12 Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use

December 5, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 41 5 min read

coverIn “Aren’t You Dead Yet?”, one of the stories in Elissa Schappell’s new collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, the narrator, an aspiring writer, receives a black, leather-bound journal as a gift from her best friend. Although she loves the look of the journal, she never writes in it. When her friend discovers this, he’s angry, and even accuses her of slacking off:

I tried to explain that I hadn’t written in it because I loved it so much and I didn’t want to ruin it. The pages were so nice, and sewn in, you couldn’t just rip them out. Whatever stupid thing I wrote down would be in there permanently.

This passage reminded me of the many beautiful blank journals I’ve received over the years, journals I’ve never used. Whenever I fill up one of my trusty spiral notebooks, I go through the stack and tell myself I’m finally going to start using them. But then I think of sullying those pristine, unlined pages with my half-formed thoughts, and I feel as guilty as the narrator in Schappell’s story.

Unfortunately, the same guilt intrudes on many of the other lovely writerly gifts I’ve received. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I confess that I have a lot of nice pens I never use, because I’m afraid of chewing on them; a lot of classic novels I haven’t read because I feel guilty about not having read them; and a lot of inspirational writer’s guides I never read, because what if I’m not inspired?

None of these gifts are offensive, and no one will begrudge you for giving them. But they are boilerplate gifts. Writers get blank journals for the same reasons that teachers get mugs, assistants get flowers, and grandmothers get tea. If you want to give the writer in your life something he or she will truly adore, here are twelve ideas:

1.  A Cheesy New Bestseller

covercoverOne of the best presents I ever got was The Nanny Diaries. I really wanted it, but there were over 300 people on the library’s waiting list (I live in New York), and I wasn’t going to shell out $25 for something I was unlikely to read twice. The funny thing is, I never told my roommate that I wanted to read The Nanny Diaries. She just guessed that I had a secret craving for it. Of course, it can be as hard to gauge your friend’s taste in pop culture as it in high culture, but it’s better to guess wrong in the pop culture arena, because your friend is more likely to exchange it for something she likes better. Whereas, if you give her Gravity’s Rainbow, she’ll keep it for years out of obligation.

2.  Good lipstick

Writers are often broke. If they have $30 to spare, they are going to spend it on dinner, booze, or new books. Not lipstick. But writers are pale from spending so much time inside and could use some color. Make-up can be a tricky gift because it suggests that you think your friend’s face could use improvement. That’s why it’s important to go to a department store make-up counter and buy something frivolous and indulgent, like a single tube of red lipstick or some face powder or blush in a nice-looking case.

3.  Foreign language learning software

Most writers wish they knew more languages. It can also be relaxing to be rendered inarticulate in a new language, in that it offers a real break from personal expression, nuance, and irony. At the same time, learning a new language sharpens your native tongue, and expands your vocabulary. It’s sort of like cross training. Although language classes with live instructors are generally more effective than computer programs, I prefer software because it allows me to take the class on my own time and at my own pace.

4.  A Bathrobe

John Cheever famously donned a suit every morning in order to write. But as Ann Beattie recently revealed, and as a generation of bloggers already knows, most writers wear awful clothing while they are working. Help your writer friend out by giving her a beautiful robe to cover up her bizarre ensembles. Even if she already has one, she probably hasn’t washed it in a long time, and could use another.

5.  A Manicure

I bite my nails, especially when I’m writing. I’ve noticed that a lot of other writers have suspiciously short nails, too. Manicures help. Also, manicures get writers out of the house—and off the internet.

6.  “Freedom”, the internet-blocking software

Freedom” is a computer program that blocks the internet on your computer for up to eight hours. I don’t understand why it’s effective, since it’s relatively easy to circumvent, but as soon as I turn it on, I stay off the internet for hours at a time. (There is also a program called “Anti-social”, which only blocks the social parts of the internet, like Facebook and Twitter.)

7.  Booze, coffee, and other stimulants

Find out what your friend likes to drink and buy a really nice version of that thing. Wine can be tricky, but we are living in an age of over-educated clerks, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your friend is a coffee or tea drinker, find out how he brews it and buy him really good beans or tealeaves. Even better, find out what cafe he frequents and see if they sell gift certificates.

8.  Yoga Classes

Yoga does wonders for anxiety, depression, and aching backs, three common writerly afflictions. Most yoga classes also incorporate some kind of meditation practice, which is also very helpful.

9.  A pet

In a recent Atlantic blog post containing advice from world’s most prolific writers, a character from one of Muriel Spark’s novels is quoted, describing why cats are good for writers: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat… The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” Another prolific writer, Jennifer Weiner, recommends dogs on her website, where she’s posted a list of tips for aspiring writers. Dogs, she explains, foster discipline, because they must be walked several times a day. Furthermore, Weiner notes, walking is as beneficial for the writer as it is for the dog: “While you’re walking, you’re thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that’s had you stumped for days.”

Obviously, a pet should not be given casually, or even as a surprise, but it’s worth considering, especially if you hear of an already-trained dog or cat that needs a new home.

10.  Freezable homemade foods: casseroles, soups, breads, and baked goods.

This is a potentially Mom-ish gift, but if your friend is on deadline, a new parent, or just far from home during the holidays, a home-cooked meal could be a lovely gesture. I emphasize freezable because it should be something that you make at home and leave with your friend to eat later. If you can’t cook, buy a pie.

11.  A hand-written letter

I know how corny this sounds, but many writers, especially fiction writers, still get a fair amount of rejection notes via the U.S. mail. You can easily make your friend’s day by sending an old-fashioned, chatty letter or even just a holiday card.

12.  The Gift, by Lewis Hyde

cover The Gift examines the role of artists in market economies, taking the lives of two major American poets as case studies. It’s the perfect antidote to all the earnest, helpful guides that aim to teach writers how to be more publishable, saleable, and disciplined. Where most writing guides make writers feel they could succeed if only they were more productive and efficient, The Gift argues that productivity and efficiency are market-based terms that have little meaning in gift economies, which is where many creative writers exchange and share their work. Another way of putting it is to say that The Gift makes feel writers feel less crazy.

Bonus: 10 MORE Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Use

(Image: Project 365 #263: 200911 Kept Under Wraps… from comedynose’s photostream)

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and thelmaandalicesubstack.com. Read more at hannahgersen.com or sign up for her newsletter here.


  1. I like the article, but it should be titled “12 Gifts to Give Your Female Writer Friend” cause I don’t think my best friend would enjoy lipstick and manicures and bathrobes because he’s a guy. Great ideas for my girl friends though.

  2. What’s weird is that the men I see in my nail shop always come in wearing fabulous looking bathrobes, AND bright pink lipsticks! Just gorgeous.. Although I don’t know if any of them are writers….

  3. I wholeheartedly love this list. I’ve never had a manicure, but I certainly wouldn’t turn one down. And I do need a new bathrobe… (this is painting a really lovely picture of myself. I better stop while I’m ahead.)

    But I also love having a billion little journal and notebooks stashed around. I like that the hardcover ones stand up to my abuse, and while I will use unlined pages, I do like lines better.

    Though feel free to just pass along the booze and coffee. It will never go to waste.

  4. I really wouldn’t want any of these things. Maybe the booze, and that internet blocking thingy, but I don’t need any more booze. When I saw “Gifts that Writers Will Actually Use” I thought I was gonna read about stuff like pens. Or cool paper. Or a cool new app that makes my prose purple. I need a good pen. I’m always looking for a new, good pen. Manicure, not so much. My cuticles are just a mess. And I would rather have the $10 Steinbeck complete works advertised on this page than any crappy best seller. Just saying. This list is more kind of funny in that ironic, I’m-writing-this-cause-I-know-it’s-funny way. And nothing make me more Grinchy than our tired old friend irony.

  5. This is a brlliant list. I’ve just tweeted it as I’m on a deadline for Monday and want my frozen Christmas pressies now!

  6. I LOVE it! My addition to the gifting list is: 4″ heel, Donald Pliner thigh-hign boots. You’ll look fantastic and your feet won’t hurt sitting in a chair. When you need inspiration, just throw those babies up on the desk and let inspiration flow… unless you write children’s books… then it would just be wrong.

  7. I liked this, not because I’d want anything on the list except the yoga class but because it made me feel more apart of something where I thought I was being so utterly abnormal. See the good in negativity you did keep the interest of the readers/writers enough to gain a comment. That in my journal is always a good sign

    Happy Holidays

  8. I never realized how much of a normal writer I was until I read this. I do the exact thing with journals–I buy TONS of them, but can never sully their pages with my mundane words. Also, the nail-biting. I broke the habit of regularly biting my nails many years ago, however when I write a nail always finds its way to my teeth.

    Thank you for this brilliant article.

  9. Brilliant! This is an excellent way to ask your friends and relatives for the gifts you want, Hannah. I’ll have to craft a “12 Gifts That Stevens Will Actually Use” article immediately and see if The Millions or if Stevens Quarterly has room for it before the holidays.

  10. Lame! I love fancy blank books. If they seem too pristine for ordinary musings I use them for dream journals. Yoga classes and handwritten letters are great, but all the rest of these gifts range from sad to insulting in my book. Lipstick and manicures? Really? Here is a news flash: my nails are kept extremely short to help me type faster. Also, I use the Internet for research. If I’m going to be distracted, blocking the Internet isn’t going to help. I’ll be distracted by a book, or by something that needs to be done in the house, or (negating #9) a cat.

    More appropriate gifts for writers: a massage, a wrist brace for carpal tunnel, an ergonomic chair or a stability ball, an ergonomic/split keyboard, better lighting (if this is something their office lacks), editing services, a publishing contract.

  11. What a fun post! Very creative. I especially like the meal idea — while I love to cook, there have been days when I just don’t want to stop writing to figure out what’s for dinner. One of the best “writerly” presents I got was from my sister-in-law, who stuck $20 in a card and said to use it for pizza some night when I didn’t feel like cooking.

    And I’m with Monica on the massage — that’s one of the most awesome presents ever for someone who spends hours hunched in front of a computer.

    Thanks for the entertaining post!

  12. Hmmm…I’m sure many saw the title and thought it would be flasks, scotch, slippers, cigars, shiny black pens, and leather notebooks for some dude who wears sweaters with elbow patches. I admit it. I did.

    I just read a many-part gift guide for hikers, mountaineers, travelers, etc in which all but one part tilted towards men in apparel, and the lonley woman’s section was called “gift guide: snow goddess”. (To give them credit, some items in the non-goddess section came in men’s and women’s versions, but not many). Perhaps it’s a little moment in which we can be honest about the way things are and why lipstick and manicures seemed out of place for us — Hannah didn’t follow the rules. Gift guides that are suppose to be non-gendered (i.e. for writers, geeks, outdoorsy types, urbanites, athletes, etc.) must consist of only items that are man-appropriate, but if any or some items are a little on the feminine side, the list needs to be labeled for women. And includes loads of pink text and photos of shiny things and further indication it is only for women.

    I’m thankful Hannah didn’t represent it for men or women in particular and it wasn’t titled: “12 Holiday Gifts That Writing GODDESSES Will Actually Use”. And I’m thankful that some of you were crankypants about it, because it increased my awareness about my own assumptions.

    It also made me really REALLY want to ask for fancy lipstick for Christmas.

  13. Animals should never, ever, be given as “a gift,” not even if the recipient is actively looking to add one to their life. A decision to care for a living creature is serious business and should be left up to the person taking on that responsibility. If you give your friend a book she doesn’t like, she can exchange it or give it away; it’s not quite that easy if you give her a cat or dog. Animals are not “one size fits all,” and, sadly, shelters are full of unwanted pets thoughtlessly given as gifts.

  14. There is a typo in this article, which is kind of ironic, since it bears advice for writers and those who love them.

    (In case you hadn’t spotted it: “Although she loves the look of journal, she never writes in it.”)

  15. I love fancy blank books too. I have a hard time writing in them – except when I buy a fancy journal to record my daily diabetes stuff. Then I feel I deserve them because they record the crappy side of my life.

    I’m always happy to receive books, gift cards from a book store, and gift cards big enough for two for dinner.

    Flowers. I love flowers. I love flowers any time. I don’t need an occasion. They just make me happy.

  16. I have trouble writing in fancy journals at first. I usually have to carry them around for awhile and get used to them. But once you take the plunge and starting writing your thoughts down (no matter how trivial), there is no turning back. Once you finish with them they preserve much better than spiral notebooks, and they look way more cool on your bookshelf.

  17. Love it. I want all of these things. Except for a pet. I have too many. (And they do nothing for my concentration. I guess I’m petting them wrong.)

  18. …and if you can’t write ’em a letter, buy em a subscription to a zine, some of which are reliably quarterly and arrive in greeting card sized envelopes!

    Also…I had a moment thinking that a 14 year old of my acquaintance was a published author until I remembered he spells his Lewis Louis.

  19. Any writer worth the ink in their pen would end your lovely friendship via text! These gifts might be delightful for a high-schooler who just won an inter-school short story contest but for the rest of us who contemplate our raison d’etre hourly, save your money! Here’s why…

    ‎1. A Cheesy New Bestseller: Only if you’re trying to remind us of how mediocre we already feel. The lone exception might be Jacqueline Susann’s ‘Valley Of The Dolls.’
    2. Good Lipstick: Only if you’re buying it for Thomas Pynchon or Julian Barnes. In which case, call me I’d like to be there for the unwrapping.
    3. Foreign Language Learning Software: I can barely master the English language nevermind trying to say ‘verisimilitude’ in French or Swahili.
    4. A Bathrobe: Contrary to popular belief, Michael Douglas PLAYING a writer in The Wonder Boys gave us all a bad rap.
    5. A Manicure: That’s right up there with ‘Dress to Impress’.
    6. Internet Blocking Software: Take away the internet and prescriptions for Zoloft will skyrocket. Don’t let the drug companies win!
    7. Booze, Coffee & Stimulants: Wrapping and putting a bow on it would just be hypocritical.
    8. Yoga Classes: Pain and suffering are all we have left.
    9. A Pet: Fine. But if there’s only one beer left in the fridge, I’m not sharing!
    10. Freezable Homemade Foods: We’re writers not handicaps or invalids.
    11. A Hand-written Letter: If you promise to write in the voice of a suicidal narrator from 1874, feel free!
    12. A Copy Of ‘The Gift’ By Lewis Hyde: I have 7 copies all of which I’ve never read so you tell me.

  20. Pamela August Russell would benefit from having all these gifts, especially reading her 7 copies of The Gift.

  21. Even if it’s true I wouldn’t use it, I’d rather get the blank journal.
    These maybe are perfect gifts for some specific writer – that’s to say the author of the article.

  22. I was given a blank journal for my birthday back in HS. My then boyfriend gave it to me and wrote “for your first masterpiece.” The pressure in that phrase kept the book blank for many, many years. Finally I started putting clever clips and quips in it. I still get blank journals and I buy them for friends, but I’d rather not get them.

    The rest of the list is delightful and inspired.


  23. LOVE this list! I already posted it on my Facebook account with specifications regarding lipstick (Bobbi Brown of course.) And although I wholeheartedly agree with #7, “Booze, Coffee, and other stimulants” I feel strongly that pills should also be included (had to add that to my Facebook post.)

    And considering that I’ve had on the exact same outfit since Sunday #4 (bathrobe) also struck a chord with me.

    Brilliant list! And to the person who said this list wouldn’t apply to guys, that’s because I imagine their list would be quite short (booze & women.)

  24. Wow. I really liked how this list showed a real sense of how gifts should be chosen with the giver in mind. And the comments are all, but I wouldn’t like that! Nobody’s getting all ten, OK! And Hannah seems to have the pay attention to what people actually like and use down.

    But to add, manicures are good for short, natural nails people, you just have to find a place that understands natural nails and does no polish manicures. It’s good to go just to see how a professional does things. Manicures are great as pick me ups, horrible as a weekly expense and time sink. My gift for natural nail pals is OPI’s Nail Envy in Matte. It’s a clear non-shiny nail strengthener. Nails get stronger, but you don’t look like you’re wearing polish. Works for men, too.

  25. I just got around to reading this and I love it. There are some grinchy so-and-sos on this comment thread, which is also kind of delightful. Hopefully someone turns those frowns upside down with a festive new stability ball.

  26. i bought “the gift” as a gift to myself. it’s fabulous!
    great list, i especially need a manicure…i bite my cuticles when concentrating. Also, a bathrobe would be perfect. you should see how i write. oy vey.

  27. I think it’s a good list, but as I’ve been sitting in front of the computer writing all day, I think I’d add “massage” to the list to make it complete, and maybe “ergonomically sound chair” and “chiropractor gift certificate” (do they have that sort of thing?).

    Thank you so much for “freedom” and “anti-social”, of which I was unaware until I read this. I’m not waiting for someone to give me these–I’m getting them, now, in the hope I might save myself.

    Hope you get everything on your list, and then some.

  28. For everyone complaining that the list didn’t have pens, cool paper, etc. Let me go on record as saying–DO NOT buy a writer pens or notebooks. Ever. I am so picky about my pens and notebooks, it just takes up space. I won’t use the cool pens or the nice notebooks if they aren’t “right”. Just like you shouldn’t buy a carpenter a new hammer because it “looks nice”, don’t buy me pens or notebooks. PLEASE.

    I think it’s a nice list. Yes, some of the items are women-centric, but things like yoga are for dudes, too. Especially if those dudes have back pain. Bathrobes are definitely for dudes…my husband wears his bathrobe a hell of a lot more than I wear mine.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.