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***Writers on Writing

Collected Essays from The New York Times

introduction by John Darnton

Reviewed October 31, 2005.
Times Books (Henry Holt and Company), New York, 2001.  268 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (808.02 WRI).

In his introduction, John Darnton comes up with a plausible explanation for why the essays in this book are so much fun to read:  “The series have been exceedingly popular.  One reason might be that the writing stands above the ordinary fare of a daily newspaper.  Another is probably the subjects, which tend toward the personal and wander over the private range of the imagination.  And a third reason, I believe, is that many people have a secret urge to become writers themselves.  All of our lives are stories.  How many times have you heard someone say that she has a good book inside her, if only she could get it out?”

This book is a collection of essays by 46 well-established writers talking about the process of writing, getting ideas, reading, how they became a writer, keeping going, what writing means to them, and many other aspects of their craft.

The essay that resonated most with me was one by Gish Jen, a mother of young children who “almost quit because I felt the writing life was not life, because I felt I was writing instead of living.”

“I tried quitting, therefore, in various degrees for some months.  I gardened, I lunched, I talked to leafleteers.  I contributed to causes.  I chatted with dog owners.  I enjoyed my children—in the lingo of our time, I savored them.  I modeled for them fearlessness before live crabs.  I modeled openness to new sports.

“Yet I found life without work strangely lifeless.  I wish I could claim that I went back to work because I had an exceptional contribution to make to the world, or because I found the words to dress down Old Man Death; but in fact I went back because life without prose was prosaic.  It seemed as though the wind had stopped blowing.  It seemed as though someone had disinvented music—such silence.  I felt as though I had lost one of my senses.

“I did have fun not working.  I liked feeling I had something to spare and—faddishly, perhaps—I liked feeling open to the here and now.  But more and more my here and now encompassed an awareness of things missing.

“I missed reasoning with history.  I missed roaming a large world.  I missed tangling with language.  I missed the shoulder to the wall of work.  I missed discovering what I thought—or rather, watching what I thought I thought dissolve under my pen.  I missed looking hard at things.  I missed stalking a plot.  I missed being ridden by the imagination, not so much into the sunset as through it.

“But most of all, I missed the orientation that came with experiencing myself as distinctly—exhilaratingly, uncomfortably—singular.  (How firmly this frames the real world.  With what live interest one stands, paradoxically, at the window.)  Also I missed communing with mostly dead authors.  Of course, I was still reading; but I felt as though I were at a party, sitting out the dance.”

This book is recommended to all writers, as well as anyone who likes to be provoked to thought by accomplished masters of prose.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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