“Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir” (Gotham Books), by Oscar Hijuelos

Reading for Writers: Nonfiction Books with Advice for Emerging Writers

No novel was ever written merely because the author willed it. There is always undoubtedly a struggle that transpired in an author’s life that shaped them as storytellers and as people. Books exist to teach and to entertain and maybe we take that luxury for granted when we delve into a new novel, forgetting the rigorous path that writers traverse, usually including, much like the arch of a well-crafted story, a subtle brewing in their souls that made them diligently trek up the hill towards their literary aspirations, once they reach the top there’s the moment that breaks them (spirit and body), causing them to doubt their entire existence, shortly there after comes the lessons learned and a denouement deeming them prepared to take on their craft with seriousness and success. This list of nonfiction titles is a culmination of memoirs and essays that have something to say for the process of becoming a writer.

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart’s memoir takes us through the sometimes unnatural path that a writer must endure; however, that provides him with the guts and self-awareness in order take on the title “working writer”. Shteyngart’s beginnings in Soviet Russia instilled in him a kind of fear and paranoia that he would take with him to Queens, NY where that anxiety only found more corners in which to thrive. Shteyngart takes us to his new diasporic life in a Jewish community in Queens, then to the prestigious Stuyvesant high school where he seeks to fulfill the exception of every immigrant parent: getting into Harvard or Yale. He finds himself at Oberlin College where the writing he dabbled in as a kid starts to resurface as he picks up his craft again, crushing his parent’s dream of having a lawyer for a son. Shteyngart’s descriptions of assimilation and the ultimate limbo that many immigrants succumb to when trying to reconcile their two worlds, is stark and hilarious. Writers, please be aware, you will not only be obsessed with the stimulating way in which Shteyngart strings awkward flashbacks and references to Russian and American culture all in the same sentence, you will actually learn from the author’s mostly counter-productive endeavors, that there are many ways to become a writer.

Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich takes us on a spiritual journey, or rather, an inquisitive journey regarding god, religion, and existence. We get to know her as a highly curious adolescent where she gorges on science textbooks and Kafka, eager for an explanation that hints at the reason for human existence. Ehrenreich speaks to readers as if these experiences happened moments ago, placing urgency and relevance in describing her past as a means to better understand her present. As a writer, she guides us into her sometimes erratic contemplations over the years, urging us to face the bleak revelations alongside her. But this is no therapy session – Ehrenreich does not confess nor suggest that we need listen – she merely says and lets the words bringing her history back to life become ours, as she gives us license to interpret the very unreal things she came to discover in a way that is meaningful in our own journeys of purpose.

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
This work of nonfiction by Etgar Keret is a culmination of essays that give breath to the seven years in between his son’s birth and his father’s death which the author deems “the good years”. Keret describes life with his parents who both survived the holocaust and their varying after-effects of that trauma. He describes how his parent’s past shaped the future of their family. With the birth of his son Lev, Keret contemplates how to raise a son in a country that is infested with the political and religious angst that Israel possesses. The book explores these years that Keret retrospectively describes as the good ones. His personal essays combine his adept for narrative and his seemingly effortless ability to deliver the truth in ways that shed more light on the events than if we were to experience them ourselves.

Thoughts without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos
Thoughts without Cigarettes unveils the boy, the teen, and the struggling writer before Hijuelos was a renowned author and figure for Latino literature. This memoir places the author back on the streets of West Harlem where his family immigrated to from Cuba. Hijuelos depicts the path that made him a Pulitzer Prize winning author which was filled with New York City public schools, City College of New York, and redefining what being Cuban, an immigrant, and a writer is by his own standards. It takes gusto and a lot of pride to ship your words out into the world for speculation, but Hijuelos’ story reminds us of why writers and writing about the things we know is in part for us and in part an invaluable resource for those who identify with your experiences and ideas.

Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon
This biography written about the late Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon, is a richly packed account of the playwright’s brief life. Wasserstein died in 2006 at the age of fifty-five but many of her dramatic works are still very much alive in our theaters today. Salamon depicts the Wasserstein household and the overbearing pressure to excel. Wasserstein and her siblings all achieved success in their professional lives, but Wendy was perhaps the the most well-known. Her play, The Heidi Chronicles, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1989. Much of the book centers around Wasserstein’s wide circle of friends: other creative types but also people from many walks of life due to her outgoing character. Salamon’s biography describes the rejections she often received for her work and the persistence Wasserstein had to adopt to get her work recognized. The book reveals the day-to-day affairs of Wendy the writer, friend, daughter, and sister – all the roles that gave her work its authenticity and enlivened it with the same spirit Wasserstein had herself.

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York by various authors: Cheryl Strayed, Dani Shapiro, Emma Straub, Ann Hood
Twenty-eight writers riff on Joan Didion’s 1967 essay Goodbye and All That where they discuss the hype, the excitement, and the disappointment of trying to live and love in New York. New York is a target-metropolis for aspiring writers, but most people come to a the eventual question of is it worth it? The writers in this book contemplate soaring rents, horrific commutes, and the hellish dating scene with exactly this question in mind. The book is much a like therapy or tell-all session for writers who move here to fulfill their literary destinies and wind-up doubting their lifestyles just as much as their artistic license and the comma splice.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
A collection of Wallace’s essays from over the years come together in this nonfiction book. The first essay, also named in the book’s title, is a masterpiece of creative nonfiction exploring the role of footnotes as an intrinsic part of the story if not a character within itself. Other essays include “E Unibus Pluram” and “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All”, the former which delves into the harmful presence of media not only on our personal lives but in how it infiltrates itself into our literature. Budding writers can learn much from Wallace’s prose such as manipulating jargon and acronyms, but we get a chance to understand the psychology behind these narratives when reading Wallace’s nonfiction that delves into the clear waters of his personal philosophies on mass-media, culture, and irony.

Where I was From by Joan Didion
Didion is a known master of both fiction and nonfiction, in Where I was From, Didion often combines her skills for both genres to give a sometimes eerie and convoluted account of California history, the state in which she grew up. As a child, Didion came to question the stories she was told of California’s past and began to mistrust the overall culture she was lead to believe portrayed the state. The book is both inquisitive and revealing as Didion recounts her experiences with California life as a youngster and the revelations she’s made about her home as an adult. Didion, always factual, finds a way to take away the nitty-gritty feeling of overwhelming detail and craft a journey, lessons, and enlightenment for readers to get pleasantly lost in.