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Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times (2001)
di The New York Times
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I have to believe that the primary readers of these articles and, accordingly, this book, are writers. All types – accomplished, neophyte, wanna-bes, all of us who put word to paper or, at least, really, really, really want to put word to paper someday. I was unfamiliar with this series of essays from the New York Times where writers (and I keep wanting to use the word author, but the Times seems to insist on writer – some day I’ll have to explore the difference) explore literary themes. Okay, I stole that last bit from the blurb on the Times, but it looks like writers were told to talk about writing – and then left to their own devices.
The result is as mixed as the individuals chosen to participate and as unfocused as any group “left to their own devices”. This is not a bad thing. Yeah, it all started out a little rocky, with that artsy-fartsy feel that authors (now I’ll use the word on purpose) can far too often bring to a description of their craft. “Do I, as a writer, have what he [the dentist] called a ‘hidden nerve’?” “I never set out to write a whole book about my dog…” These are the kinds of lines that make me cringe and fear I am about to be thrust into psycho-author-babble – the kind of thing that makes “Life is like a merry-go-round – both have horses” profound. But the book gets over that quickly, and there are many interesting, entertaining, and inspiring essays within the collection.
And, you know, that is probably the important part. Why do people read these essays and this book? I’d say that it is because each of us (each of us with a writer inside) is looking for insight and inspiration. Now, for some, that inspiration may well be the thought that writers have a hidden nerve or that they can write an entire book about a dog. For me, it was the writers who talked about their process – what went wrong, what went right. And, in general, the ones that I found best were from those who didn’t take their jobs that seriously; the ones who seemed to look on, bemused, that they are actually making money (not lots of it, but money nonetheless) doing something they are compelled to do, something they hate to do, something they love to do, something that is too much work to do, something that many of us envy even if we have dabbled in it ourselves.
So, on the “how much did I enjoy it and how much did it motivate me” scale, the book was a success. And, while I wouldn’t call it a must-read (particularly for non-author-writers); it is far from a waste of time. There are ideas to make you think and, maybe more importantly, thoughts that make you realize you aren’t quite as weird as you thought you were. Yeah, you’re weird, but just not really weird.
Writers on writing brings together more than forty of contemporary literature's finest voices. Drawn from the New York Times column of the same name, it features essays by an extraordinary group of prizewinning and bestselling contributors. The pieces range from reflections on the daily craft of writing to the intersection of art's and life's consequential moments. Authors discuss what impels them to write: creating a sense of control in a turbulent universe; bearing witness to events that would otherwise be lost in history or within the writer's soul; recapturing a fragment of time. Others praise mentors and lessons, whether from the classroom, daily circumstances, or the pages of a favorite writer. For anyone interested in the art and rewards of writing, Writers on writing offers an uncommon and revealing view of a writer's world. Contributors include Russell Banks, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, Carl Hiaasen, Jamaica Kincaid, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Miller, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Marge Piercy, Annie Proulx, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Elie Wiesel.
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Russell Banks, A Novelist’s Vivid Memory Spins Fiction of Its Own
Banks recounts a reading he did in Boston near where he worked in a book store before being published. It turns out that the way he remembered that time of his life wasn’t how others remembered it. But it also turned out that it didn’t really matter, because he’d used the events of his life as fodder for his writing, and that the process had been, well, therapeutic. My favorite thing from the essay, an old crook that Banks used to hang out with told him, “Artists are a lot like gangsters. They both know that the official version, the one everyone else believes, is a lie.”
Saul Bellow, Hidden Within Technology’s Empire, a Republic of Letters
Bellow thinks that there is very little that will harm the world of printed literature, the permanence of good books and good writing will sustain any attack. I’m not a big Bellow fan but I really appreciated his encouragement to budding writers and his certainty that there was a wealth of good writing that just doesn’t get the appropriate attention.
Ann Bernays, Pupils Glimpse an Idea, Teacher Gets a Gold Star
Bernays offers a few writing drills that she used for her students. And she maintains that a good writer is always thinking like a writer, in every moment of the day, evaluating the events and people around them for material.
Rosellen Brown, Character’s Weaknesses Build Fiction’s Strengths
Rosellen Brown argues that she finds thorny or rakish characters interesting and tries to model those personalities in her writing. She was disgusted by the idea that readers would quit on a book or assail it after finishing because a character was unlikable. Brown’s only concern for such characters is whether their actions are plausible or represent some reality that is recognizable to the reader. I disagree with Brown – not because I want to lose myself in a fantasy where everyone is likable or where everything turns out butterflies and puppy dogs in the end but because there has to either be balance or growth. I’m not picky, one or the other will do. I disagreed with her but her essay was provocative.
Richard Ford, Goofing Off While the Muse Recharges
Sometimes a break from writing, the actual physical act of it, can recharge and provide inspiration. Writing can consume to the point that you forget to participate in the world.
Kent Haruf, To See Your Story Clearly, Start Pulling the Wool over Your Own Eyes
Haruf is a favorite writer of mine. This was one of those revealing essays. Haruf’s point here was to get a rough, first draft down without critique. Don’t let the internal editor overcome your instincts in your writing. But what I learned is that Haruf takes this to the extreme, pulling a knit cap over his eyes when he writes his first draft – he actually doesn’t read what he writes the first time through. I would love to be a fly on the wall for that process.
Alice Hoffman, Sustained by Fiction While Facing Life’s Facts
I’ve always been reluctant to buy a Hoffman book – standing at the counter under the scrutiny of the cashier as I purchased an emotional, touchy-feely chick-lit book. But Hoffman’s essay made me re-consider that. She, like Banks, believes in the therapeutic power of writing, working through all of the things boiling around in your head through stories and characters. Hoffman worked through cancer with her writing.
Gish Jen, Inventing Life Steals Time, Living Life Begs It Back
At one point, Jen decides that she is missing too much of her life with all of the demands writing puts on her life, so she decides to quit. But in the days of her life after she quits, she starts to see things that she wants to write about. She realizes that a writer can’t really separate that part of her life from everything else.
Hans Koning, Summoning the Mystery and Tragedy, but in a Subterranean Way
Good, or serious writing, as Koning calls it, deals with a deep examination of the human condition. “It means to me that if you want to write a serious novel, you should not only be out to entertain but you should also, in a hidden way, reflect on the world’s justice and injustice, hope and illusion.”
Walter Mosley, For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day
I read a book Mosley wrote about writing. I didn’t care for it much, as it was more like a check-list of all the things you need to get a book written and published. There was very little insight to the writing process and writing life. But this essay had all of the things that the book didn’t. Mostly, Mosely encouraged the daily writing routine, nourishing those instincts and ideas every day with a little bit of participation. The essay was both encouragement and conviction.
Scott Turow, An Odyssey That Started with Ulysses
This was the most surprising essay in the collection, giving me a new found respect and love for a favorite author of mine. Until I read this essay, I’d always thought of Turow as more of a genre writer. But Turows struggle to find the voice for his art revealed unbelievable depths to his thought process. Turow is a reader’s writer, and his belief that mystery stories provide a beautiful springboard for examining the human condition was eye-opening.
Elie Weisel, A Sacred Magic Can Elevate the Storyteller
I loved this essay because everything Weisel writes feels like a prayer, which, not surprisingly, is his purpose.
Hilma Wolitzer, Embarking Together on Solitary Journeys
Wolitzer, who came to writing early but to publication late, writes eloquently about the real commitment needed to write. She also examines the dynamics of a critique group. The essay combined the larger aspects of the writing life with solid practical advice.
5 bones!!!!! ( )