Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life

Beg Borrow Steal coverBeg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life
Michael Greenberg
Other Press (September 8, 2009), 242 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $10.75

I am always interested in books on the writing life, so this title caught my interest when I came across it.

Beg, Borrow, Steal is not a memoir. Rather, it is a collection of essays that first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement between June 2003 and April 2009. So while I learned a lot about Greenberg, some details of his life were unclear.

The author tells us he was the grandson of a European Jewish immigrant who put together a living in the United States by starting a scrap metal business. He passed that business to Greenberg’s father. Greenberg’s father wanted him to join the business along with his two older brothers, but Greenberg declined. His father later told him that it was just as well, as he wouldn’t have been successful anyway.

Greenberg writes about having a variety of jobs to support his writing. He drove a cab, and he worked as a Spanish-English translator in a New York court. We never learn how he learned Spanish, however. He spent his elementary school years in an Orthodox Jewish day school, and he writes nothing about having Spanish-speaking friends growing up.

We learn that he married his high school sweetheart, the daughter of parents whose politics were on the far left. They had at least one child, a son, before they ultimately divorced. He married at least one more time, maybe more. That’s not clear. He had at least one daughter and at least one more son. In one essay he comments that his youngest son was twenty-five years younger than his oldest. (Did I read that right?)

Greenberg is candid about his anxiety as a writer. He notes:

quoteFirst, there is the writer’s stock exchange, Amazon. It’s not clear whether it’s a wish for encouragement or self-torment that drives me to interrupt what I’m doing several times a day to check the book’s sales ranking. Every hour the ranking is updated, a constantly fluctuating verdict from a vast open market of invisible traders, each pondering his personalized Amazon screen before clicking the “Add to Cart” option, passing over my book in favor of another.

I didn’t get any profound insights into the craft of writing from the book, but Greenberg is honest in his self-portrayal, and I enjoyed his personable, casual style.

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