Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do Paperback – January 29, 2013
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“When I’m writing... I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now…and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.” —Jennifer Egan
“Every story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later.” —Isabel Allende
“In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now…I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I can exert a force.” —Michael Lewis
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The format of this particular book is clean, clear and appealing. Maran interviewed twenty notable authors and gives them each a short chapter. There is a nice balance between a standard set of questions and unique ones that flowed from the conversations. One of the things that works in its favour is the succinct length. The result is a comfortingly familiar set of responses mingled in with a wider array of pleasingly original bon mots. What struck me the most was honesty of response. All of those interviewed are extremely blunt in their assessment of the trade. The long and short is, writing is a challenge both as a skill and as a business.
What motivates these literary luminaries ranges from "sheer egoism" to "historical impulse" to bringing "order to the chaos of life". Among those in the book are David Baldacci, Sebastian Junger, Michael Lewis, Jodi Picoult and Meg Wolitzer. Sue Grafton delights with her reason for choosing the profession, "I write because in 1962 I put in my application for a job working in the children's department at Sears, and they never called me back."
Most believe that to be a good writer, one must read. That is an oft-cited tip but Jennifer Egan takes it further by suggesting that writers should "Read at the level at which you want to write." Other interesting advice comes from Isabelle Allende who suggests, "It's worth the work to find the right word." And Kathryn Harrison warns, "Writing is a lonely job. You have to be willing to work for months and months without anyone saying, "You're doing well; keep going.""
Credit must be given to James Frey. His chapter was the most fascinating and not only because of the unique dips and turns in his own career. The content throughout is inspiring and direct. Anyone who writes or is considering doing so will benefit from the advice in these pages. Lastly, I loved Ann Patchett's admission that she still writes in WordPerfect.
As with most books of this type, there is a decent amount of repetition and contradiction. But, that is the point! The repetition (ex: most writers are voracious readers; writing is a job; expect to write about 2 pages of fiction per day; write for its own sake not for rewards) helps paint a picture of shared experience. The contradiction(ex: write during the day vs write early morning/late night; write with music vs write in silence) shows that there is no "right" way to write.
There are a few nice threads that give the book a gentle narrative including: (a) comments on the Iowa Writers' Workshop (b) reactions to Orwell's four great motives for writing (c) tension between literary writing and commercial writing.
(Note: While I was reading this book, I did not notice the lack of an index. However, while writing this review, I wished it had one. Perhaps the publisher will include an index in the next printing.)