between the disciplines of screenwriting and prose.

Brief Excerpt, “Quick Cuts: The Novel Follows Film Into a World of Fewer Words”

“Beyond that, the rise of film art is coincident with the tendency of novelists to conceive of compositions less symphonic and more solo voiced, intimate personalist work expressive of the operating consciousness. A case could be made that the novel’s steady retreat from realism is as much a result of film’s expansive record of the way the world looks as it is of the increasing sophistications of literature itself.” E.L. Doctorow

19) The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

jonathan lethem - essay on writing influences

Jonathan Lethem , author of Motherless Brooklyn , is known for his blending of multiple genres.

It only makes sense that he should write so eloquently on the power and responsibility of using influences in original work.

This essay, published originally in Harper’s Magazine , explores the challenges artists face when composing something that pays homage or outright borrows from older works. 

Where does one draw the line between plagiarism and inspiration?

Brief Excerpt, “The Ecstasy of Influence”

“Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of ‘open source’ culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked. Technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion. In Seventies Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry deconstructed recorded music, using astonishingly primitive pre-digital hardware, creating what they called ‘versions.’ The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London. Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music.” Jonathan Lethem

18) Tradition and the Individual Talent by T.S. Eliot

t.s. eliot - influences on writing essay

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot , writer of The Waste Land and Four Quartets , is as known for his literary criticism and influence as an editor than for his original work.

Thus, it makes sense to include his essay on writing in a vacuum, or rather, the impossibility of such a feat. The literary equivalent of Sir Isaac Newton ‘s phrase “ standing upon the shoulders of giants ,” Eliot’s essay actually caused quite a stir at the time. 

Much like everything in the life of T.S. Eliot.

This essay, hosted now by the Poetry Foundation and originally collected in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism , nearly creates an ouroboros effect. 

A “writers on writing” essay from a writer talking about writers writing on the heels of other writers.

Sorry, we couldn’t resist.

Brief Excerpt, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.” T.S. Eliot

17) On Style by Susan Sontag

susan sontag - writing style essay

Legendary essayist and activist Susan Sontag , author of In America , exudes a confident personal style.

Sontag is a bit of a Renaissance woman: professor of philosophy, journalist, novelist, playwright, photographer, and much more. To boot, she did this during divisive times, starting in the early 1960s.

It makes sense that we should pay attention to her thoughts on style, especially as she argues for its close juxtaposition to artistic norms. 

In “ On Style ,” published in Against Interpretation and Other Essays , Sontag attempts to differentiate style from content.

Perhaps too academic for some beginners, this essay nonetheless helps to shake up preconceptions on the purpose of style in modern writing.

Brief Excerpt, “On Style”

“This means that the notion of style, generically considered, has a specific, historical meaning. It is not only that styles belong to a time and a place; and that our perception of the style of a given work of art is always charged with an awareness of the work’s historicity, its place in a chronology. Further: the visibility of styles is itself a product of historical consciousness. Were it not for departures from, or experimentation with, previous artistic norms which are known to us, we could never recognize the profile of a new style.” Susan Sontag

16) Reflections on Writing by Henry Miller

Henry Miller - writing advice

Author of the infamously banned Tropic of Cancer , Henry Miller blurs the line between autobiography and fiction.

“Miller’s revolution, though, was not a political one,” writes Ralph B. Sipper in the Los Angeles Times’ Miller’s Tale: Henry Hits 100 . “It was the wedding of his life and his art. Actual and imagined experiences became indistinguishable from each other.”

This aspect of the legend’s style lends itself well to Henry Miller’s overarching essay, a true reflection , about a life spent writing.

Brief Excerpt, “Reflections on Writing”

“I believe that one has to pass beyond the sphere and influence of art. Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself. Most artists are defeating life by their very attempt to grapple with it. They have split the egg in two. All art, I firmly believe, will one day disappear. But the artist will remain, and life itself will become not ‘an art,’ but art, i.e., will definitely and for all time usurp the field. In any true sense we are certainly not yet alive.” Henry Miller

15) Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale by Kate Bernheimer

kate bernheimer - writing fairy tales

Writer, editor, and critic Kate Bernheimer knows a thing or two about fairy tales.

She’s the founder and editor of the journal Fairy Tale Review , editor of numerous collections on the subject, and an author of fairy tales herself.

So, when Kate Bernheimer talks about fairy tales, you listen. Her essay “ Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale ” explores the underlying structure of fairy tales and its prevalence in much more than old Brothers Grimm stories. 

Brief Excerpt, “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale”

“Perhaps if we recognize the pleasure in form that can be derived from fairy tales, we might be able to move beyond a discussion of who has more of a claim to the ‘realistic’ or the classical in contemporary letters. An increased appreciation of the techniques in fairy tales not only forges a mutual appreciation between writers from so-called mainstream and avant-garde traditions but also, I would argue, connects all of us in the act of living.” Kate Bernheimer

14) Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks by Joy Williams

joy williams - writing essays

Author of State of Grace and Pulitzer-prize finalist The Quick and the Dead , novelist, essayist, and short story writer Joy Williams could certainly be considered a writer’s writer.

It makes her especially suited to answer the age old question: why do writers write?

In her essay meditating upon the impetus to write, “ Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks ,” collected first in the anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction , Williams offers several perspectives.

While there are no clear, definitive answers, burgeoning writers may find solace in the seemingly ubiquitous search for meaning.

Brief Excerpt, “Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks” by Joy Williams

“The writer doesn’t trust his enemies, of course, who are wrong about his writing, but he doesn’t trust his friends, either, who he hopes are right. The writer trusts nothing he writes—it should be too reckless and alive for that, it should be beautiful and menacing and slightly out of his control. It should want to live itself somehow. The writer dies—he can die before he dies, it happens all the time, he dies as a writer—but the work wants to live.” Joy Williams

13) The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination by J.K. Rowling

j.k. rowling - essays about writing

You might say J.K. Rowling knows a thing or two about imagination.

What some casual readers–or even fans–of the Harry Potter author might not know is that Rowling faced poverty and abject failure before finding publishing success.

This combination made for the perfect 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University . Although not an essay at first, the speech became a smash hit, garnering the most views of all Harvard commencement addresses . 

And, appropriately so, it was later printed as an essay/e-book titled Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination .

Sure to inspire, and possibly soothe or reassure, the speech and resulting transcription should be read by any aspiring writer.

Brief Excerpt, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” J.K. Rowling

12) Write Till You Drop by Annie Dillard

annie dillard - writing life

Poet, essayist, memoirist, novelist, and critic Annie Dillard has a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction to her name as well as finalist honors for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction .

Add to this a bevy of published work, “ Write Till You Drop ” is certainly a motto Annie Dillard lives by. 

In her essay, the author of Pilgim at Tinker Creek offers up directives of great relevance for every writer. That’s because the essay’s crux, made plain in the title, is an urging to write. 

Yet, the nuance of the advice is what makes this essay especially motivating and highly recommended for any writing aspirant.

Brief Excerpt, “Write Till You Drop”

“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?” Annie Dillard

11) Why I Write by Joan Didion

joan didion - essays on writing

National Book Award for Nonfiction winner and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography Joan Didion is a legend.

The author of The Year of Magical Thinking and Slouching Towards Bethlehem , Didion has been described as belonging to the school of New Journalism, which places an emphasis on narrative storytelling and literary techniques in order to communicate its facts.

As such an accomplished and versatile writer, Didion makes a singular subject for the age-old question of why do writers write . 

Just like any essay on the subject, Joan Didion’s take is irreplaceably useful for writers. If for no other reason than it frames the writing pursuit as a shared experience resplendent in multiple shades and colors. 

The effect being that of a warm and communal embrace.  

Brief Excerpt, “Why I Write”

“When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me.” Joan Didion

10) That Crafty Feeling by Zadie Smith

zadie smith - essays on writing

Author Zadie Smith bears nearly too many awards to count.

Beginning with White Teeth , her debut novel that took the critical world by storm, Zadie Smith established herself as one of the most noteworthy writers of the modern generation.

How appropriate then, that she spoke to the craft of writing in “ That Crafty Feeling ,” her lecture for students of the Columbia University writing program in March 2008. Smith later collected the speech in essay form in her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays .

In her essay, Smith explores many aspects of the writing process, making it a must-read for the sheer fact of learning the variances writers take to arrive at the written word.

Brief Excerpt, “That Crafty Feeling”

“Some writers won’t read a word of any novel while they’re writing their own. Not one word. They don’t even want to see the cover of a novel. As they write, the world of fiction dies: no one has ever written, no one is writing, no one will ever write again. Try to recommend a good novel to a writer of this type while he’s writing and he’ll give you a look like you just stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife. It’s a matter of temperament. Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra—they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writing desk is covered in open novels.” Zadie Smith

9) The Poetic Principle by Edgar Allan Poe

edgar allan poe - essays on writing

Legendary American poet, critic, editor, and author Edgar Allan Poe knows how to move you.

In “ The Poetic Principle ,” the author of The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher breaks down exactly how he achieves this feat.

The essay is a must-read for writers not because one should necessarily follow Edgar Allan Poe’s prescription as a kind of formula. 

Instead, it should serve as an example that artistic work doesn’t have to be of a purely ecstatic origin. 

Writing can be a calculated affair, in part, aimed toward achieving a desired effect.

Brief Excerpt, “The Poetic Principle”

“Thus, although in a very cursory and imperfect manner, I have endeavored to convey to you my conception of the Poetic Principle. It has been my purpose to suggest that, while this Principle itself is , strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty , the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart — or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason.” Edgar Allan Poe

8) Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses by Mark Twain

mark twain - essays on writing

One might call Mark Twain something of an authority on the craft of writing.

American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer Samuel Langhorne Clemens , better known by his pen name of Mark Twain , earned the honorific of “father of American literature” by William Faulkner himself.

This all contributes to the fact that no one has ever been as thoroughly dragged through the mud and put on a mocking display as Fenimore Cooper.  

The deed was done by Mark Twain’s own hand in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn author’s critical essay “ Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses .”

In what amounts to a public tar and feathering, Twain deconstructs Cooper’s writing down to the level of individual word choice.

The essay illustrates many do’s via its adamant don’ts. Not to mention the tiny bit of schadenfreude contained in Cooper’s literary trial. 

Brief Excerpt, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”

“Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge.” Mark Twain

7) Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes by Stephen King

stephen king - writers on writing

Whether you’re a fan or not, there are two undeniable facts about Stephen King . He can write like a whirlwind, and he’s successful at it.

Stephen King has penned more than 60 books, including The Stand and The Dark Tower series, and created his very own multiverse . Among other accolades, he’s received the National Medal of Arts from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Book Foundation awarded him the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. 

Oh, and his net worth is estimated to reside somewhere around $400 million . Plus, he’s sold more than 350 million copies of his books worldwide. A success, we’d say, even if some critics dislike him .

In addition to writing one of the most-sought books on the writing life and process, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft , he’s written numerous essays. In the field of writers on writing, he’s nearly overqualified.

Seems he’s well qualified for the essay “ Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes ,” which out of all the essays on our list wins the prize for most enticing title.

As fans of Stephen King, we recommend you gobble up anything he has to say on the profession. But regardless, like the title says, it’s only 10 minutes long.

Brief Excerpt, “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes”

“You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Stephen King

6) Why I Write by George Orwell

george orwell aka eric arthur blair - writers on writing

Legendary author Eric Arthur Blair , better known by his pen name George Orwell , stands firmly in the great pantheon of 20th century writers.

Author of 1984 and Animal Farm , one might think Orwell’s reason for writing is solely to correct societal wrongs or fight injustices.

First printed in Gangrel (Summer 1946) and later collected in Such, Such Were the Joys , Orwell’s essay “ Why I Write ” details his motivations to write. 

Written at first as a response to an editor’s query, the essay serves as both a personal one and an objective observation of the impetus to create.

“I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious — i.e. seriously intended — writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages.” George Orwell

5) Where Do You Get Your Ideas? by Neil Gaiman

neil gaiman - writers on writing

When one of today’s greatest originators of fresh concepts tells you that ideas are just one “small component” of writing, you listen.

Neil Gaiman , author of American Gods , The Sandman , Stardust , Coraline , and more, holds a mountain of awards. Among them, the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker awards. Not to mention a Newbery and Carnegie medal. 

And Book of the Year in the British National Book Awards for The Ocean at the End of the Lane .

Written on his own blog, Neil Gaiman’s essay on where he gets his ideas answers the age-old, and somewhat frustrating, question that every writer inevitably gets.

There are no glib answers (okay, maybe a few). He shares his process with sincerity, and packages it partly in a little story, because that’s just what good writers do.

Brief Excerpt, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

“The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.” Neil Gaiman

4) Despite Tough Guys, Life Is Not the Only School for Real Novelists by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

kurt vonnegut jr - writers on writing

If ever there was a writer’s writer, it’s Kurt Vonnegut Jr. When he gives advice, you listen.

The legendary literary and science fiction author, writer of Slaughterhouse-Five , Vonnegut taught at the esteemed University of Iowa’s writer’s workshop in addition to The City College of New York and Harvard University. 

It was in defense of creative writing programs and teachers everywhere that he wrote his essay, “ Despite Tough Guys, Life Is Not the Only School for Real Novelists .”

Not to disparage the school of hard knocks. Quite the opposite. 

Kurt Vonnegut instead shows another way of looking at creative writing instructors. 

As an extension of a writer’s best friend–a good editor.

Brief Excerpt, “Despite Tough Guys, Life Is Not the Only School for Real Novelists”

“Much is known about how to tell a story, rules for sociability, for how to be a friend to a reader so the reader won’t stop reading, how to be a good date on a blind date with a total stranger.” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

3) Thoughts on Writing by Elizabeth Gilbert

elizabeth gilbert - writers on writing

Elizabeth Gilbert knows writing.

Author of numerous works and amazing TED Talks presenter, Gilbert is everything a writer could want to be. 

She writes fiction, non-fiction, books about writing, globe trots while freelancing for magazines, and is a journalist. As of late, she’s transformed into a teacher of sorts, sharing her knowledge far and wide, and one of the leaders in the topic of writers on writing.

Her published material includes Pilgrims (Pushcart Prize winner and finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award), Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (199 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List and turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts ), and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (where she shares the wealth).

To say her essay, “ Thoughts on Writing ,” published on her own blog, is worth the time of any aspiring writer–of any form, medium, or genre–is a drastic understatement.

Brief Excerpt, “Thoughts on Writing”

“As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you.” Elizabeth Gilbert

2) The Nature of the Fun by David Foster Wallace

david foster wallace - writers on writing

A literary giant in the making cut short by suicidal depression, David Foster Wallace is counted among many of today’s brilliant creative minds.

Author of Infinite Jest , a novel that every intelligentsia claims to have read, although few have managed to conquer its substantial length, Wallace talked extensively about the subject of craft. As a teacher and pundit, he’s let his thoughts be known. 

And for writers on writing, he’s often considered a preeminent expert on the topic.

However, “ The Nature of the Fun ” answers that basic question posed to nearly every writer throughout history–why do you write? 

For Wallace, the answer is in surprisingly stark contrast to everything else in the tragic writer’s life.

Brief Excerpt, “The Nature of the Fun”

“In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun.” David Foster Wallace

1) Not Knowing by Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme - writers on writing

Donald Barthelme is almost certainly not a name you know.

Although there are exceptions, even the most devout of readers overlook the absurdist and surrealist stylings of the postmodern short story writer and teacher. 

Funny, considering such eye catching titles as Sixty Stories and Forty Stories .

However, Barthelme was a regular on the pages of The New Yorker , as well as other literary magazines of his time. He even founded one– Fiction .

But don’t fret that you don’t know him. As Barthelme indicates in “ Not Knowing ,” his essay on the creative process, lack of knowledge can lead to invention. 

That’s just one reason we recommend this for your reading list, which includes our sincere hope that you also pick up some of Barthelme’s fiction.

Brief Excerpt, “Not Knowing”

“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.” Donald Barthelme

Writers on writing and essays on writing are almost a sub-genre in itself.

For writers out there, be careful that you don’t get sucked into the habit of consuming one diatribe after another, hoping to find eternal wisdom, without actually writing yourself. 

It can be alluring, to soak in the soup of published authors, to feel like you’re holding conversations with the greatest minds. Afterall, for some aspiring writers, it’s the end goal of getting published. However, one must start with the actual writing itself, so don’t dawdle too long.

Of course, we hope that these relatively short essays won’t keep you for long. And they’re just meaty enough to be satiating.

Now, get to writing! (including dropping into the comments to share your own writing advice)

Jason Boyd

Jason Boyd is a science fiction author, geek enthusiast, and former cubicle owner. When not working on his MA in Creative Writing, he's trying to figure out how magnets work.

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famous writers essays

The Top 10 Essays Since 1950

Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.

Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays , not essayists . A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.

To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s , 1955)

“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.

Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent , 1957)

An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?

Read the essay here .

Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review , 1964)

Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.

John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker , 1972)

“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).

Read the essay here (subscription required).

Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West , 1979)

Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).

Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus , 1982)

In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988 , Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.

Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares , 1986)

This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre , the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989 .

Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)

“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.

Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker , 1996)

A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997 , the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).

David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet , 2004)

They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).

Read the essay here . (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster. )

I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).

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Supported by

The Winners of Our Personal Narrative Essay Contest

We asked students to write about a meaningful life experience. Here are the eight winning essays, as well as runners-up and honorable mentions.

Our main inspiration for this contest was the long-running New York Times Magazine Lives column. All of the illustrations we have used in this post are borrowed from this column. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/magazine/big-in-japan.html">Related Lives Story</a>

By The Learning Network

Update: Join our live webinar on Oct. 8 about teaching with our Narrative Writing Contest.

In September, we challenged teenagers to write short, powerful stories about meaningful life experiences for our first-ever personal narrative essay contest .

This contest, like every new contest we start, was admittedly a bit of an experiment. Beyond a caution to write no more than 600 words, our rules were fairly open-ended, and we weren’t sure what we would get.

Well, we received over 8,000 entries from teenagers from around the world. We got stories about scoring the winning goal, losing a grandparent, learning to love one’s skin and dealing with mental illness. We got pieces that were moving, funny, introspective and honest. We got a snapshot of teenage life.

Judging a contest like this is, of course, subjective, especially with the range of content and styles of writing students submitted. But we based our criteria on the types of personal narrative essays The New York Times publishes in columns like Lives , Modern Love and Rites of Passage . We read many, many essays that were primarily reflective but, while these pieces might be well-suited for a college application, they weren’t exactly the short, powerful stories we were looking for in this contest.

The winning essays we selected were, though, and they all had a few things in common that set them apart:

They had a clear narrative arc with a conflict and a main character who changed in some way. They artfully balanced the action of the story with reflection on what it meant to the writer. They took risks, like including dialogue or playing with punctuation, sentence structure and word choice to develop a strong voice. And, perhaps most important, they focused on a specific moment or theme — a conversation, a trip to the mall, a speech tournament, a hospital visit — instead of trying to sum up the writer’s life in 600 words.

Below, you’ll find these eight winning essays, published in full. Scroll to the bottom to see the names of all 35 finalists we’re honoring — eight winners, eight runners-up and 19 honorable mentions. Congratulations, and thank you to everyone who participated!

The Winning Essays

Nothing extraordinary, pants on fire, eggs and sausage, first impressions, cracks in the pavement, sorry, wrong number, the man box.

By Jeniffer Kim

It was a Saturday. Whether it was sunny or cloudy, hot or cold, I cannot remember, but I do remember it was a Saturday because the mall was packed with people.

I was with my mom.

Mom is short. Skinny. It is easy to overlook her in a crowd simply because she is nothing extraordinary to see.

On that day we strolled down the slippery-slick tiles with soft, inconspicuous steps, peeking at window boutiques in fleeting glances because we both knew we wouldn’t be buying much, like always.

I remember I was looking up at the people we passed as we walked — at first apathetically, but then more attentively.

Ladies wore five-inch heels that clicked importantly on the floor and bright, elaborate clothing. Men strode by smelling of sharp cologne, faces clear of wrinkles — wiped away with expensive creams.

An uneasy feeling started to settle in my chest. I tried to push it out, but once it took root it refused to be yanked up and tossed away. It got more unbearable with every second until I could deny it no longer; I was ashamed of my mother.

We were in a high-class neighborhood, I knew that. We lived in a small, overpriced apartment building that hung on to the edge of our county that Mom chose to move to because she knew the schools were good.

We were in a high-class neighborhood, but as I scrutinized the passers-by and then turned accusing eyes on Mom, I realized for the first time that we didn’t belong there.

I could see the heavy lines around Mom’s eyes and mouth, etched deep into her skin without luxurious lotions to ease them away. She wore cheap, ragged clothes with the seams torn, shoes with the soles worn down. Her eyes were tired from working long hours to make ends meet and her hair too gray for her age.

I looked at her, and I was ashamed.

My mom is nothing extraordinary, yet at that moment she stood out because she was just so plain.

Mumbling I’d meet her at the clothes outlet around the corner, I hurried away to the bathroom. I didn’t want to be seen with her, although there was no one important around to see me anyway.

When I finally made my way to the outlet with grudging steps, I found that Mom wasn’t there.

With no other options, I had to scour the other stores in the area for her. I was dreading returning to her side, already feeling the secondhand embarrassment that I’d recently discovered came with being with her.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mom was standing in the middle of a high-end store, holding a sweater that looked much too expensive.

She said, “This will look good on you. Do you want it?”

It was much too expensive. And I almost agreed, carelessly, thoughtlessly.

Then I took a closer look at the small, weary woman with a big smile stretching across her narrow face and a sweater in her hands, happy to be giving me something so nice, and my words died in my throat.

I felt like I’d been dropped into a cold lake.

Her clothes were tattered and old because she spent her money buying me new ones. She looked so tired and ragged all the time because she was busy working to provide for me. She didn’t wear jewelry or scented perfumes because she was just content with me.

Suddenly, Mother was beautiful and extraordinarily wonderful in my eyes.

I was no longer ashamed of her, but of myself.

“Do you want it?” My mom repeated.

“No thanks.”

By Varya Kluev

I never kissed the boy I liked behind the schoolyard fence that one March morning. I never had dinner with Katy Perry or lived in Kiev for two months either, but I still told my entire fourth-grade class I did.

The words slipped through my teeth effortlessly. With one flick of my tongue, I was, for all anybody knew, twenty-third in line for the throne of Monaco. “Actually?” the girls on the swings beside me would ask, wide eyes blinking with a childlike naivety. I nodded as they whispered under their breath how incredible my fable was. So incredible they bought into it without a second thought.

I lied purely for the ecstasy of it. It was narcotic. With my fabrications, I became the captain of the ship, not just a wistful passer-by, breath fogging the pane of glass that stood between me and the girls I venerated. No longer could I only see, not touch; a lie was a bullet, and the barrier shattered. My mere presence demanded attention — after all, I was the one who got a valentine from Jason, not them.

This way I became more than just the tomboyish band geek who finished her multiplication tables embarrassingly fast. My name tumbled out of their mouths and I manifested in the center of their linoleum lunch table. I became, at least temporarily, the fulcrum their world revolved around.

Not only did I lie religiously and unabashedly — I was good at it. The tedium of my everyday life vanished; I instead marched through the gates of my alcazar, strode up the steps of my concepts, and resided in my throne of deceit. I believed if I took off my fraudulent robe, I would become plebeian. The same aristocracy that finally held me in high regard would boot me out of my palace. To strip naked and exclaim, “Here’s the real me, take a look!” would lead my new circle to redraw their lines — they would take back their compliments, sit at the table with six seats instead of eight, giggle in the back of the class when I asked a question. I therefore adjusted my counterfeit diadem and continued to praise a Broadway show I had never seen.

Yet finally lounging in a lavender bedroom one long-sought-after day, after absently digesting chatter about shows I didn’t watch and boys I didn’t know, I started processing the floating conversations. One girl, who I had idolized for always having her heavy hair perfectly curled, casually shared how her parents couldn’t afford to go on their yearly trip the coming summer. I drew in an expectant breath, but nobody scoffed. Nobody exchanged a secret criticizing glance. Instead, another girl took her spoon of vanilla frosting out of her cheek and with the same air of indifference revealed how her family wasn’t traveling either. Promptly, my spun stories about swimming in crystal pools under Moroccan sun seemed to be in vain.

The following Monday, the girls on the bus to school still shared handfuls of chocolate-coated sunflower seeds with her. At lunch, she wasn’t shunned, wasn’t compelled to sit at a forgotten corner table. For that hour, instead of weaving incessant fantasies, I listened. I listened to the girls nonchalantly talk about yesterday’s soccer game where they couldn’t score a single goal. Listened about their parent’s layoff they couldn’t yet understand the significance of. I listened and I watched them listen, accepting and uncritical of one another no matter how relatively vapid their story. I then too began to talk, beginning by admitting that I wasn’t actually related to Britney Spears.

By Ryan Young Kim

When first I sat down in the small, pathetic excuse of a cafeteria the hospital had, I took a moment to reflect. I had been admitted the night before, rolled in on a stretcher like I had some sort of ailment that prevented me from walking.

But the nurses in the ward were nice to me, especially when they saw that I wasn’t going to be one of the violent ones. They started telling me something, but I paid no attention; I was trying to take in my surroundings. The tables were rounded, chairs were essentially plastic boxes with weight inside, and there was no real glass to be seen.

After they filled out the paperwork, the nurses escorted me to my room. There was someone already in there, but he was dead asleep. The two beds were plain and simple, with a cheap mattress on top of an equally cheap wooden frame. One nurse stuck around to hand me my bedsheets and a gown that I had to wear until my parents dropped off clothes.

The day had been exhausting, waiting for the psychiatric ward to tell us that there was a bed open for me and the doctors to fill out the mountains of paperwork that come with a suicide attempt.

Actually, there had been one good thing about that day. My parents had brought me Korean food for lunch — sullungtang , a fatty stew made from ox-bone broth. God, even when I was falling asleep I could still taste some of the rice kernels that had been mixed into the soup lingering around in my mouth.

For the first time, I felt genuine hunger. My mind had always been racked with a different kind of hunger — a pining for attention or just an escape from the toil of waking up and not feeling anything. But I always had everything I needed — that is, I always had food on my plate, maybe even a little too much. Now, after I had tried so hard to wrench myself away from this world, my basic human instinct was guiding me toward something that would keep me alive.

The irony was lost on me then. All I knew was that if I slept earlier, that meant less time awake being hungry. So I did exactly that. Waking up the next day, I was dismayed to see that the pangs of hunger still rumbled through my stomach. I slid off my covers and shuffled out of my room. The cafeteria door was already open, and I looked inside. There was a cart of Styrofoam containers in the middle of the room, and a couple people were eating quietly. I made my way in and stared.

I scanned the tops of the containers — they were all marked with names: Jonathan, Nathan, Kristen — and as soon as I spotted my name, my mouth began to water.

My dad would sometimes tell me about his childhood in a rural Korean village. The hardships he faced, the hunger that would come if the village harvest floundered, and how he worked so hard to get out — I never listened. But in that moment, between when I saw my container and I sat down at a seat to open it, I understood.

The eggs inside were watery, and their heat had condensated water all over, dripping onto everything and making the sausages soggy. The amount of ketchup was pitiful.

But if I hadn’t been given plastic utensils, I think I would have just shoved it all into my mouth, handful by handful.

By Isabel Hui

When I woke up on August 4, 2016, there was only one thing on my mind: what to wear. A billion thoughts raced through my brain as wooden hangers shuffled back and forth in the cramped hotel closet. I didn’t want to come off as a try-hard, but I also didn’t want to be seen as a slob. Not only was it my first day of high school, but it was my first day of school in a new state; first impressions are everything, and it was imperative for me to impress the people who I would spend the next four years with. For the first time in my life, I thought about how convenient it would be to wear the horrendous matching plaid skirts that private schools enforce.

It wasn’t insecurity driving me to madness; I was actually quite confident for a teenage girl. It was the fact that this was my third time being the new kid. Moving so many times does something to a child’s development … I struggled finding friends that I could trust would be there for me if I picked up and left again. But this time was different because my dad’s company ensured that I would start and finish high school in the same place. This meant no instant do-overs when I pick up and leave again. This time mattered, and that made me nervous.

After meticulously raiding my closet, I emerged proudly in a patterned dress from Target. The soft cotton was comfortable, and the ruffle shoulders added a hint of fun. Yes, this outfit was the one. An hour later, I felt just as powerful as I stepped off the bus and headed toward room 1136. But as I turned the corner into my first class, my jaw dropped to the floor.

Sitting at her desk was Mrs. Hutfilz, my English teacher, sporting the exact same dress as I. I kept my head down and tiptoed to my seat, but the first day meant introductions in front of the whole class, and soon enough it was my turn. I made it through my minute speech unscathed, until Mrs. Hutfilz stood up, jokingly adding that she liked my style. Although this was the moment I had been dreading from the moment I walked in, all the anxiety that had accumulated throughout the morning surprisingly melted away; the students who had previously been staring at their phones raised their heads to pay attention as I shared my story. My smile grew as I giggled with my peers, ending my speech with “and I am very stylish, much like my first period teacher.” After class, I stayed behind and talked to Mrs. Hutfilz, sharing my previous apprehension about coming into a new school and state. I was relieved to make a humorous and genuine connection with my first teacher, one that would continue for the remainder of the year.

This incident reminded me that it’s only high school; these are the times to have fun, work hard, and make memories, not stress about the trivial details. Looking back four years later, the ten minutes I spent dreading my speech were really not worth it. While my first period of high school may not have gone exactly the way I thought it would, it certainly made the day unforgettable in the best way, and taught me that Mrs. Hutfilz has an awesome sense of style!

By Adam Bernard Sanders

It was my third time sitting there on the middle school auditorium stage. The upper chain of braces was caught in my lip again, and my palms were sweating, and my glasses were sliding down my nose. The pencil quivered in my hands. All I had to do was answer whatever question Mrs. Crisafulli, the history teacher, was going to say into that microphone. I had answered 26 before that, and 25 of those correctly. And I was sitting in my chair, and I was tapping my foot, and the old polo shirt I was wearing was starting to constrict and choke me. I pulled pointlessly at the collar, but the air was still on the outside, only looking at the inside of my throat. I was going to die.

I could taste my tongue in my mouth shriveling up. I could feel each hard-pumping heartbeat of blood travel out of my chest, up through my neck and down my arms and legs, warming my already-perspiring forehead but leaving my ghost-white fingers cold and blue. My breathing was quick. My eyes were glassy. I hadn’t even heard the question yet.

Late-night readings of my parents’ anatomy textbooks had told me that a sense of impending doom was the hallmark of pulmonary embolism, a fact that often bubbled to the surface of my mind in times like these. Almost by instinct, I bent my ring and little fingers down, holding them with my thumb as the two remaining digits whipped to my right wrist and tried to take my pulse. Mr. Mendoza had taught us this last year in gym class. But I wasn’t in gym class that third period. I was just sitting on the metal folding chair, waiting for Mrs. Crisafulli to flip to the right page in her packet for the question.

Arabella had quizzed me in second-period French on the lakes of Latin America. Nicaragua. Atitlán. Yojoa. Lake Titicaca, that had made Raj, who sat in front of me, start giggling, and Shannon, who sat three desks up and one to the left, whip her head around and raise one fist to her lips, jab up her index finger, and silence us. Lakes were fed by rivers, the same rivers that lined the globe on my desk like the cracks in the pavement I liked to trace with my shoe on the walk home. Lake Nicaragua drains into the San Juan River, which snakes its way around the port of Granada to empty into the Caribbean Sea. I knew that.

At that moment I was only sure of those two things: the location of Lake Nicaragua and my own impending doom. And I was so busy counting my pulse and envisioning my demise that I missed Mrs. Crisafulli’s utterance of the awaited question into her microphone, as I had each year in the past as one of the two people left onstage.

“ … Coldest … on earth,” was all I heard. My pencil etched shaggy marks as my shaking hands attempted to write something in the 20 seconds remaining.

“Asia,” I scrawled.

So, for the third time in three years, I got it wrong, and for the third time, I didn’t die. I walked home that day, tracing the faults in the pavement and wondering what inside me was so cracked and broken. Something had to be fissured inside, like the ridges and rivers on my desk globe that I would throw out later that evening, but fish from the trash can when the sun rose the next day.

By Michelle Ahn

My phone buzzes. An unfamiliar number with a 512 area code — I later find out it’s from Texas. It’s a selfie of a 30-something man, smiling with his family, a strange picture to receive as I live halfway across the country.

For the past three years, I — a 14-year-old girl living in Virginia — have been getting texts meant for this man, Jared. Over the years, I’ve pieced together parts of who he is; middle-aged, Caucasian, and very popular according to the numerous messages I’ve received for him.

Throughout this time, I’ve also been discovering who I am. When I received the first text, I was a playful sixth grader, always finding sly ways to be subversive in school and with friends. With this new method of mischief in my hands, naturally, I engaged:

“My sweet momma just told me that BYU Texas Club is holding a Texas Roundup free BBQ dinner on October 10th! Thought y’all would enjoy,” came one of the texts.

After staring at the message for a while, I responded.

As time went on, the story of the mystery man deepened. I was halfway through sixth grade, for example, when I learned he was part of the “Elder’s Quorum,” a rather ominous-sounding group. Looking it up, I learned that it was not a cult, as I’d initially thought, but rather an elite inner circle within the Mormon Church.

This was around the same time my family had stopped going to church. I’d started to spend more time taking art classes and trying out various sports — tennis, basketball, even archery — and soon church fell to the side. Instead, I meddled in the Quorum’s group texts; when a message came about a member moving away, I excitedly responded, “Let me help y’all out, brother!”

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but after a while I started to feel guilty about this deception. I wondered if I’d somehow ruined Jared’s reputation, if his friends were turned off by my childish responses. I was also dealing with changes within my friend group at the time; the biggest change being letting go of a close but toxic friend; I realized that I needed friendships that were more mutually supportive.

Shortly after, I got a phone call from a strange woman. She started talking about the struggles in her life; her children, her job, even about how she wanted to leave Texas forever. In comparison, my own problems — the B minus I’d gotten, the stress of an upcoming archery tournament, the argument I had with my sister — all seemed superficial. I timidly informed her I wasn’t Jared, and her flustered response told me that I should have told her at the start of the call.

A while later, I got another text: “Congratulations on getting married!” It had never occurred to me how much Jared’s life had changed since I had received his number. But of course it did; over time, I’d outgrown my prankster middle school self, gained the confidence to build a solid friend group, and devoted myself to my primary loves of art and archery. Why wouldn’t Jared also be settling into his own life too?

Though I’ve since taken every opportunity to correct those who text Jared, it still happens every once in a while. Just last month, I got another random text; all it said was: “Endoscopy!” When I got it, I laughed, and then I wrote back.

“Hey, sorry, you have the wrong number. But I hope Jared’s doing well.”

By Maria Fernanda Benavides

“Mayfier? Marfir?” the tournament judge called squinting her eyes, trying to find the spelling error, although there was no error.

“It’s Mafer. It’s a nickname for my full name, Maria Fernanda.”

She stared at me blankly.

“My parents are creative,” I lied, and she laughed.

“O.K., Mahfeer, you’re up!”

I walk to the center and scanned the room before starting as instructed. I took a deep breath.

I reminded myself, “Use your voice.”

I spoke loudly at first, trying to hide the fact that I was overthinking every single word that came out of my mouth. As my performance continued, the artificial confidence became natural, and I started speaking from my heart as I told the story of my experience as an immigrant woman, and I described how much I missed my father who had to travel back and forth every weekend to see my mom and me, and how disconnected I felt from my family, and how I longed to have a place I could call home.

My performance came to an end, and I made my way back to my seat with newly found optimism as I reflected on how performing had consumed me.

I used my voice. Finally. I had found my home in the speech program.

Waiting for the speech tournament to post the names of the finalists was excruciating. I jumped off my seat every time a staff member passed by. I didn’t care about accumulating state points or individual recognition. I wanted the chance to speak again.

Finally, a girl walked up to the oratory postings with a paper on her hand, and the entire cafeteria surrounded her, impatiently waiting to see who the finalists were. Then, I saw it.

My name. Written in dense, black letters.

I smiled to myself.

This time, as I walked to the oratory final, I did so by myself, as I had finally acquired self-assurance needed to navigate the quiet hallways of the high school. I could only hear the heels of the two girls behind me.

“I heard that Saint Mary’s Hall freshman made it to oratory finals,” one of them said, obviously speaking about me. “She broke over me. I didn’t see her performance. Did you? Did you see her performance? What is her speech about?” she questioned the other one.

“It’s about being a Mexican immigrant.”

“Oh, so that’s why she broke.”

“It’s the same pity narrative, there’s nothing different about it.”

Suddenly, the confidence that I had acquired from the previous rounds vanished, and I found myself wishing that I had my older, more experienced teammates by my side to help me block the girls’ words. But no one was there.

I thought my narrative was what made my words matter, what made me matter.

But they didn’t matter. Not anymore. From that moment on, I knew I would be recognized around the circuit as the Mexican girl whose name no one knows how to pronounce. I didn’t even need to speak about my identity to be identified. Everyone would recognize me not for my achievement or my being, but by the peculiar way I pronounce words. I could speak about different topics, but it felt like it wouldn’t make a difference. It felt like my voice didn’t make a difference.

“Mafer, how did it feel?” my coach asked me after the round. “It felt amazing!” I lied.

I didn’t feel anything. Not anymore. Speech gave me a voice, but it also took it away.

By Gordon Lewis

We’re all average boys: hard working in school, spending every minute together in the summer, and doing our best to pretend we don’t have a worry in the world. The facts are no different as the sun is beginning to set on a warm July evening. Sam and I say goodbye to Ben, stepping out of our best friend’s house.

“My sister is going to pick me up while we’re walking, is that O.K.?” I ask.

“Actually, she can probably drive you home, too.”

“Sounds good,” says Sam, but lacking his usual upbeat, comedic energy. Neither of us says anything else, but I’m O.K. with it, we just keep walking. I look around, admiring the still, peaceful park as the warm summer breeze brushes across my face. The crickets are chirping and an owl sings along between the soft hum of cars rolling along nearby. It’s nature’s tune of serenity.

I almost forgot Sam was with me until he asked, “Can I ask you kind of a weird question?”

“Sure,” I say, expecting a joke in poor taste as per usual.

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” he says before asking.

More hesitantly, I say, “O.K.”

“Do you have someone that you talk to about like deeper stuff … Like more emotional stuff?” Silence hits us like a brick wall: The crickets stop chirping, the owl stops hooting, even the cars stop driving by. It’s deafening. I’m only shocked at the question because it’s Sam, one of the happiest and funniest people I know.

I’m wondering. My disappointment takes over just as quickly as my hope fades as I fail to come up with a name. In the end, the closest thing I can think of is the book I occasionally write in when I’m feeling sad or stressed.

“Huh,” I say quietly, “I’ve never really thought about that, but I guess not.”

“Yeah, I didn’t either, but at camp we did activities and had talks that led to more emotional conversations.” I’m silently both jealous and proud of him, but it’s mostly jealousy.

“It’s funny,” I say, “in English we always joked about that TED Talk guy talking about the man box, but it’s actually so true. We shouldn’t feel like we can’t talk about deeper stuff like that.”

“Yeah,” laughed Sam. Silence drapes over us again, but this time it’s more comfortable. I’m lost in my thoughts trying to think of what to say next, but there’s too much. I’ve never had an opportunity like this before. However it’s not shocking or overwhelming, even though it’s with Sam of all people — instead it’s therapeutic.

The silence is broken once again by Sam:

“Like I never told you guys that my parents got divorced.”

“I’m-I’m sorry,” I say, “That really sucks.” I’m disappointed in myself for not saying more.

“It’s O.K.,” Sam says, but I know he’s lying. I can feel his sadness.

Drowning in my thoughts, I try to pick out something to say. But there’s too much to say. There are too many options after being silent for 16 years.

Headlights appear in front of us, and for a split second I’m relieved, but it rapidly turns into regret.

Knowing it’s Rose, I quickly tell sam, “If you ever want to talk again just let me know.”

I say hi to Rose, masking my solemn, thoughtful mood as tiredness. The warm breeze gives my cheek one final kiss; nature resumes her number, and the cars roll by again as Sam and I reluctantly step into the car.

In alphabetical order by the writer’s last name

“Sorry, Wrong Number” by Michelle Ahn

“Speechless” by Maria Fernanda Benavides

“First Impressions” by Isabel Hui

“Nothing Extraordinary” by Jeniffer Kim

“Eggs and Sausage" by Ryan Young Kim

“Pants on Fire” by Varya Kluev

“The Man Box” by Gordon Lewis

“Cracks in the Pavement” by Adam Bernard Sanders

“The First (and Last) Time Speedy Wasn’t Speedy Enough” by Maya Berg

“Searching for Air” by Sydney Do

“Fear on My Mind” by Daytona Gerhardy

“Under the Starry Sky” by Letian Li

“Chinatown Diptych” by Jeffrey Liao

“They” by Haven Low

“The Vigil” by Beda Lundstedt

“How My Brother Taught Me to Drive” by Sarah Shapiro

Honorable Mentions

“The Six in Mid-August” by Liah Argiropoulos

“‘Those Aren’t Scratches Are They?’” by Casey Barwick

“Brown Is Beautiful” by Tiffany Borja

“I Am Ordinary, After All” by Rebecca Braxley

“Torn” by Melanie D.

“The Stupid Seven” by Madeline G.

“Speak No Evil” by Amita Goyal

“Building My Crown” by Ambar Guzman

“Me, Myself, and a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” by Zachary Hommel

“The Tomato” by Raymond Huang

“Out” by Michael H.

“Cold Noodles With a Side of Birdballs” by Audrey Koh

“Banya in Siberia” by Arshiya Sanghi

“Traffic” by Kecia Seo

“The Power of Ambiguity” by Marcus Shallow

“Land Mine” by Geneve Thomas-Palmer

“How to Fall Asleep With the Lights On” by Caroline Wei

“The Taste of Tofu” by Amy Zhou

“The Newcomer’s Journey” by Maria Z.

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17 Personal Essays That Will Change Your Life

Think essays are just something boring you write for class? These masterpieces will make you totally reconsider.

Sandy Allen

BuzzFeed News Reporter

1. "Goodbye To All That" – Joan Didion

famous writers essays

The final piece in one of her two most beloved collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem , this essay contains everything there is to love about Didion — her sharp eye, her unbelievable concision, her expression of emotions that are real and contradictory. It follows her arrival in New York and her departure eight years later, and in so doing discusses the city and youth — and the romantic lies that both are. She writes: "... I was in love with New York. I do not mean 'love' in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again."

2. "Mr. Lytle, an Essay" – John Jeremiah Sullivan

famous writers essays

Sullivan has become one of the most talked about magazine writers of the last few years. This piece, which you can read online at the Paris Review , and was collected in his highly recommended book, Pulphead , is one of his best. It discusses, with such grace, being mentored in his twenties by once-famous Southern Renaissance writer Andrew Lytle. It's a meditation on art and futility, the Old South, and the sheer strangeness that can be relationships between men.

3. "Once More to the Lake" – E.B. White

famous writers essays

Recognized for his children's literature (including Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web ) and popularizing Strunk's The Elements of Style , White was also an accomplished essayist. "Once More to the Lake" follows White and his son to Maine, where they spend a week along the same lake White visited with his father as a boy. It is one of the most moving reflections upon fatherhood, summertime, America, and mortality ever crafted. You can find it in many anthologies and in The Collected Essays of E.B. White .

4. "Ticket to the Fair" – David Foster Wallace

famous writers essays

Those who knock Wallace for his verbosity — or associate him merely with a liberal use of footnotes — haven't read one of his classic essays through to the end. This one, which you can read online at Harper's or in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again , follows him home to Illinois, specifically to the state fair there. Laugh-out-loud hilarious and almost ridiculous in its level of detail, it explores the author's fractured identity, the Midwest versus the East Coast, and the American experience at large.

5. "A Few Words About Breasts" – Nora Ephron

famous writers essays

Published in Esquire in 1975, this is the best-known essay by the late, great screenwriter and essayist. While she renders the experience of being flat-chested in the '50s with incredible humor and pathos, it is the essay's ending — the shock of it — that makes this unforgettable.

6. "Self-Reliance" — Ralph Waldo Emerson

famous writers essays

One of Emerson's most influential essays, you can read it online or in nearly every collection of his works. While his prose's formality may be a shock at first, what he says he says with great clarity and to the great empowerment of his reader. It is a declaration of the fact that true happiness, in oneself and all relationships, must spurn from self-love and honest expression: "I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should."

7. "Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing" – Kurt Vonnegut

famous writers essays

Though it's collected in his great and final collection of essays, Man Without a Country , you can read an adaptation online at Lapham's Quarterly . While it's a must-read for aspiring creative writers, it's about more than writing — much, much more — despite its brevity and characteristic Vonnegut wit. It opens with the best slam of the semicolon ever.

8. "Notes of a Native Son" – James Baldwin

famous writers essays

The titular essay from this collection — which honestly you should just read — is an ambitious and candid discussion of the passing of his father during a time of great racial turmoil. It opens: "On the twenty-ninth of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father's funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker's chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. In the morning of the third of August, we drove my father through the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed glass."

9. "The Invisible Made Visible" – David Rakoff

famous writers essays

David Rakoff died a little over a year ago at the too-early age of 47. Just a few months prior, he read this essay about his cancer, his imminent death, and dancing, aloud as part of This American Life 's live show. As always with Rakoff's work, it was funny, painful, and revealed the author's intense love of the English language. Warning: When you watch this video , you will laugh audibly, several times, and you might cry.

10. "The Death of a Moth" – Virginia Woolf

famous writers essays

The briefest — and perhaps densest — essay on this list, "The Death of the Moth," on its face, is about exactly that: Woolf notices a moth caught in her window and witnesses its death. Read it online and then read it again, and again.

11. "Total Eclipse " – Annie Dillard

famous writers essays

This much-anthologized meditation follows Dillard and her husband as they drive to a mountaintop in Washington to witness a total eclipse — that rare event when the sun becomes entirely obscured, turning day briefly into night. Dillard's rendering of this experience showcases her enviable abilities to both observe and describe. It's collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk .

12. "Sliver of Sky" – Barry Lopez

famous writers essays

Well-known nature writer Barry Lopez shocked many when he published this essay in January, in which he confessed being raped throughout his adolescence by his mother's sometime boyfriend. It is an affecting and horrifying portrait of what it is to be a victim of sexual abuse. Unfortunately you do have to be a Harper's subscriber to read it (for now).

13. "Shooting an Elephant" — George Orwell

famous writers essays

Prior to penning 1984 and Animal Farm , Orwell was posted as a policeman in Burma, where he once had to shoot a rampaging elephant. The resultant essay, published in 1936, is a condemnation of imperialism — and his own selfish desire to not be implicated by it. Read it online or find it in the collection of the same title .

14. "Shipping Out" — David Foster Wallace

famous writers essays

Yes, Wallace deserves two on this list. Also collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and originally published in Harper's , this is another travelogue turned existential rumination that shows unabashedly and hilariously the horrors of society (this time via a cruise ship) and really says more about the author himself.

15. "The Braindead Megaphone" – George Saunders

famous writers essays

Saunders is more famous for his fiction (like many of the folks on this list) but that doesn't mean his essays are not fantastic. The first in the eponymous collection , "The Braindead Megaphone" takes on the current political and media climate in America that will make you shake your head in a I've-always-thought-that-but-never-really-put-it-that-way-myself way.

16. "We Do Abortions Here" — Sallie Tisdale

famous writers essays

Tisdale was a nurse at an abortion clinic when she published this essay in 1987. She writes honestly and movingly about something she knows few want to think let alone read about. "There is a numbing sameness lurking in this job," she says, "the same questions, the same answers, even the same trembling tone in the voices. The worst is the sameness of human failure, of inadequacy in the face of each day’s dull demands." Read it for free online .

17. "The White Album" — Joan Didion

famous writers essays

Of course Didion also gets two on this list. If you have not read this classic, do so now. It tracks our culture's — and the author's — transition out of the cataclysmic era that was the late '60s into something else much darker. It also contains an unforgettable image of Jim Morrison wearing black vinyl pants. Find it in the collection of the same name.

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  • 10 Famous American Writers Who Created the Best Essays Ever Written

Discover 10 Famous American Authors Who Changed Literature World

Discover 10 Famous American Authors Who Changed Literature World

Literature as an art has many horizons; it includes books, articles, critical reviews, and essays. At school, teachers assign homework writing tasks. Essays by famous American writers aim to prepare students for the potential career challenges associated with writing. Famous American authors who have introduced world’s best novels accomplished popular essays. Some of them describe one’s life. Other famous American writers represent native history of that time. 19 th century was especially rich for the great essays.

A great essay can be more distinguished than a good novel. The most popular genres of essay include:

  • Non-fiction
  • Current events
  • Personal reflection
  • Instructive

It’s up to the young author to choose one to practice. If you want to master the art of writing, consider these popular American writers. Read at least several papers published by them to improve your knowledge.

The article offers the list of top-preferred essays written by popular American writers. Find authors from various background and historical periods. Keep in mind the qualities of essay: brief, concise, attention-grabbing, and interesting.

10 Famous American Authors Every Young Writer Should Recognize

  • James Baldwin

The first man to recall is James Baldwin. Born in 1924, the boy grew up with his stepfather who was an exemplar priest. Baldwin grew up with 8 children; he has never known anything about his dad, so his pain is felt in such pieces as “Tell me when the train left” or “Giovanni’s Room.” His literary career started in Greenwich Village. That place needed his hero who could cheer up the local population living in poverty.

Most of Baldwin’s texts oppose relevant for that time racism, explaining people must be all equal. Regular attacks force the famous artist to transfer to France.

Best essays of all time include several popular works of author:

  • “Notes of a Native Son”  
  • “The Evidence of Things Not Seen”  
  • “The Price of the Ticket”
  • Scott Fitzgerald

Scoot F. Fitzgerald, born in 1896, is famous US short story writer and novelist. He best illustrates the Jazz Age; Fitzgerald is a dedicated, honored member of “Lost Generation” (1920s). 164 essays out of 4 collections of short stories were published in popular American magazines during his lifetime.

Fitzgerald was an optimistic person who described the inspiration and excesses of his age. Fitzgerald is the author of popular “The Great Gatsby,” which was remastered and filmed two times. Other famous author’s works are:

  • “This Side of Paradise”
  • “The Beautiful and the Damned”
  • Norman Mailer

The citizen of New Jersey from the Jewish family managed to create several masterpieces. American artist Normal Mailer finished Harvard; this university made him love literature. At the age of 18, he started his writer’s career. Harvard rewarded the famous author with corresponding appreciation.

The best essays of Mailer include:

  • “The Presidential Papers”
  • “Pieces and Pontifications”  (dedicated to Little Boston’s Life)

Find the best writing ideas by clicking on this link.

  • Joan Didion

Female author Joan Didion is still available: she came from California and started to write her opening essays at the age of five. While her parents spend entire days at work, the little girl tried to read all possible books found in their apartment. Her Bachelor Degree (Arts and English language) helped her passion. She is among the famous essay writers of the 20 th century as Didion predetermined modern culture by working in “Vogue” magazine. The popular author’s works involve:

  • “Salvador.”
  • “ After Henry ”  (dedicated to Earth)
  • Ernest Hemingway

Among all writers in US history, Hemingway was the true master of word; he introduced the shortest essays/stories made of six words! This popular American genius developed his distinctive style which is still copied by modern artists. Every essay he wrote was simple to read. He avoided introducing new topics or using complex words; you can see it from his most famous essays:

  • “The Garden of Eden”
  • “In Our Time”
  • “The Sun Also Rises”
  • “The Old Man and the Sea”
  • Robert Atwan

Another famous writer is Robert Atwan. He was born in 1940; he comes from New Jersey. Two popular universities, Seton Hall and Rutgers, had this literature enthusiast among the top century students. American writer was focused on creating short stories during his lifetime:

  • “Great Moments in Literary Baseball” (you can guess what his favorite game is)
  • “Poems and Essays” (describing the seasons)
  • Stephen King

This century knows Stephen King as the best American horror book author. He has famous essays among his literary works too: his popular essays belong to the categories: supernatural fiction, suspense, and fantasy. These pieces of literature focus on Maine State. Great pieces he wrote include:

  • “Head Down”
  • “Great Hookers I Have Known”
  • David Foster Wallace

A famous American was born in 1968. His passion for philosophy turned into the love of literature; the author earned a degree in English language and literature. David Foster Wallace used literature as the tool to cure of regular depressions. Wallace died of the prescribed medicine, but he managed to share his best works with society:

  • “Television and U.S. Fiction” (funny story)
  • “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again” and “Consider the Lobster.”
  • John McPhee

Famous American writers of 20 th century have John McPhee on the list. He is the pioneer of creative nonfiction; he won a Pulitzer Prize in his genre. Famous American author offered outstanding hook sentences which helped to grab target reader’s attention easily. He was teaching Journalism at Princeton University, sharing his best essays.

  • “Progression: How and What?”
  • “ The Search for Marvin Gardens”
  • Susan Sontag

Famous American authors list includes Susan Sontag, a popular female writer from New York City. The girl had imaginary friends from books and famous American novels when she was young. The author successfully passed necessary exams to enter Harvard University where she learned English literature to obtain a Master of Philosophy. In Oxford, famous female faced serious gender concerns and challenged related issues in her initial essays. She moved to Paris to release the rest of her works being pressed in America.

  • “Against Interpretation”
  • “Regarding the Pain of Others Styles of Radical Will”

Once you read the suggested literature, you will have a clue of how a short story/essay must look! If you are interested in how to write short essay , read one more blog. If you wish to get a great custom piece, buy essay writing online with time-tested academic team!


100 Major Works of Modern Creative Nonfiction

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  • An Introduction to Punctuation
  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

Essays , memoirs , autobiographies , biographies , travel writing , history, cultural studies, nature writing —all of these fit under the broad heading of creative nonfiction , and all are represented in this list of 100 major works of creative nonfiction published by British and American writers over the past 90 years or so. They're arranged alphabetically by author last name.

Recommended Creative Nonfiction

  • Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness" (1968)
  • James Agee, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (1941)
  • Martin Amis, "Experience" (1995)
  • Maya Angelou , "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (1970)
  • Russell Baker, "Growing Up" (1982)
  • James Baldwin , "Notes of a Native Son" (1963)
  • Julian Barnes, "Nothing to Be Frightened Of" (2008)
  • Alan Bennett, "Untold Stories" (2005)
  • Wendell Berry, "Recollected Essays" (1981)
  • Bill Bryson, "Notes From a Small Island" (1995)
  • Anthony Burgess, "Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess" (1987)
  • Joseph Campbell, "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" (1949)
  • Truman Capote , "In Cold Blood" (1965)
  • Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring" (1962)
  • Pat Conroy, "The Water Is Wide" (1972)
  • Harry Crews, "A Childhood: The Biography of a Place" (1978)
  • Joan Didion, "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction" (2006)
  • Joan Didion, "The Year of Magical Thinking" (2005)
  • Annie Dillard, "An American Childhood" (1987)
  • Annie Dillard, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" (1974)
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (2001)
  • Gretel Ehrlich, "The Solace of Open Spaces" (1986)
  • Loren Eiseley, "The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature" (1957)
  • Ralph Ellison, "Shadow and Act" (1964)
  • Nora Ephron, "Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women" (1975)
  • Joseph Epstein, "Snobbery: The American Version" (2002)
  • Richard P. Feynman, "The Feynman Lectures on Physics" (1964)
  • Shelby Foote, "The Civil War: A Narrative" (1974)
  • Ian Frazier, "Great Plains" (1989)
  • Paul Fussell, "The Great War and Modern Memory" (1975)
  • Stephen Jay Gould, "Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History" (1977)
  • Robert Graves, "Good-Bye to All That" (1929)
  • Alex Haley, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" (1965)
  • Pete Hamill, "A Drinking Life: A Memoir" (1994)
  • Ernest Hemingway , "A Moveable Feast" (1964)
  • Michael Herr, "Dispatches" (1977)
  • John Hersey, "Hiroshima" (1946)
  • Laura Hillenbrand, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption" (2010)
  • Edward Hoagland, "The Edward Hoagland Reader" (1979)
  • Eric Hoffer, "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements" (1951)
  • Richard Hofstadter, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" (1963)
  • Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, "Farewell to Manzanar" (1973)
  • Langston Hughes , "The Big Sea" (1940)
  • Zora Neale Hurston , "Dust Tracks on a Road" (1942)
  • Aldous Huxley, "Collected Essays" (1958)
  • Clive James, "Reliable Essays: The Best of Clive James" (2001)
  • Alfred Kazin, "A Walker in the City" (1951)
  • Tracy Kidder, "House" (1985)
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts" (1989)
  • Thomas Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1962)
  • William Least Heat-Moon, "Blue Highways: A Journey Into America" (1982)
  • Bernard Levin, "Enthusiasms" (1983)
  • Barry Lopez, "Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape" (1986)
  • David McCullough, "Truman" (1992)
  • Dwight Macdonald, "Against The American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture" (1962)
  • John McPhee, "Coming Into the Country" (1977)
  • Rosemary Mahoney, "Whoredom in Kimmage: The Private Lives of Irish Women" (1993)
  • Norman Mailer, "The Armies of the Night" (1968)
  • Peter Matthiessen, "The Snow Leopard" (1979)
  • H.L. Mencken, "A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing" (1949)
  • Joseph Mitchell, "Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories" (1992)
  • Jessica Mitford, "The American Way of Death" (1963)
  • N. Scott Momaday, "Names" (1977)
  • Lewis Mumford, "The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects" (1961)
  • Vladimir Nabokov, "Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited" (1967)
  • P.J. O'Rourke, "Parliament of Whores" (1991)
  • Susan Orlean, "My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere" (2004)
  • George Orwell , "Down and Out in Paris and London" (1933)
  • George Orwell, "Essays" (2002)
  • Cynthia Ozick, "Metaphor and Memory" (1989)
  • Robert Pirsig, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (1975)
  • Richard Rodriguez, "Hunger of Memory" (1982)
  • Lillian Ross, "Picture" (1952)
  • David Sedaris, "Me Talk Pretty One Day" (2000)
  • Richard Selzer, "Taking the World in for Repairs" (1986)
  • Zadie Smith, "Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays" (2009)
  • Susan Sontag, "Against Interpretation and Other Essays" (1966)
  • John Steinbeck, "Travels with Charley" (1962)
  • Studs Terkel, "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" (1970)
  • Lewis Thomas, "The Lives of a Cell" (1974)
  • E.P. Thompson, "The Making of the English Working Class" (1963; rev. 1968)
  • Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream" (1971)
  • James Thurber, "My Life and Hard Times" (1933)
  • Lionel Trilling, "The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society" (1950)
  • Barbara Tuchman, "The Guns of August" (1962)
  • John Updike, "Self-Consciousness" (1989)
  • Gore Vidal, "United States: Essays 1952–1992" (1993)
  • Sarah Vowell, "The Wordy Shipmates" (2008)
  • Alice Walker , "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose" (1983)
  • David Foster Wallace, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments" (1997)
  • James D. Watson, "The Double Helix" (1968)
  • Eudora Welty, "One Writer's Beginnings" (1984)
  • E.B. White , "Essays of E.B. White" (1977)
  • E.B. White, "One Man's Meat" (1944)
  • Isabel Wilkerson, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" (2010)
  • Tom Wolfe, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" (1968)
  • Tom Wolfe, "The Right Stuff" (1979)
  • Tobias Wolff, "This Boy's Life: A Memoir" (1989)
  • Virginia Woolf , "A Room of One's Own" (1929)
  • Richard Wright, "Black Boy" (1945)
  • Creative Nonfiction
  • Direct Objects in English Grammar
  • detail (composition)
  • What Is a Personal Essay (Personal Statement)?
  • List (Grammar and Sentence Styles)
  • How to Define Autobiography
  • What You Should Know About Travel Writing
  • Examples of Images in Poetry, Fiction, and Nonfiction
  • Point of View in Grammar and Composition
  • polysyndeton (style and rhetoric)
  • Biographies: The Stories of Humanity
  • Writers on Reading
  • A Brief Overview of American Literary Periods
  • Classic British and American Essays and Speeches
  • What is a Familiar Essay in Composition?

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  • 10 Famous American Authors and Their Best Essays Ever Written

10 Famous American Authors Who Introduced World’s Top Essays

10 Famous American Authors Who Introduced World’s Top Essays

What comes to your mind when you try to recall famous American writers? What comes to your mind when you try to know how to write an essay ? The country has introduced several unique genres and interesting topics to the world, stressing the important role of revolution in the history of every nation. We have developed the list of 10 famous American authors, including their famous essays and lessons learned from their writing.

Writing is not a piece of cake. If you have troubles with your school or college homework, do not hesitate to contact professional academic writers online!

How to Create Powerful Essays: 10 Famous American Writers List!

Charles d’ambrosio.

If you want to become popular one day to see your essays published in The New Yorker, Orphans, The Stranger, or A Public Space, observe the works written by Charles D’Ambrosio to absorb valuable lessons. We would recommend starting from “Documents” and “Loitering” essays.

Lessons learned:

  • Loss and hardships are worth writing about.
  • When you focus on things that make people sad (hate, injustice, depression, war, death), the readers would appreciate your short story/essay for stressing the value of life.
  • Point to the importance of past events in the life of every human.
  • Do not hesitate to share your personal notes, essays, and documents (in this context, documents mean diaries and other important outtakes, which reveals the nature of their owners.

Do you need more hints? Ask these expert writers from the field of academic, creative, & business writing to help by creating an inspiring literary piece!

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin belongs to the category of the famous American writers with democratic views. He did not release many novels or books; Franklin has established a lot of short stories and essays dedicated to the free, independent land. Since 1776, the moods of the American authors changed to more optimistic and confident. The main purpose of Franklin in his essays was to utilize economic benefits and flee oppressive governmental regimes.

Do you need the most distinguished works of Franklin? They contain “ Advice on the Choice of a Mistress” ,  “The Art of Procuring Pleasant Dreams,” and “The Temple of Learning, The Whistle.”

  • Democratic sensibility remains a popular thing to discuss.
  • The American nation is an exceptional ethnic group made of every nationality in the world, all possible customs & traditions, and based on the equality, justice, and freedom.
  • The Constitution of the United States is a powerful weapon to discuss.
  • The topic of the changing generations will never lose its relevance.

Cynthia Ozick

Along with Cormac McCarthy & Don DeLillo, the woman is the US best living fiction story author. By today, Cynthia Ozick has published seven essay collections. She created several works of short fiction and inspiring novels. She does not have a certain field of interest. Ozick likes talking about love, hate, life, death, the American nation, future, and other things preferred by the modern famous American writers, but she covers different topics, without limiting her interests. There is one subject we can frequently notice in her stories. Ozick loves the idea of the Jewish American lens.

The best essays of all time include her “Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body,” “The Shawl,” and Envy” on the list, and students can learn the following lessons:

  • The tendency to favor the Jewish American lens instead of attacking it.
  • Creating a short story with the next characteristics: self-consciousness, sharpness, wittiness, clarity, and life wisdom. Don’t be afraid to seem smarter than people around!

If you need more examples of great essays to study, the best place to visit is the online writing service, which offers FREE paper samples .

Roger Ebert

If you have a passion for writing argumentative, persuasive, or critical essays/book reviews, you should find and read the best critical works of Roger Ebert. Watch the popular TV show “Sneak Previews”. Roger Ebert is different from many contemporary American fellow-writers who focus on the dark sides of our world, often praising the depressive moods. Ebert prefers courage, erudition, humor, and humanism. This enthusiastic writer is capable of reflecting the matter of life & death in the most optimistic light.

To understand the writer better, read three critical essay collections. The names are “The Great Movies” (2002), “The Great Movies II” (2005), and “The Great Movies III” (2010); pay attention to his most popular work titled “Go Gentle into That Good Night.”

  • Never give up; there is always a way out!
Ebert’s works full of life & optimism can be described in a known phrase said by John Keating in “Dead Poets Society:” “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
  • It is important to write more critical essays to become interesting to people.
  • Watch more movie to have several inspiring ideas to discuss in your literary works.
  • Try to cover the never-ending topic of death from the different perspective. Never stop praising this life by pointing to its main values!

Zadie Smith

Her primary achievement, which predetermined Smith’s further faith as an author, was the degree from the New York University’s Creative Writing Program . She became the professor of the University. In the United States, the novel written by Zadie Smith, “White Teeth,” joined the Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels created since 1923. Smith is a brave author. She may condemn things like disrespect of literature, treatment of art in the modern world, and criticize authors who do not fulfill their literary obligations. This extraordinary female author prefers writing novels.

Her most famous essay is “Fail Better,” full of the following lessons:

  • Never generalize things with the help of “all” or similar words – narrow down, take a part of the topic to make up a specific subject.
  • There is no such thing as a perfect novel.
  • A writing style is the result of the unique personality of each writer + the way this person views and understands the world.
  • Avoid cliché – breathe a new life into your writing!

F. Scott Fitzgerald

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

In Hollywood, Fitzgerald did his best. He developed scenarios & scripts for the future films. His popular “Gatsby” has been filmed several times, having the brilliant modern version starring Leo DiCaprio as the last successful attempt to interpret the way Fitzgerald viewed our world. Not all of his works were good; “Tender Is the Night” did not obtain wide recognition. The author became overwhelmed and depressed during the last years of life. The most known list of his essays includes "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and "The Camel's Back." Lessons Learned:

  • Love is the only thing, which matters in the life of each person.
  • American society is full of snobs who underestimate the role of love, undervalue the significance of friendship, and do not appreciate this life the way they should.
  • Money has no value when you are lonely.

Edward Hoagland

Hoagland did not want to cover dirty, filthy topics, so he decided to focus on describing the beauty of nature instead of discussing the way society changes and its never-ending conflicts. The list of top famous essays written by Edward Hoagland includes “The Big Cats,” “The Soul of the Tiger,” “Why This Extra Violence,” and “A World Worth Saving and Christmas Observed.” Lessons learned:

  • Focus on depicting the beauty of nature.
  • If you write about the human qualities, develop one short story dedicated to two strongest feelings that make us humans – love & friendship.
  • The world is full of violence; avoid going deep into this topic to give people hope.

Ernest Hemingway

Children will misunderstand the words of the author. It is better to start reading his literary works at the teen or grown-up age to understand Hemingway’s main ideas. Hemingway did not focus on the complicated, strange topics. He wrote about the things men love (e.g., bullfighting, fishing, hunting, and friendship). Papa Hemingway’s list of famous essays is made of the following titles: “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Sun Also Rises,” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Lessons learned:

  • Symbolism is the best way to interpret your philosophical thoughts.
  • Try establishing such features as the lean writing style, original sense of humor, and try showing the life based on your personal experience.
  • Avoid literary allusions.

Virginia Woolf

The top short stories created by this known female essayist involve “Death of the Moth,” “Eclipse of the Heart,” and “Devil in False Colors.” You may have watched a film “Hours” based on Woolf’s story. Her essays teach several lessons.

  • Write how important the life is through the lens of survival & evanescence.
  • Apply simple comparisons to make the writing style lucid.
  • Do not hesitate to change from the optimistic voice to melancholic moods in the middle of your essay; the life is black-and-white, and it makes no sense sharing only positive/negative moments.

Edgar Allan Poe

Poe is listed among the cofounders & developers of the short story & essay genres, providing innovative ideas such as making stories gloomy, dark, and mysterious. He developed many popular detective/science fiction works. Poe focused on the things like spirit, organic development, the significance of art, and motivation/inspiration. Start reading his “Philosophy of Furniture,” “The Raven,” or “The Black Cat” to be acquainted with his works. Lessons learned:

  • There is nothing scary about being gloomy in your writing.
  • People like reading about things they find dark and mysterious; it makes them value life more and start believing in the things they can’t see with the naked eye.

How to Become the Author of World’s Famous Essays?

We hope this list of the best American authors, their top preferred literary works, and the lessons shared between the lines of their stories would help with your writing career. Do you have any questions? If you need a professional writing help, the best thing you can do is to place an order with the time-tested and trusted US/UK academic service , which offers affordable prices!

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45+ Quotes About Writing from Famous Writers

February 22, 2021

No matter how passionate you are about it, writing can be difficult. Whenever you’re struggling with writer’s block, rejection, competition, insecurity, or any of the countless obstacles that wordsmiths encounter daily, it can help to get encouragement from those who have successfully overcome the very same challenges.

So, whether you’re up against a creative wall or just looking for some inspiration to start your next project, these quotes about writing from writers themselves are sure to be welcome reading! 

Inspirational Quotes from Writers  

Trying to get psyched up to sit down and write? It can be reassuring to hear the words of literary greats celebrating a few of the very best parts of being a writer. 

1. “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

2. “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly—they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

3. “Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” — Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

4. “What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing

5. “Stories aren't made of language: they're made of something else... perhaps they're made of life.” — Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling

6. “There is no greater power on this earth than story.” — Libba Bray, The Diviners

7. “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” — Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

8. “We turn to stories and pictures and music because they show us who and what and why we are, and what our relationship is to life and death, what is essential, and what, despite the arbitrariness of falling beams, will not burn.” — Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

9. “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here.” — Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

10. “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

11. “First, you write for yourself... always, to make sense of experience and the world around you. It’s one of the ways I stay sane. Our stories, our books, our films are how we cope with the random trauma-inducing chaos of life as it plays.” — Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Encouraging Quotes for Writers  

Some of the most famous quotes from writers are about how ridiculously hard writing can be—and why you should rise to the challenge and do it anyway. 

12. “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” — Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

13. “And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right.” — Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

14. “If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

15. “The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” — Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

16. “The mind has plenty of ways of preventing you from writing, and paralysing self-consciousness is a good one. The only thing to do is ignore it, and remember what Vincent van Gogh said in one of his letters about the painter's fear of the blank canvas—the canvas, he said, is far more afraid of the painter.” — Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling

17. “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” — Sol Stein, Stein on Writing: A Master Editor Shares His Craft, Techniques, and Strategies

18. “Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing

19. “Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.” — Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Quotes About the Writing Process

From writers who know the drill, these quotes offer valuable insights and practical advice on the craft of writing, and the discipline and rigor it requires. 

20. “Examine every word you put on paper. You'll find a surprising number that don't serve any purpose.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Audio Collection

21. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” — William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style

22. “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.” — Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

23. “People who think that grammar is just a collection of rules and restrictions are wrong. If you get to like it, grammar reveals the hidden meaning of history, hides disorder and abandonment, links things and brings opposites together. Grammar is a wonderful way of organising the world how you'd like it to be.” — Delphine de Vigan, No and Me

24. “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts.” — Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

25. “Whenever I'm asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you're being told.” — John Green, An Abundance of Katherines

26. “A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write.” — Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

27. “I read and feel that same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself.” — Patti Smith, M Train

28. “Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.” — Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

29. “If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

30. “The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Audio Collection

31. “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” — Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

32. “One writes out of one thing only—one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” — James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

33. “We cannot choose where to start and stop. Our stories are the tellers of us.” — Chris Cleave, Little Bee

34. “A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders.” — John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Funny Quotes About Writing

Sometimes, when you’re in the thick of a third, fourth, or fifth edit and ready to throw in the towel, what you need most is a good laugh, courtesy of someone who understands your plight. 

35. “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” — Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

36. “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons… All they do is show you've been to college.” — Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

37. “Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter anymore, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right just before they go on to the next one. When they're done, they're done." — Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

38. “I’m sure I could write endlessly about nothing. If only I had nothing to say.” — Patti Smith, M Train

39. “You want to tell a story? Grow a heart. Grow two. Now, with the second heart, smash the first one into bits. Gross, right? A bloody pulpy liquid mess. Look at it, try to make sense of it. Realize you can't. Because there is no sense.” — Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

40. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Quotes About Writers

Many artists draw much of their inspiration from introspection, and writers are no different. These quotes feature sayings about writers from the ultimate authority: writers themselves.  

41. “If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.” — Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm

42. “Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon

43. “A storyteller makes up things to help other people; a liar makes up things to help himself.” — Daniel Wallace, The Kings and Queens of Roam

44. “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” — Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

45. “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” — E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

46. “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” — Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations

47. “We never sit anything out. We are cups, quietly and constantly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” — Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Becoming a writer is especially difficult if you don’t know where to start. To help, we’ve rounded up advice from several authors on starting out as a writer. Take a look at our infographic below to learn what these wordsmiths think you should do to kick off your writing career.

Click to view a full sized writing quotes graphic .

35+ Inspirational Quotes About Hope

95+ c.s. lewis quotes about love, life, faith, bravery, and friendship, 55+ audre lorde quotes every activist should know, 70+ memorable sylvia plath quotes about life and love.

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Zadie Smith during a reading in Cologne, in 2014.

10 inspiring female writers you need to read

As a response to Gay Talese’s failure to name any inspirational female writers , we asked our readers to explain why and how these authors changed their lives

  • ‘Maybe he needs to read more widely’: authors respond to Gay Talese

I t is hard to believe that this piece is still necessary. We long for the day when we don’t have to single out authors – or anyone of any walk of life, for that matter – for their gender, but here we are again. Last weekend, author and New Journalism father Gay Talese was asked to name women writers who had inspired him at a Boston University event, to which he answered: “None.” He reportedly went on to say that “educated women don’t want to hang out with anti-social people,” according to what journalist Amy Littlefield, who was in the audience, told the Washington Post .

Undoubtedly, the hashtag #womengaytaleseshouldread started bubbling on Twitter, and plenty of suggestions were made – here is a tiny selection from authors :

Women writers who inspired me: Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, PL Travers, Margaret Storey, Ursula LeGuin, Baroness Orczy, Diana Wynne Jones — Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) April 5, 2016
More women writers who inspired me: Wilmar Shiras, Shirley Jackson, Lisa Tuttle, Mary Shelley, Anne Rice, Scheherazade, Judith Merrill... — Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) April 5, 2016
Even More Women Writers Who Inspired Me: Joanna Russ, Hope Mirrlees, Joy Chant, Angela Carter, Madeleine L’Engle, James Tiptree Jr, Kit Reed — Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) April 5, 2016
And Now, An Incomplete List of Women Writers Who Inspire Me: https://t.co/mxrYOFFE5r pic.twitter.com/7H8JaWgTgQ — John Scalzi (@scalzi) April 4, 2016
I hope no one expected Talese, who doesn't wear jeans, to think well of women. IDGAF about his opinions. — roxane gay (@rgay) April 2, 2016

We have celebrated female authors on the Books site before, but we contacted some of our readers and asked them to tell us which female writers shaped their lives. Here are 10 of the most mentioned authors, in no particular order, and what our readers had to say about them:

1. Doris Lessing (1919 - 2013)

Doris Lessing working at a typewriter, circa 1950.

In my twenties, I was a foreigner in London. Reading Lessing’s subtly brilliant short story Out of the Fountain, I had that Keatsian feeling of a new world coming into view. As I read my way into the books of this fellow exile, her range and depth emerged – from psychological portraits in granular detail, to vast explorations of cataclysm and survival. Class, sex, old age, childhood, the inner workings of politics, the wilder shores of the psyche – she embraced complexity and got under the skin of the human condition with piercing acuity. This was writing from the frontiers of experience and utterly mind-stretching. The two landmarks, for me, are Shikasta , her monumental portrait of humanity, and The Four-Gated City (part of the Children of Violence series), Lessing’s visionary mapping of London and the no-man’s-land between psychosis and sanity – this book opened doors for me. Her understanding of resilience and transformation in the midst of upheaval is profound. In our obfuscating times, we continue to need that eye. – barbkay .

Start with: The Golden Notebook – “Hailed as one of the key texts of the women’s movement of the 1960s, this study of a divorced single mother’s search for personal and political identity remains a defiant, ambitious tour de force,” wrote Robert McCrum.

Further reading:

  • “ I was the cuckoo in the nest” – Writer Jenny Diski tells the story of how she lived with Lessing as a teenager
  • My hero: Doris Lessing by Margaret Drabble – “Doris would invite herself to lunch with me in Hampstead, when the mood took her. I never dared to say no”
  • Doris Lessing in her own words on the Guardian books podcast
  • ‘She helped change the way women are perceived, and perceive themselves’ – by Guardian Review editor Lisa Allardice

2. Toni Morrison (born 1931)

Toni Morrison in a 1982 image.

When we asked readers for their favourite books by women, many replied with “anything and everything written by Toni Morrison.” Here are but a few.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the best book I have ever read. A horror story in every sense. I re-read it as soon as I had finished it. Chilling, difficult, painful, but absolutely brilliant. – afiercebadrabbit
Beloved. It’s odd reading a book at which you are simultaneously repulsed at how you feel and yet you understand exactly why you feel that way. She’s a terrific writer. – getebi
I love every word she’s written, with Beloved at the top of my list. I’m also sad to see few writers from non-Anglo Saxon cultures listed as there are so many superb writers from other traditions. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is my favourite book of all time, and I also adore Elif Shafak , whose fiction and essays as well as her talks are outstandingly fresh and insightful. Read The Flea Palace and The Bastard of Istanbul . – spraos

Start with: Beloved – “If Beloved represents the terrible pain and suffering of a people whose very mother-love is warped by torture into murder, she is no thin allegory or shrill tract. This is a huge, generous, humane and gripping novel,” wrote A S Byatt

  • ‘I’m writing for black people … I don’t have to apologise’ – interview by Hermione Hoby
  • Tea with Toni Morrison , by SL Bridglal
  • Toni Morrison on her novels: ‘I think goodness is more interesting’
  • Her 1993 Nobel lecture

3. Ursula K Le Guin (born 1929)

The Earthsea trilogy is absolutely magnificent: poetry, wisdom, sadness, satisfaction, fantasy, realism. Far better dragons than Tolkien’s or George RR Martin’s, far better written – the whole shebang, except for humour. But then, Tolstoy didn’t go in for jokes much either. She taught me that there is nothing wrong with life or with death: the one is to be delighted in, the other accepted – Daniel Mccormick in Coatbridge, Scotland
The Earthsea books by Ursula K Le Guin, which as an adult I find have greater moral depth than Tolkien and are better written and more focused than George RR Martin’s. – QuesoManchego The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin has been something of a personal bible since I was a child. – punkmonkey

Ursula Le Guin during an interview in San Francisco in 1985.

Start with: The Earthsea series or The Left Hand of Darkness – “they are some of the very few titles which I would be confident enough to name as true classics, novels that will endure well beyond our lifetimes,” wrote Alison Flood

  • My inspiration: SF Said on Ursula Le Guin
  • Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’
  • ‘Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here’ – her fantastic 1987 letter, responding to a request asking her to write a blurb for a science fiction anthology that contained no female voices

4. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

To the Lighthouse , The Waves , Orlando , Jacob’s Room . Virginia Woolf. Because you can taste every word. – Lope82 Mrs Dalloway , elegant and lyrical stream of consciousness that I prefer to Joyce. – alloleo

Virginia Woolf.

I would like to put in a word for Virginia Woolf, and especially for the under-appreciated Orlando, where the long-lived protagonist starts out as a young nobleman before becoming a wife and mother. The book runs from Elizabethan England to 1928 and says a lot about the position of women while being both clever and funny. Perhaps Woolf is a bit too “literary” for some tastes, but Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse , The Waves and A Room of One’s Own must surely speak to many. I think (hope) she will come to be recognised as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. – JackSchofield
To The Lighthouse, it had a huge impact on me when I first read it. It really made me consider and reconsider how I think and find direction. I loved Lily Briscoe and that devastatingly matter-of-fact middle chapter/section that splits the novel. There are so many books by women that I love, but TTL is my favourite. – daveportivo
Pretty much all of Woolf, whom I read voraciously during the late 90s and still dip into now and then for a quick dose of writerly inspiration. Hard to pick any one favorite, fiction or non-fiction. But A Room of One’s Own changed my life.– Jenny Bhatt

Start with: Mrs Dalloway – “ Woolf’s great novel makes a day of party preparations the canvas for themes of lost love, life choices and mental illness,” wrote Robert McCrum

  • Portraits of Virginia Woolf: here, the true face of the modern writer
  • Virginia Woolf should live on, but not because of her death , by Holly Williams
  • Woolf it down : on how the Bloomsbury set shows they were almost as obsessed with eating as with art

5. Clarice Lispector (1920 - 1977)

If a writer such as Clarice Lispector is to be considered significant from a feminist point of view, then it would probably be due to the absence of anything in her work or life which could be said to resemble the stereotype of the “Lady Novelist”. As well as living like a sort of secular hermit, her writing is elusive and mystical, being much less concerned with plot and character than with abstract ideas, such as The Apple in the Dark ’s consideration of the nature of artistic creation or Agua Viva ’s obsessive focus on trying to isolate single moments in time. Although she could write movingly about women’s experiences (especially in The Hour of the Star ), her almost stubborn unworldliness otherwise gives the lie to the awful old cliché that women are somehow deficient in considering the abstract, and shows that women are as unrestricted in subject matter as men. She really is one of the oddest and most individual writers I’ve read. –Jacob Howarth in Oxford

Clarice Lispector

I heard of her just a month ago, from a Korean American friend. All I can say about her at this stage is that she knows me better than I do. I am reading The Complete Stories published 2015, which is full of lovely and shocking surprises. I finish one of her stories with a huge grin that lasts all day, another story may leave me arguing with myself ... each one is having an profound impact on me. She inspires me more than any other author in this second half of my life. Her uniquely fluid style reveals a mind so perspicacious, so permissively poetic … and utterly radical. As a feisty feminist, I find peace in Lispector’s reveries; she defies convention at every level by writing from deep within her psyche, embracing human flaws and foibles as perfectly natural. Her trademark self-acceptance is so refreshingly robust that I have found myself at times interrupting my reading with whoops of awe and admiration for her freedom of thought and spirit. –Mars Drum

Start with: The Hour of the Star – all the Brazillian author’s talents and eccentricities come together in her most famous, final novella about a poor typist in Rio, says Colm Tóibín

  • A brief survey of the short story, part 56 : “This darkly addictive Brazilian writer is more concerned with perceptions of objects than conventional plot structures”, wrote Chris Power
  • The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector , by Benjamin Moser for the New Yorker
  • Brazil’s Virginia Woolf , by Brenda Cronin for the Wall Street Journal

6. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (born 1977)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’s Americanah has moved me like no other in recent memory. I would describe it as transformational because it provided an insight into the reality of what it means to be a young, ambitious, highly intelligent, sometimes single black woman in contemporary America. It’s an honest book about race, identity and the constant longing and nostalgia one feels for this metaphorical place called home. I was also moved by the story because it touchingly describes the loving relationship between the two central characters, showcasing that neither space nor time can erase love. We usually go back to the same desires and preferences we had as 15-year-olds, and Americanah captures this sentiment. Moreover, it is a transformational book because it portrays Nigeria as a place that is mythical, marvellous, chaotic and slightly dangerous, yet also wildly fascinating, with a magnetic power to attract its brightest emigrés back to its shores. Reading this has made me realise that some of the most powerful narratives in contemporary fiction have been written by young, highly educated female African writers, who are tired of the old clichés frequently bandied around about Africa. Ngozi Adichie is a new, powerful and incredibly talented voice; her novel Americanah is the expression of a different African tale, of a continent and its people that have many more magnetic stories to tell, as well as critiques to raise about the so-called enlightened West. — beograd

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, photographed in 2007.

Start with: Americanah – “a superb dissection of race in the UK and the USA,” wrote Elizabeth Day

  • ‘I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist’ – her world-famous TED talk
  • ‘Don’t we all write about love? When men do it, it’s a political comment. When women do it, it’s just a love story’ – interview by Emma Brockes
  • Every 16-year-old in Sweden will receive copy of We Should All Be Feminists

7. Margaret Atwood (born 1939)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. She predicted all that is happening today in that book. – shofmann
Everything about it is scarily easy to imagine. Her descriptions of how women began to be punished for abortions reminds me of legislation happening right now in the USA, for example. – getebi

Start with: The Handmaid’s Tale – “Atwood’s chilling tale of a concubine in an oppressive future America is more vital than ever,” wrote Charlotte Newman

  • Haunted by The Handmaid’s Tale - Atwood on the legacy of her iconic novel
  • Margaret Atwood webchat – her answers to your questions
  • ‘I set myself a schedule of three to five pages a day’ – Atwood on writing

8. Zadie Smith (born 1975)

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Could read it over and over again. – Sarah Hassam

Zadie Smith, photographed at the Edinburgh books festival in 2001.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is absolutely brilliant. Smith is often categorized first by race and gender and thus is never considered the peer of other modern literary fiction writers like Franzen and Rushdie, but she easily beats them at their own style. – emason1121

Start with: White Teeth , a novel on the lives of various multicultural families living in London; “an audaciously assured contribution to this process of staring into the mirror,” wrote Caryl Philipps

  • Fail better : “What makes a good writer? Is writing an expression of self, or, as TS Eliot argued, ‘an escape from personality’?” Thanks to Jenny Bhatt and MildGloster for pointing us towards this 2007 essay.
  • Windows on the Will : Smith’s essay about watching the new Charlie Kaufman film Anomalisa , and Arthur Schopenhauer, was recently published on the New York Review of Books. “I went to see Anomalisa, largely because of how interesting Smith made it seem,” shared MildGloster .

9. Elena Ferrante (born 1943)

Of the many beautifully wrought themes explored in Elena Ferrante’s masterful Neapolitan series , one that especially speaks to me, as a woman, is the question of what it means to attain presence versus what it means to disappear. Lila and Lenú, the central characters, each struggles to not disappear , despite the forces of class, history, and violence conspiring against them as women. Each tries to avoid what Lila loathingly describes as the problem of “dissolving margins,” when “the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.” Reading Ferrante has led me to wonder: How many times have I, as a woman, faced being erased – in relationships, in career, in the larger social order? How many far less-privileged women, in hostile corners of the world, face the threat of vanishing completely, dissolving into the boundaries of others without a trace? –Veronica Majerol, New York, NY

Start with: The Days of Abandonment , a short novel Ferrante wrote before her famous Neapolitan series – a great taster, and brilliant in its own right.

  • Elena Ferrante: the global literary sensation nobody knows
  • Elena Ferrante: ‘Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing ’ – an interview by Deborah Orr

10. Angela Carter (1940 - 1992)

When I was at university I saw someone give a paper on Angela Carter’s dystopian masterpiece The Passion of New Eve. It was probably another year or so before I got my hands on a copy but I was not disappointed. The premise alone – a man captured by radical feminists and surgically transformed into a woman so that he may bear the messiah – was enough to pique my interest, but it was Carter’s hallucinatory prose and rich symbolism that made this novel unforgettable. – elbartonfink

Start with: Nights at the Circus – the story of winged circus performer Sophie Fevvers’s travels through 19th-century Europe, that was named the best-ever winner of Britain’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black award .

English novelist Angela Carter sitting on a park bench in Paris in 1988.

  • Angela Carter: a portrait in postcards
  • A brief survey of the short story: Angela Carter , by Chris Power
  • Femme fatale : Angela Carter’s subversive take on traditional fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber is as shocking today as when the collection first appeared in 1979, wrote Helen Simpson

We are painfully aware that this list could go forever. So, please, add more authors to the conversation by leaving your thoughts in the comments.

  • Doris Lessing
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ursula K Le Guin

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List of famous essayists, with photos, bios, and other information when available. Who are the top essayists in the world? This includes the most prominent essayists, living and dead, both in America and abroad. This list of notable essayists is ordered by their level of prominence, and can be sorted for various bits of information, such as where these historic essayists were born and what their nationality is. The people on this list are from different countries, but what they all have in common is that they're all renowned essayists.

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Tufts alumna Shasta Clinch

“Despite my love of children's books, I never as an adult pictured myself as a writer,” says Shasta (Jean-Mary) Clinch, A05. “But because I trusted the editor and [writing a biography of Kamala Harris] was a cool opportunity, I didn’t feel like I should pass it up. “ Photo: Courtesy of Shasta Clinch

Writing Books for Young Readers that Celebrate Famous Black Americans

Shasta Clinch chronicles the lives of leaders like Kamala Harris, Jordan Peele, and Amanda Gorman 

Shasta (Jean-Mary) Clinch, A05, is my favorite bookworm, and has been ever since our senior year together in Wren Hall. She’s obsessed with great storytelling—no matter the source. I fondly recall a phone call 15 years ago when we were chatting about the latest novel she could not put down. She told me,   “It’s about a teenage vampire named Edward.”  

A managing editor in the children’s book division of Random House, Shasta had snagged copies of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and shipped one to my door, sure that I would love it, too. As ever, she was right. From board books for babies to obscure autobiographies for the most discerning readers, she never discriminates against a good story or delightful turn of phrase. Over the years, that outlook has served her—and those who know her—very well.    

While her husband remains at what is now Penguin Random House (the pair’s office party meet-cute is chick lit paradise), after a decade in her role, Shasta left in 2015 to build a freelance business as a proofreader and copy editor beyond the children’s section. Her work spans the stacks, from Great British Bakeoff contestant cookbooks to young adult romance novels to erotic tell-alls.   

Today, she’s an author in her own right. Her reading primers and children’s books focus on the positive impact of famous Black Americans—the type of stories she wishes she’d had as a child. Making good on her degree in English, Shasta has authored four biographies so far, with more to come. We recently caught up to talk shop and celebrate all she’s done since graduating from Tufts.   

As your friend, I have given your books to so many children I know—not just because it’s you, but because they are beautifully written portraits of cultural game changers: Kamala Harris was your first biography. When you were growing up, were there books like yours for you to read?  

Shasta Clinch : There were always biographies of important Black figures, but I was drawn to fiction and those characters of color were missing. I’m glad to see that inclusion today and even more biographies, not just book after book of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr.    

A cover of the book Kamala is Speaking, which features a photo of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris

Shasta Clinch’s first book was Kamala is Speaking, a 2021 Step into Reading title about the vice president of the United States.

Books have always been important to you.    

They have—especially children’s books. They are the books I always return to. I still read children’s books, middle grade, YA. These books are magical. And now I get to share them with my kids.  

How did you get from Tufts to Random House?  

Tufts has a great career center. I somehow ended up at a recruiting consortium for a bunch of publishing houses. It was like speed dating. I interviewed for a summer program at Random House and didn’t get it. But they liked me, and I had a contact in HR, so when a job came up for a Managing Editorial Assistant in the children’s department—my dream—I had a job lined up at graduation.   

What are some of the books you’re proudest of working on while at Random House?   

As a managing editor, I managed the life of a book from acquisition by the editor all the way to publication. At any given moment, I was working on about 100 books at different points in the schedule. Barack Obama's picture book was really cool not only because it was Barack Obama, but also because it was a secret. And the secret books are always awesome because a little-known fact is that I could make a book disappear.   

How do you make the president disappear?   

Our audit systems at Random House automatically fed to external sellers: Amazon, Barnes and Noble. But there was a button we could press that made sure the book was hidden from everyone . And because only the editor, designer, production manager, and I knew about it, I had this brief, cool power to manage this important book and make it disappear. I couldn’t even track it online—I had to write everything down so nobody could find out the details.   

And then burn the evidence?   

I should have kept it in a scrapbook!    

On the other side of the spectrum, one thing people might not know is that when authors sign on for trilogies, they often run far behind schedule and sometimes even have to come into the office to write. And if it’s a 1,000-page book in a series, like Christopher Paolini’s four-book The Inheritance Cycle , I had to divide those into chunks of hundreds of pages that would all be on different schedules and married up at the end. It’s really intense but super satisfying to see it in the store.    

When the last book in Paolini’s series was finally published, he said to me, “You are like a general. And now I really understand what a managing editor does.” That felt really nice because it's not a role that's very visible.   

The cover of the book Black Voices on Race: Jordan Peele, which features a photo of Jordan Peele

For the Black Voices on Race series, Shasta Clinch has written books on Jordan Peele, Toni Morrison, and Amanda Gorman.

But now you are visible. You’re the front-facing talent! How did that come about?    

A former colleague of mine was looking for an author for a Kamala Harris book right after she got elected, and it needed a very fast turnaround. She also thought it was important to have a woman of color write the book.    

Did you feel intimidated?    

Oh, absolutely. First of all, despite my love of children's books, I never as an adult pictured myself as a writer. But because I trusted the editor and it was a cool opportunity, I didn't feel like I should pass it up. I still don’t feel like “a writer.”    

You’ve always excelled at following directions. What were the instructions to write Kamala Is Speaking ?   

This was a level two Step Into Reading book for early readers. So it was my job to make sure I used only a certain number of words on a page, used basic vocabulary, short sentences, simple stories, and words less than two syllables—with the exception of her title, “vice pre-si-dent.” I read the junior version of her biography, her autobiography, and did a lot of online research. That it was a biography was helpful as far as the storyline. If it had been fiction, I don’t know what I would have done!   

How did it feel to see it in print?    

I was thrilled. I sent it to my parents, and my dad said that my name was too small (laughs). It’s still very surreal. I get self-conscious talking about it, and I think there is a little bit of impostor syndrome.   

But you followed up with three more.   

I am on the Editorial Freelancer Association contact board, and this company found me. They had seen my book and said they were working on a new series called Black Voices on Race. They said the name Jordan Peele and I was in. After Jordan, I got to pick two more, so I chose Toni Morrison and Amanda Gorman.    

What’s next?    

A Little Golden Book about LeBron James that’s coming out in Fall 2024. I did a lot of photo research—like, I found a picture of him and his mom, him on his elementary school basketball team—and got to pitch those. I’m also working on a book about Juneteenth, for which, as a Haitian American, I don’t have the same history to draw from. But I’m excited to learn about this holiday and feel honored to tell its story.  

Small squid with bioluminescent light coming off their bodies. Explorer Edie Widder, J73, sheds light on the world’s fascinating and fragile ocean creatures in her book Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea

Exploring the Amazing Life and Lights of the Ocean Depths

January 6, 2023

Jimmy Buffett’s hangover hit ‘Margaritaville’ made him a mogul

famous writers essays

No one knows the coordinates of the mythical “Margaritaville,” but the real-word origins of Jimmy Buffett’s most famous song began at a Mexican restaurant in Texas and ended with a car crash in Key West.

“Margaritaville” would become not only Buffett’s biggest hit but the cornerstone of a lucrative branding empire that included restaurants, resorts, housewares, a Broadway musical and retirement communities. Buffett, who according to Forbes achieved billionaire status this year, died Friday at the age of 76.

Before he achieved fame, fortune and the devotion of his loyal followers, known as “Parrotheads,” Buffett was a nearly 30-year-old musician living in Key West, performing gigs and trying to move past the disappointment of his early musical career as a country singer. In 1976, after a night playing a club in Austin, Buffett nursed his morning hangover with a girlfriend over burritos and cold margaritas before she drove him to the airport for a final goodbye.

As Buffett would recount in interviews over the years, he pulled out his guitar at the gate and began strumming the hook, writing most of the song in about five minutes. (Buffett told the New York Post in 2018 that he initially planned to call it “Wasting Away Again in Austin, Texasville”)

A car wreck on the road ahead delayed Buffett’s drive back home to the Keys, putting a little more time between him and that first round of breakup margaritas in Austin.

“There was a wreck on the 7-Mile Bridge,” Buffett said in a 2020 interview on the Bobby Bones radio show. “I wrote the end of the song while waiting in traffic.”

He finished the song at home and soon performed it at the Key West bar where he worked.

“People seemed to like it,” he recalled.

The barflies’ warm reaction to “Margaritaville” was just a tiny sip of the success the song would go to achieve.

Buffett was finishing his album, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” so he added “Margaritaville” to the track list. When they were released in early 1977, the album and the single became Buffett’s breakthrough hits. “Margaritaville” peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite his prolific career that included nearly 30 studio albums, it remains Buffett’s only song to crack the Billboard Top 10.

Within a few years of its debut, “Margaritaville” had transcended the status of hit song and traded Billboard chart positions for a registered trademark symbol.

In 1983, more than six years after “Margaritaville” became a hit, Buffett sued Chi-Chi’s after learning the Mexican restaurant chain had copyrighted the name for a drink special.

As Buffett recounted to The Washington Post in 1998:

“I discovered Chi Chi’s Restaurant chain had copyrighted the word Margaritaville! I had to reach a settlement with Chi Chi’s to use the name of a song I’d written! Then I found a woman in Hawaii had copyrighted ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’! I was being ripped off everywhere because I wasn’t paying attention. There was a demand there, and everyone was exploiting it but me! So I started taking care of business.”

After settling the lawsuit against Chi-Chi’s, Buffett began branding assets with the Margaritaville name. By the time Buffett died, his Margaritaville brand graced cruises, resorts, senior living facilities, apparel and bar and pantry products. This was in addition to non-Margaritaville entities such as Buffett’s children’s books and Coral Reefer marijuana line.

The embrace of “Margaritaville” as a dreamy, escapist fantasy is all the more impressive when contrasted against the song’s meaning; Buffett has acknowledged that he was hung over and in the midst of a dissolving relationship when he wrote it.

For all its marimba and steel drum lightness, “Margaritaville” is a beach bummer: the story of a man so hopelessly lost — metaphorically and otherwise — that he loses track of an entire season and winds up with nothing to show for it but a tattoo he can’t remember getting. In the elusive Margaritaville, your flip-flops break and you can’t walk the beach without slicing your foot on something sharp.

But for legions of fans, Buffett and “Margaritaville” came to symbolize something undoubtedly joyful.

In a 2020 interview with Rolling Stone, Buffett was asked why he thinks a song so clearly about melancholy still made so many people happy. Buffett, who had a lifelong love of New Orleans, often compared his tours and music to Mardi Gras, where people could come to blow off steam or let loose before returning to real life.

Buffett said the lesson learned from the “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger In Paradise” fracas was that if you wanted the carefree, beautiful beach life where you could admire sunsets and sea planes, “you better damn sure take care of business now or you’ll never get there.”


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  19. List of Famous Essayists

    Essayists like Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Samuel Johnson flourished during the Age of Enlightenment when essays became the preferred literary form for convincing people of their position. Scroll down further for more information on famous essayists from all over the world who enriched literature with their writings.

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    Welcome to Paper Writing Service We Are Team Of Trusted Essay Writing Solution! Get Started Writing Services If you are looking for assistance in writing a paper writing service, you should consider picking the best paper writing service in your town.

  21. Inspirational Writing Quotes from Famous Authors

    Find Stephen King quotes on writing, Ernest Hemingway quotes on writing, and creative writing quotes from other famous authors such as Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and Henry David Thoreau, amongst other famous writer quotes. So put the pen down for a moment, step away from the keyboard, and soak in these eclectic author quotes on writing.

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  24. Famous Essayists

    Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (; born Eugene Louis Vidal, October 3, 1925 - July 31, 2012) was an American writer and public intellectual known for his patrician manner, epigrammatic wit, and polished style of writing.Vidal was born into a political family; his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, served as United States senator from Oklahoma (1907-1921 and 1931-1937).

  25. Writing Books for Young Readers that Celebrate Famous Black Americans

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