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Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (Writers on Writing (Times Books Hardcover)) Hardcover – May 1, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0805067415 ISBN-10: 0805067418 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews Review

After 30 years as a journalist, John Darnton decided to try his hand at writing a novel. If he wrote 1,000 words a day, he discovered, he'd have a book in a matter of months. But wouldn't it be nice to learn a few tricks of the trade from other writers as well? Thus was born The New York Times's Monday-morning Writers on Writing series. In embarking on the series, says Darnton, he learned that the writers he most wanted to hear from were not necessarily the same ones who most wanted to hear from him. But there couldn't have been too many who turned him down. The 46 columns collected in Writers on Writing are by the likes of Saul Bellow, Mary Gordon, David Mamet, Annie Proulx, Carol Shields, and Paul West. Though many of them have not much more than the occupation "writer" in common, Darnton says that in one way he found them all to be alike: "They wanted to hear, right away, what you thought of their work."

Here, Richard Ford explains why he finds not writing to be a terrific thing. Alice Hoffman describes the effect illness (her own and that of others) has had on her work. Barbara Kingsolver grapples with writing an "unchaste" novel. Louise Erdrich explores the effect a second language, Ojibwe in her case, can have on one's involvement with the first. And Russell Banks learns the hard way that "when you meet a witness to your distant past, your memory tends to improve." The most hilarious piece is Carolyn Chute's "How Can You Create Fiction When Reality Comes to Call?" In it, she describes one day, in which "X-rated stuff happens," the cuckoo clock goes off incessantly, dirty dishes beckon, political cohorts come calling, a dog has a couple of seizures, laundry needs doing, and guests constantly arrive. Once Chute finally does get down to writing, the "n" breaks off the daisy wheel. But at least the phone doesn't ring. "Its bell is broken. It never rings. Thank heavens." --Jane Steinberg

From Publishers Weekly

Unlike many assemblages of previously published works, this collection of 41 essays from the New York Times's "Writers on Writing" column is more than the sum of its parts. Just as Times culture editor Darnton hoped when he devised the series for writers to "talk about their craft," the result is a thoughtful examination of writers' concerns about the creative process and the place of literature in America. Appropriately for works commissioned for a major newspaper, the essays are immediately engaging and compelling all the way through. Some writers accomplish these ends through a good story, as does Russell Banks writing on the limits of memory and his lost chance at a career in crime. Or they are darkly entertaining, as is Carolyn Chute as she talks about obstacles in trying to switch from "life mode to writer mode." Sara Paretsky compels with her Dickensian belief in the value of writing for people "who feel powerless and voiceless in the larger world." There's also the sheer comfort of recognizing known voices: the seriousness of Mary Gordon, the combativeness of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the sting of Joyce Carol Oates. As steeped in writing as this book is, it is not a manual: advice includes only general rules to observe well and write regularly and axioms from writers like William Saroyan, who counsels, "There is no how to it, no how do you write, no how do you live, how do you die." Overall, the writers' pensiveness and amity make for a thought-provoking yet reassuring read a good bedside book. Fans of writers-on-writing anthologies and close readers of the New York Times who may have bypassed these essays for the immediate payoff of a front-page headline should pause to enjoy this rich collection.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Series: Writers on Writing (Times Books Hardcover) (Book 1)
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books; 1st edition (May 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805067418
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805067415
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #247,915 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

They are all very encouraging and guiding.
sheriff moussa
I love this compilation of writers' essays about writing.
This is one book you will refer to time and again.
Fish mama

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Catherine S. Vodrey on April 11, 2005
Format: Paperback
It's amazing that the more than three dozen writers contributing to "Writers on Writing" managed each to have a different view of the topic at hand. Everyone from Annie Proulx to Jamaica Kincaid to E. L. Doctorow to the late Saul Bellow approaches the act of writing differently, and each has different thoughts to offer. Some of the essays are funny, some are quietly sad, and still others address the dual difficulty and delight of turning out something new and yet universal.

The breadth of thought is amazing, but each of the essays is skillful and thought-provoking. Perhaps my favorite was by Alice Hoffman, who writes, "I wrote to find beauty and purpose, to know that love is possible and lasting and real, to see daylilies and swimming pools, loyalty and devotion, even though my eyes were closed and all that surrounded me was a dark room. I wrote because that was who I was at the core, and if I was too damaged to walk around the block, I was lucky all the same. Once I got to my desk, once I started writing, I still believed anything was possible."

In this short passage, she speaks for all the writers here, in saying that writing is a need, not a desire, and that the act is without boundaries and filled with possibility. This is a useful and enriching book for writers, and for those who are simply curious about how writers do what they do.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
Very disappointing. The occassional gem (like Jamaica Kincaid's) brought my review up by one star, but by and large these essays read like tossed-off first drafts. Sure the crafting of each piece was tight--these folks are professionals and the Times is no rag. But they lacked profundity, and why bother writing something that says nothing? More to the point, why read it?
I wanted more--insight, substance, something, anything--from these authors. It wasn't here, but I found it in the Washington Post's version: "The Writing Life" edited by Maria Arana. At 400+ pages deep, that one's worth the price and time.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is exactly what it promised to be: a compilation of the essays that the New York Times runs on Mondays under the headline "Writers on Writing." If you've been following the series you won't find any surprises. It's just nice to have everything in one place in more permanent form than a stack of newspaper clippings. If you don't read the New York Times you'll find a collection of essays loosely themed around writing and whatever the author decides to tie it to, by a wide spectrum of writers including, as a random sampling, Saul Bellow, Barbara Kingsolver, Elie Wiesel and Scott Turow. Chances are you're going to find some names in there that aren't familiar. One could wish the editor had included a brief bio on each writer, or at least a list of their titles. Even so, it's an engaging collection.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By J. Robinson on October 22, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is a collection of 46 essays on writing fiction. Each is about four or five pages long and each is by an established author. The authors discuss where they got the ideas for stories, how they approach the tasks, their general feelings on writing, and sometimes they tell us how they became successful. The book has a short introduction by the editor, John Darnton. Overall, the book is excellent.

There are a few bad spots so let us dispense with those first.

I am a fan of Saul Bellow and have read most of his novels. I bought the book - in part - because he was a contributor. So I first read his piece and then read the contribution by John Updike. Both wrote rather disappointingly shallow comments and then each author took the opportunity to peddle a publication. One wonders if they were invited to contribute or if one of their short stories or short essays was simply included by the editor. Perhaps "how they write and what are their ideas" is a question that they are tired of discussing? At that point one wants to throw the book into the wastebasket. But do not give up yet.

By the way, there is a good interview with Saul Bellow in the Paris Review on line and one learns in that interview - free of charge - where he got some of his ideas and how he developed as a writer.

Fortunately for us, the other forty or so contributors took their tasks seriously, or they are not tired of the question.

In any case, the hard facts are that most published authors do not work in isolation and most have some sort of professional training. One of the messages in the book advanced by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and others is that it is a good idea to attend a writers workshop or school.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Debra Hamel VINE VOICE on November 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
Writers on Writing is a mixed bag of essays, edited by journalist John Darnton, that were originally published in the New York Times. The authors of the forty-some pieces that comprise the volume are all celebrated writers (though I confess I was not familiar with all their bylines), a good many of them household names: Kurt Vonnegut and Alice Hoffman and John Updike and Scott Turow and so on. The authors were charged with writing about, well, writing, and they manage to do so, surprisingly enough, without ever stepping on one another's subject matter: each essayist approaches the topic in a manner peculiar to themselves.

Some of the essays, those that had the least to do with the task of writing, left me cold: it is a shame that the collection, which is organized alphabetically by author, begins with a particularly weak contribution. But there are far more worthy essays than not in this volume. Among the most interesting of the lot are Kent Haruf's piece on the peculiar way that some writers, including himself, write, and David Leavitt's fascinating reminiscence of his early insistence on order in the unlikeliest of places: "I didn't like it if there were more songs on one side [of a record] than the other; the songs had to be at least three minutes long, with a title that appeared in neither the first nor the last line. (If the title appeared in both the first and the last line, I would remove the offending album from my shelf.)" Writing, Leavitt explains, was a means for him to impose order on ordinary life. There is, too, a very amusing piece by Ed McBain on crime writing, and David Mamet writes of the joys of genre fiction, and in particular of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series (now a major motion picture!).
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