BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On My Desk: A Pagan Writer's Must-Haves

To all the writers and poets and editors out there, I offer you fair warning: you know all those how-to manuals that fill the writing and publishing sections at bookstores and libraries? 



Or, most of them are, anyway. Want to know how to write? Read. Then go write. Then read some more. Then go write some more. Keep doing that, over and over and over. The only way to improve your craft as a writer is to expose yourself to great writing, then glue your butt to a chair and write some yourself. Then read what you wrote and fix it (because there is no such thing as a perfect first draft), then give it to someone you trust to critique, and fix it again. Then do some more reading and writing.

Okay, now for the amendment to the above: I stated that most how-to manuals are useless. In my long -- very long -- search for manuals that are actually helpful, I did find a few.* Some are standard reference texts, some are manuals generic in their focus, while others are geared specifically towards Pagan (or at least non-traditional) authors. Thus, on my desk you will find:

1) Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary -- yes, an actual physical dictionary, as opposed to a digital dictionary (though I have one of those, too). Spellcheck may be an editor's friend, but it not the end-all and be-all. Spellcheck does not know the context in which their should be used instead of they're, and it can't tell you when stupendous does not mean what you think it means. If you want to be a writer, get a flippin' dictionary.

2) The next most important text is a thesaurus. Personally, I dig Roget's International Thesaurus. A dictionary can tell you what a word means, but a thesaurus can give you the antonym for stupendous when it turns out you actually meant the opposite.

3) For the fiction writers out there, a baby name book is incredibly important. Even better if you can find a companion volume with surnames. 'Cause, really, your epic saga set in ancient Egypt will not feature characters named Jill and John.

4) A while back, I picked up the absolutely wonderful Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft by Jane Yolen. Take Joy is my burn-out, fifth-rejection-notice-of-the-week book of choice. All I have to do is look at the cover, with it's bright red slice of watermelon, and I feel better. And, really, who could not smile in anticipation at chapter titles such as "Killing the King" and "An Eruption of Poppies." I particularly love the chapter "Many Voices" in which she rewrites the same scene in a dozen different styles (bardic, boogerman, dark angel, et cetera).

5) When I turned my hand to writing poetry a few years ago, I found lots and lots and lots of books analyzing examples of classic poetic styles in excruciating detail, often explicitly declaring this is how it is done and if you don't do it this way then you are not a real poet. After flipping through a few of those, I started to go cross-eyed. Eventually, I stumbled across Sage Cohen's Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry. Cohen's text -- light-hearted and conversational, and not the least bit stuffy -- offers writers not only useful(!) exercises but also poems to be read and enjoyed. After all, how are you supposed to enjoy crafting poems if you can't enjoy reading them?

6) If I were to recommend one how-to poetry book to Pagan writers above any other, it would be Robert McDowell's Poetry as Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions. This is the book I pack for long car drives and plane rides, when I know I will have enough time to digest its lessons. Citing everyone from Homer to Mirabai to Thomas Merton to Emily Dickinson to Hafiz to Gilbert and Sullivan, McDowell walks his readers through the history and many styles of poetry, inviting them to share his passion: "make of yourself a tuning fork ready for the thwack of the Divine."

7) My most recent acquisition is probably also the most practical of my how-to manuals. Whenever dreaded writer's block strikes, I offer up a prayer to the Muses, then grab Corrine Kenner's Tarot for Writers. While Kenner references the classic Rider-Waite deck (which I do not own), I found her lessons and examples to be incredibly helpful and easily adapted to other decks. For instance, a three card spread can determine the beginning, middle and end of the tale. Alternatively, a five card spread can give you a protagonist, antagonist, protagonist's foil, antagonist's foil and a supporting character, while a classic Celtic Cross spread can give you the entire story from start to finish!

So, there you have them: a few examples of the (few) useful reference texts and writing manuals available to writers and poets. Disagree with some of my suggestions? Have a few of your own? Post a comment below.


*My thanks to Shirl Sazynski, whose gift of the wonderful The Imagist Poet: Modern Poetry in Miniature inspired this column.

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


  • Sarah Avery
    Sarah Avery Saturday, 11 August 2012

    How cool that you're reading the Imagists! If you haven't read around in H.D.'s longer stuff yet, you've got a big Pagan treat ahead of you. And though Ezra Pound is a problematic guy, his manifesto "A Few Don't by an Imagist" is a really useful one-page poetry manual.

    I've got some favorite books on how to write long projects, and wrote about them over at Black Gate Magazine's blog here: . They've all proven helpful to me over many years and many projects, so maybe they'll be useful to you.

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Sunday, 12 August 2012

    Sarah: it was while reading through "The Imagist Poem" that I discovered HD's poem for Hermes. Awesome! It makes me think that we need a list somewhere of modern works (especially poems) which celebrate the Gods.

    And thank you for the link to your Black Gate essay. :)

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 13 August 2012

    As an editor, I beg to differ with the "useless" comment. I would amend to "mostly useless." (Nod to Douglas Adams.) I have used the following book successfully in helping newbie writers craft better essays for SageWoman. "Crafting the Personal Essay: A guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction" by Dinty Moore.

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Monday, 13 August 2012

    Anne: I'll add that one to my Actually Useful list. :)

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Monday, 13 August 2012

    I am not a writer by any stretch of the word besides the one which identifies a writer as 'anyone who writes'. Still, this list was very helpful. Thank you!

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Friday, 07 September 2012

    I, too, beg to differ. Being a voracious reader does not a good writer make. Writing is a craft, and it takes dedication, perseverance and practice. Free-writing is what journal writers do, not those aiming to be respected (or published) writers. Here's a Pinterest Board of some of the writing craft books I own: I have more. Each has some great gems in them, whether for inspiration, motivation or actual writing craft tips...and beyond.

  • Rachel Lee
    Rachel Lee Friday, 07 September 2012

    Many Thanks Rebecca, I am looking into all these books, except the thesaurus & dictionary as I have them, but the "Tarot For Writers" will be in my hands for sure!

  • Wendy L. Callahan
    Wendy L. Callahan Sunday, 29 September 2013

    As an editor with two publishers, I MUST have the latest CMOS on my desk.

    As a writer, I figure the dictionary and thesaurus are standard, and while I rarely reach for them, they are nice to have available.

  • Lia Hunter
    Lia Hunter Monday, 01 January 2018

    Similar to your description of #5 is this book: "How to Read a Poem...: and Start a Poetry Circle" by Molly Peacock. I really enjoyed it!

    I've added a bunch of your recommendations to my wishlist--thanks!

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