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.
I get an email each time the folks at grammarbook.com publish a new blog entry. The pieces are often interesting and I have the opportunity refresh and review my knowledge of various grammar rules. Sometimes, however, the people there can get just a little too fussy and stuffy. Such was the case with a recent discussion of tautologies.
A tautology is, of course, a needless repetition of words. The Grammar Book crew tells us that we should eliminate all tautologies from our writing.
Some tautologies we can clearly do without. “Forward planning” is a good example. Can you plan for the past? However, the article also cites phrases such as “each and every one,” “above and beyond,” and “vast majority” as forms to avoid.
The piece admits that tautologies will always exist in spoken language. (When I was in the food service business in college the cook would say that he was going to “steam off” the vegetables. The unnecessary “off” is part of the rhythm and cadence of spoken English.) The story then goes on to say, “Careful writers, on the other hand, have the time and the will to infuse their linguistic diets with protein. They cut the sugar and carbs that add calories without nutrients to their thoughts.”
What the Grammar Book people fail to acknowledge is that 1) cadence and rhythm matter in written English as well as spoken and 2) the longer version can have a different shade of meaning than the simpler form.
To cite their examples, both “each and every one” and “above and beyond” have a cadence that a stripped down version would be without. They also offer a form of emphasis that would be missing in a simpler version. There are instances where “vast majority” is indeed appropriate. Fifty percent plus one is a majority, but not a vast majority. In a recent ballot initiative in the City of Lake Elsinore, California, the No vote was 3,320, while the Yes vote was 446. In this case, the vast majority of people casting their ballots voted No.
Here’s another phrase the blog tells us to avoid: “invited guest.” Again, there are times when “invited” might be appropriate. If you are driving down the interstate and are getting tired you might stop and check in at a motel. You are a guest at the motel, but not an invited guest. However, if you receive an invitation to a formal banquet on linen stock with raised ink and then are treated shabbily by the host, someone might write in your defense that you were, after all, an “invited guest.”
While there are plenty of situations in which tautology is best avoided (don’t you hate those signs that read “ATM Machine”?) tautology is nonetheless one of many components that makes English the rich language that it is.
Use it when appropriate.
Grammar nerds are delighted at the news story last week that the Oxford comma decided a court case. Being a grammar nerd who loves the Oxford comma, I got caught up in the excitement.
The Oxford comma, or serial comma, is the final comma right before the conjunction in a series of words. Some style guides favor it, others say to omit it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says not to use it. The Chicago Manual of Style tells us we should use it.
Here is an example: “I had eggs, toast, and orange juice.” If you omit the final comma (I had eggs, toast and orange juice) the sentence could be read as telling the toast and orange juice that you had eggs for breakfast.
In fact, eliminating ambiguity is one of the strongest arguments in favor of the Oxford comma. Take this example: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” While this was probably never really a dedication in a published book, I love it nonetheless. The implication that the author is saying that his parents are Ayn Rand and God really strikes my funny bone.
And the court case? The court case was all about ambiguity. In Maine a group of dairy delivery drivers believed they were entitled to overtime pay. Their employer said they weren’t. The relevant statute states that workers involved in the following activities are not eligible for overtime:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Note the missing comma before the “or.” Because that comma was not there, the court read “packing for shipment or distribution” as a single activity, when in fact “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were probably meant to be understood as separate activities. Nonetheless, the judge sided with the (missing) Oxford comma and ruled that the delivery drivers were eligible for overtime.
Here’s to the Oxford comma!
I very much enjoyed this course. As a blogger I appreciated what Professor Cognard-Black had to say about what makes a proper essay. You can write about your own experience any time you want, but until you include a more universal component, until you work in a perspective to which your readers can relate, you have not written an actual essay.
For anyone desiring to get serious about essay writing, this can be a highly useful course. Cognard-Black discusses a wide variety of essay types: skeptical, reasonable, empathetic, visual, and on and on. She reads from well-written, evocative essays. And she gives assignments. After discussing a particular type of essay she provides instructions how to get started writing one.
There is a lot of valuable material here. I expect to listen to this course again.