Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
Plume (January 29, 2013), 250 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $10.98
As one who loves reading about writers and writing I found this book absolutely delightful. Meredith Maran asked twenty writers for their reflections on the writing life. The commentaries are arranged alphabetically so as to not inadvertently imply any sort of hierarchy, and Maran includes writers of both bestsellers and literary fiction (with a few nonfiction writers thrown in as well).
Each chapter is structured the same. Maran begins with an excerpt from that author’s work, followed by a generally witty and entertaining introduction. She then provides some biographical information and a complete (as of the 2013 publication date) bibliography of each writer’s works. Next she gives us the writer’s reflections in his or her own words, and concludes with the author’s advice to aspiring writers.
The book is a bit dated, having been published in 2013. For example, Meg Wolitzer was one of the writers included. Her novel The Interestings was one of the most enjoyable and engaging novels I have ever read, but it was published in 2013, the same year as Why We Write, so that novel wasn’t part of Wolitzer’s corpus as listed in her bibliography.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of interesting stuff here. And there are many common threads. Most of the writers offered some version of “I write because I have to” or “I write because I don’t know anything else.” With respect to advice, there were a number of variations of both “If you want to write well do a lot of reading“ and “If you want to write then keep writing. Don’t worry about whether you get published.”
That last bit of advice provides me with the impetus to keep on blogging. It’s time for me to get back to writing my blog more frequently.
“Some things are best not written down.” That’s how I started my speech at Toastmasters two weeks ago. And that is why I gave a speech instead of writing a blog about that particular topic. I pointed out that what you put out there on the internet is there forever—even if you think that you’ve deleted it.
The subject in question had to do with the behavior of a family member that was, well, inexplicable, and the repercussions that resulted from that behavior. It made for a good speech; I received the best speaker ribbon and people were visibly moved. But I made the speech and now it is lost to the ether. It was not recorded in any way.
Which makes me think of a pledge I made here some years ago. I was listening to a series from The Great Courses about writing nonfiction and I had read about works published as nonfiction that were in fact mostly fabricated. (Conversely, some novels are actually more memoir than fiction.)
My pledge was that everything I tell you is the truth. I will, not, however, tell you everything.
That pledge still stands.
It’s time for a short blog hiatus. I am having surgery on Wednesday for an object on my intestinal tract that should not be there and needs to be removed. I expect to be back blogging in a couple of weeks, the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, along with your prayers and good thoughts, of course.
That may well be all you care to know, and that makes perfect sense. If you choose to keep reading, however, I can fill you in with a little more background, but I will endeavor to avoid the slippery slope of TMI.
It’s been quite a journey, going back nearly a year. After my annual physical last year my primary care physician ordered a blood cell count, presumably because I told the medical student who saw me before he came into the exam room that I had lost weight for no apparent reason. My white count came back high, which resulted in an ultrasound and a referral to urology as the issue appeared to be kidney-related. A CT scan followed, with the urologist saying, “You don’t need me” and referring me to gastroenterology. Those folks told me that I had a GIST, a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. The medical team ordered two different endoscopic procedures to confirm that it was only that. The gastrointestinal surgeon partnered with the oncologist (head of oncology at Kaiser Riverside, by the way!) who prescribed a medication to shrink the GIST. No effect, the second CT scan revealed. Bad news: larger rather than smaller is harder to remove. Good news: the medication not shrinking it means it’s probably not cancerous.
So here we are. Think of me (as the song from Phantom of the Opera says), and my intent is to be back with you soon. I have cleared out my queue of backlogged blog entries and will be starting fresh when I return. Once restarted, this blog may take a slightly different approach or focus but I do plan to keep blogging. Writing is central to who I am, and I have much to write about.
I had the privilege for several months of writing customer success stories for an agency in Silicon Valley. I really enjoyed the work. It was interesting and it kept me on my toes. I also had to keep in mind which client I was writing for. All of the agency’s clients except for one used the Associated Press Stylebook (AP). The one holdout client used the Chicago Manual of Style, which I prefer.
There are differences between the two styles. Chicago supports the serial comma and says to spell out numbers under one hundred. AP tells us to omit the serial comma and to spell out numbers one through ten.
There are other style guides, of course. The Modern Language Association has its own style guide, but that is followed mostly in the academic world and not so much in business writing. The Council of Scientific Editors publishes the Scientific Style and Format guide, which I am told states that numbers are never spelled out.
There is much that all agree on with respect to proper grammar and syntax. It’s important to maintain those standards. But not everything is set in stone. As I hear from many experts, the important thing is to be consistent within a given work. I am partial to Chicago, but I can write to AP and I do.
I admit to being something of a style and grammar nerd. But then I enjoy being a style and grammar nerd.
I have to apologize. The blogger in the cartoon below? That’s me. I recognized myself immediately when I first saw the cartoon. That hurt. But I suppose it’s a good thing that I did recognize me.
I’m hoping that I can say that was me. I want to believe that I’m not that way anymore. I was that way, though. Just ask my friend Lynn, with whom I would meet for coffee before Terry and I moved south. Lynn, I apologize. That’s not a good way to treat a friend.
This cartoon comes, by the way, from the TED talk 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation given by public radio host Celeste Headlee. I highly recommend it. It has had more than nine million views, and there’s a reason for that.
And in my case I trust that reading my blog is not necessary for friends to learn about what is happening in my life.
I wrote a while back about having subscribed to the unabridged Merriam-Webster (M-W) dictionary online. It made sense, given the freelance writing work that I am doing. But then the thought occurred to me: have I gone over to the Dark Side?
I have been an advocate of the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) for decades. I have long loved its more prescriptive as opposed to descriptive approach (though that is a serious oversimplification). The usage notes with the AHD usage panel can be very helpful. In my B. Dalton Bookseller days in the 1970s and 1980s I was able to singlehandedly skew the sales reports in the stores in which I worked, increasing AHD sales at the expense of the whatever-current-at-the-time edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. I would chortle with delight when I saw those reports.
Even today the AHD sometimes includes details not found in the M-W unabridged. When looking up the word “bake-off” for a piece I was writing both M-W and AHD capitalized the phrase and said that it was a Service Mark. But only AHD added the note that it was sometimes used lower case and gener
ically. Similarly, the M-W unabridged does not list “podiatric,” while AHD does list it as an adjective under podiatry.
The problem is that it is not clear to me how much in the way of resources are being put into the AHD these days and whether we’ll see another edition after the current 5th, given that its publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is a struggling firm. M-W seems to have effectively made the transition to the digital world and appears to be healthily surviving if not thriving.
Yes, I paid for my subscription to the unabridged M-W and that was the Right Thing to do given the work I am doing. But I can’t shake the feeling that I am cheating on a long-time faithful lover.
At some point in the 1970s I bought a small vest-pocket book called 50,000 words. I don’t remember whether I was still in college or if I bought it shortly thereafter. In those pre-personal computer days I needed something to check my spelling when I was writing. I didn’t need to pull out a complete dictionary; I simply needed to find the correct spelling. It was a handy little thing and I used it a lot.
I haven’t really used it for many years since our computer applications effectively check spelling for us, but I recently had the impulse to pull it out of my center desk drawer where I had kept it for so many decades. It wasn’t there. I suppose I considered it expendable when we were moving.
It’s too bad. The book represented another era in my life. Copies are still around, however. Here’s one that I found on eBay which looks just like the one I had.