Collected Essays by Joan Didion

Collected Essays coverCollected Essays: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and After Henry
Joan Didion
Open Road Media (March 6, 2018), 665 pages
Kindle edition $15.99
purchased on sale for$4.99

This book is not collected essays in the formal sense of the term. Joan Didion published other essay collections that are not included here. The three volumes do, however, represent a solid body of Didion’s work from the sixties, seventies, and the eighties.

Having never read Didion before, I did not realize that she belonged to the school of gonzo journalism (or new journalism) that Hunter S. Thompson originated and others like Tom Wolfe practiced. If one defines this school of reporting as the writer involving him or herself in the story he or she is writing, however, these three volumes certainly qualify. And if one stereotype of this approach is that the practitioners are known for their substance abuse, Didion seems to fit the mold. Regarding writing the essay from which the first book takes its title Didion writes, “I was in fact as sick as I have ever been when I was writing ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’; the pain kept me awake at night and so for twenty and twenty-one hours a day I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece.” That passage made me wonder how Didion lived to age 87. (She died on December 23, 2021.)

In The White Album Didion covers the waterfront, if you will forgive the cliché, of the sixties. She writes about John Wayne shooting a movie and has dinner with him and his wife. She visits the school for social thought Joan Baez set up in Carmel Valley. She writes about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, a sort of liberal think tank that had its heyday in the sixties. Didion’s ability to craft a sentence in her unique style shows up in this essay:

quoteI have long been interested in the Center’s rhetoric, which has about it the kind of ectoplasmic generality that always makes me sense I am on the track of the real soufflé, the genuine American kitsch.

The title essay, taken, of course, from the W.B. Yeats poem, involves her visit to some of the young runaways in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. While some of us (and I include myself) are wont to look back with nostalgia on the hippie era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” portrays a bleak and sometimes depressing picture of the lives these young people lived.

The second volume, The White Album, is a rather different set of essays. Didion writes about her family and her origins in the rural country outside Sacramento. She writes about Santa Ana winds and California wildfires. She writes about the Manson murders and the subsequent trial. In true gonzo fashion Didion picks out the dress for one woman who was a witness at the trial. In a less grim setting, Didion attends the Jaycees’ 32nd Annual Congress of America’s Ten Outstanding Young Men, although she is not comfortable with the values of the organization. She writes that participating in that event “was a curious and troubling way to spend a few days in the opening weeks of 1970.” In her survey of shopping malls in their heyday she writes, tongue firmly in cheek, that she considered building such a mall as a way to support her fiction writing. She carefully describes the definitions of the three types of shopping centers: A, B, and C.

The title After Harry refers to an editor Didion and her husband shared, and in particular to his untimely death. (She always refers to her husband simply as “my husband,” even though he was, of course, the well-known writer John Gregory Dunne.) Didion writes about the 1988 presidential campaign, focusing in particular on Michael Dukakis. She discusses the last days of Tom Bradley’s mayoral tenure in Los Angeles and her time as a visiting professor at her alma mater, UC Berkeley, when she visited both Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley labs. She offers a history of the Los Angeles Times and reports in detail about how many staffers and readers believed that the (then) new Orange County edition distracted the paper from its proper mission.

Since Didion is a native Californian I was rather surprised that she wrote California Highway 1 “runs from the Mexican border to the Oregon line.” In fact, Highway 1 ends at Dana Point on the south end and on the north ends at Highway 101 near Leggett, after having turned inland past Rockport. To be fair, her focus was that section of Highway 1 in Los Angeles and Orange Counties referred to at the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH. (Being an exiled Northern Californian, I would never use that term to refer to the stretch of Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo north.) And that is a small matter in a set of books full of informative and well-written essays.

As someone who had never previously read Joan Didion’s work I found Collected Essays interesting and entertaining.


The Typewriter Century

The Typewriter Century coverThe Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices
Martyn Lyons
University of Toronto Press (February 2, 2021), 275 pages
Kindle edition $18.12, Amazon paperback $32.95

I have a long history with the typewriter. When I was in elementary school I asked Mrs. Werner next door to teach me to type on her manual upright typewriter. I guess I was a poor student because I never did learn to touch type. Over the next few years I whined enough that my grandparents finally got me a typewriter for my birthday. It was a small Royal portable. It wasn’t well made, and it kept going back to the stationery store for repair. Eventually, the very patient owner, Mr. Hubb, replaced it with a newer and slightly better model.

For some reason that typewriter never made it to Pitzer College in Claremont with me. Instead, I took an old manual portable, perhaps an Underwood. It too had its problems, and it frequently visited the typewriter repair shop in Pomona. But it got me through college. After college, unable to bear the thought of leaving Claremont, I shared an apartment with my friend George. He let me use his electric typewriter, but objected to my frequent use of liquid paper, which he called “bird shit.” It must have been after I moved to Oklahoma City that I got a portable SCM typewriter, which I loved because I could effortlessly swap out the ink cartridge for the correction cartridge. My final typewriter was a fairly fancy one that had a memory of several hundred characters.

It was with interest, then, that I saw an ad in the New York Review of Books for The Typewriter Century. The book presents a unique viewpoint as author Martyn Lyons is an Australian educated at Oxford, and the University of Toronto Press published the book. We certainly read more about Australian writers than we might find in a book on the same subject by another author.

Lyons writes both about the history of the machine and the people who used it. It is interesting to read about the various iterations and attempts at creating a mechanical system for writing. The author points out that the QWERTY keyboard was not necessarily the best option to keep fast typists from jamming keys (the reason Christopher Latham Sholes invented it); it was simply the design that won out. And, as we all experience every day, it still dominates the market despite the occasional attempt to replace it.

I found the discussions about the relationships that writers had with their typewriters fascinating. Lyon writes that the typewriter was essential for T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. He notes, “The machine was inseparable from their creative work.” Of course, I suspect that Hemmingway’s terse style was inherent to his character and not strictly the result of his using the typewriter.

Lyons dispels the myth of Jack Kerouac and his scrolls. Yes, Kerouac did write early drafts on scrolls, sheets of paper taped together. However, he submitted his manuscripts to his publishers in the conventional manner.

The author spends considerable space discussing Erle Stanley Gardner and the writing factory he set up on a ranch outside Temecula, California, just half an hour south of where I sit composing this review. Gardner had a staff of typists to shape his considerable output into a form suitable for submission to publishers. Gardner didn’t especially love writing, however. Lyons reports Gardner told an interviewer, “I’m in the game for money, and if I have any talent I haven’t prostituted, and find it out, I’ll start her out on the streets tonight.”

Lyons devotes a chapter to women authors of the twentieth century, from Agatha Christie to Barbara Taylor Bradford. He provides some interesting insight into their lives and work, but his treatment comes off as just a tad sexist.

The treatment Lyons gives to the transition from the typewriter to the word processor is weak from my perspective. He fails to discuss that there was something of a battle as to whether word processing should be done on a separate machine or be incorporated into a multi-function computer. When I was living in Oklahoma and visited my college friend Sue in Santa Monica in the early 1980s she was working for the RAND Corporation. She said that she believed that word processing was splitting off from computing. As late as 1990 or so, my friend Don, a retired schoolteacher, wanted to write his memoir for his family. He was debating whether to buy a word processor or a computer. I recommended a computer; he bought a dedicated word processor. Several months later we had a conversation that went like this:

Don: “Maybe I should have bought a computer.”
Me: “Don, I told you that.”
Don: (sheepishly) “I know.”

Today one would be hard pressed to find a dedicated word processor, and I’m not sure why someone would want one.

The Typewriter Century is enjoyable reading for anyone interested in writing and its associated technologies.


some sound advice on writing

Bird by Bird coverBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne Lamott
Anchor (December 18, 2007), 258 pages
originally published by Pantheon Books, 1994
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $8.69

 

Writing Your Story photoWriting Your Story (video recording of a one-day workshop)
Joyce Maynard
streaming video $39.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
(if it’s not on sale don’t worry – the sale price will come around again)
or stream with a Wondrium subscription

 

I have a long history with both Anne Lamott and Joyce Maynard. All three of us are the same age.

I first encountered Joyce Maynard after I graduated from Pitzer College in 1975 when I found her book Looking Back while I was working at B. Dalton Bookseller. I loved her take on the culture of the late sixties and the early seventies and believed we had a very similar worldview. Later, I discovered she wanted to be the “voice of her generation,” but did not hold those views at all. I felt betrayed, to say the least. I was disgruntled by her commentaries on the CBS Radio opinion segment Spectrum, in which she took the conservative viewpoint. Maynard was, of course, the mysterious woman who dropped out of Yale to live with J. D. Salinger, something she wrote about twenty-five years later in her memoir At Home in the World. Over the years and especially having read At Home in the World I have come to forgive her.

I first became acquainted with Ann Lamott when she was a regular guest on the San Francisco public radio program West Coast Live in the mid-1990s. She raised her son Sam as a single mom and wrote about it in her book Operating Instructions. Sam was born just a year before our nephew Race, and Terry’s sister also raised Race as a single mother. Lamott wrote her book Bird by Bird as a distillation of what she taught in her writing classes. She has also written several books on spirituality and faith, with which I have resonated.

It occurred to me that if I am serious about continuing to develop my writing skills I ought to read Bird by Bird. I have no idea why I didn’t read it long ago. Since I have a Wondrium subscription I decided to read Lamott’s book and watch Maynard’s workshop simultaneously. After all, these two women have something in common that I lack: they have both published books. I decided I had something to learn from both of them.

Lamott and Maynard agree on a lot, but they disagree on one significant point. Lamott takes the view that most teachers of writing espouse: if you’re stuck, just start writing and clean it up later. Maynard does not believe in that approach. She believes that you’ll never be able to properly clean it up, so you should carefully consider what you want to say before you write.

They both advocate writing in small chunks. Lamott talks about one-inch picture frames and Maynard tells her students to use “containers.” They both make clear that you need to keep your readers’ interest. Lamott was fortunate to have a father who was a published author, and his agent was willing to indulge Lamott by looking at her work. He returned one piece, however, with the comment that Lamott seemed to think that everything she did was interesting. Maynard emphasizes that not all details are equally interesting. She says that it’s probably not worth noting that your English professor had brown eyes. However, if he smoked a cigar in class, that might be worth mentioning.

The focus of Bird by Bird is on fiction, so much of the book doesn’t apply to my nonfiction writing. But there is a lot I was able to take away from it nonetheless. Maynard focuses her class on memoir, so she provided me a lot of useful material.

Both Lamott and Maynard take a similar approach to getting your work published. Lamott says:

quoteWriting can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.

Maynard tells the class much the same thing. It’s not about getting published; it’s about the opportunity to express yourself. She tells the workshop that getting published will not make you rich. Recorded in 2018, she tells the group that she drives a 1995 Honda Civic.

I learned a lot from both women, and they no doubt have more to teach me about writing.


To Show and to Tell

To Show and To Tell coverTo Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
Phillip Lopate
Free Press (February 12, 2013), 242 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $10.39

I have been reading and writing essays since my days at Pitzer College in the 1970s. I believe it was the second semester of my senior year that I took a course in composition and fell in love with the form. In particular, I admired the essays of George Orwell, so much so that I bought the complete set of Orwell’s Collected Essays not long after graduation. (Along with everything else of Orwell’s that was in print, but we’re talking about nonfiction and essays here.)

Phillip Lopate is a professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches nonfiction writing, and has been director of Columbia’s nonfiction program. In the present volume he has a lot to say about the writing of nonfiction in general, and the essay in particular. Lopate states that “some of our best recent writers were arguably better at nonfiction than fiction.” I believe that to be true of Orwell, whom he lists, but he also includes Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion in this category.

Lopate holds up the Frenchman Montaigne as the originator and the gold standard of the personal essay, an assessment that I’ve encountered before. In fact, I once bought a Kindle edition of one of Montaigne’s essay collections and found it practically unreadable. I have to allow that it may have been the translation, however. And in any case Lopate offers many other examples of skilled essayists, including Virginia Woolf, Loren Eiseley, and Edmund Wilson.

The author writes about the idea of obsession, and how that is a useful tool for fiction. But he says that “we nonfiction writers don’t need it.” He asks rhetorically, “Then what is needed to generate nonfiction?” His answer: curiosity. Lopate states:

quoteThe challenge faced by the nonfiction writer is to take something that actually happened, to herself or to others, and try to render it as honestly and compellingly as possible.

Lopate has given me a list of authors to add to my reading list. He says that the best writer of the nature essay is Edward Hoagland. I haven’t read him. He offers excerpts from the essays of James Baldwin. Magnificent writing I’ll have to pursue. He states that the best travel writers are Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Bruce Chatwin, and Kate Simon. I have only read Chatwin. (And how could he omit Paul Theroux?)

The book’s title comes from the overworked axiom constantly thrown at writers: “Show, don’t tell.” Lopate writes, “I would argue that literary nonfiction is surely the one arena in which it is permissible to ‘tell.’” Lopate does both superbly. It wasn’t until I got to the acknowledgments at the end of the book that I discovered it is a compilation of essays published elsewhere. The book flows beautifully as a single, cohesive work.

To Show and to Tell motivates me to keep reading and keep writing.


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.


Written Communications

Written CommunicationsWritten Communications: Being Heard and Understood
Allison Friederichs, PhD
University of Denver, University College
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The advantage of having a Wondrium subscription is that I don’t have to consider whether or not a given course is worth buying. I can simply start streaming the course and see how I like it. With Written Communications: Being Heard and Understood, the course description intrigued me. At the same time, the title of the first lecture put me off: “Impactful Writing.” Impactful? Really? But then the Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary lists the word with no qualification. There is no notation such as “nonstandard” or “informal.” So I forged ahead.

The course was, in fact, very useful. The focus of the course is on business writing, but much of the content is applicable no matter what kind of writing you are doing. Despite her use of the word “impactful” (which she uses often) and despite her charming, witty (I’m tempted to say perky) demeanor, Allison Friederichs is old school and no-nonsense when it comes to grammar and usage. She comes down firmly against the singular “they,” only offering a sort of footnote at the end of the discussion, acknowledging that the usage is becoming accepted in many circles. She favors, as you would expect, the Oxford comma.

Friederichs offers a structured approach to composing any sort of document (email included, she emphasizes). She calls the method ACE: analyze, craft, and edit. Friederichs devotes a half-hour lecture to each step. The middle step, in her view, is the least important and your time should be spent on planning the document and editing your original draft. She discusses the importance of word choice and talks about writing in such a way to maintain a positive relationship with your correspondents.

I thought the final lecture, which was on email, might be less useful than the other lectures. It turned out to have some very practical advice. For example, regarding email attachments Friederichs suggests first adding the attachment, then writing the email, and finally completing to TO: field. That eliminates those follow-up “oops” emails resulting from forgotten attachments.

The lectures on punctuation and grammar provide an excellent review even if you are familiar with the material, and the ACE process for writing is worth taking a careful look at. This is a practical course with material that one can apply to any sort of writing.


English Grammar Boot Camp (revisited)

English Grammar Boot Camp coverEnglish Grammar Boot Camp
Anne Curzan, PhD
University of Michigan
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The Great Courses released this lecture series in 2016 and I had great things to say about it at the time. I thought this would be a good time to revisit it.

Much has changed in five years. Curzan was then a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which was for decades my favorite dictionary. Sadly, as I wrote, the usage panel no longer exists and the dictionary is now frozen in time. I now go to Merriam-Webster for my dictionary inquiries. The Chronicle of Higher Education shut down Lingua Franca, the great language blog to which she refers. On the upside, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks the use of words and phrases over time, now goes up to the year 2019, and not just to 2008 as it did in 2016. And professor Curzan herself? She is now dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.

The passage of time and all these changes notwithstanding, the course holds up nicely five years later. Curzan tells us it is all right to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition. She says that while it is best to use the active voice in most cases, sometimes flow or style might mean that the passive is more appropriate. There are a couple of things that she emphasizes repeatedly. Curzan tells us that while a certain construction might not be wrong, its use may be jarring to an intended audience and distract them from your message. Or it may simply cause them to view your writing skills negatively. (Depending on your audience, any of the three usage styles mentioned above might be examples.) Curzan also talks about the importance of consistency. Style guides disagree, so she tells us to select one approach and use it consistently.

Curzan does not take a strong stand on the Oxford comma (or serial comma as it is sometimes known). She tells us she prefers it but does not insist on it. Simply be consistent, she says. Personally, I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, as is the Chicago Manual of Style, my preferred style guide. I believe it helps to reduce ambiguity. My favorite example of ambiguity caused by the missing final comma is a book dedication, probably apocryphal (I hate to say): “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Curzan is both a linguist and a professor of English, so she offers a balanced approach to grammar and usage. As a linguist, she also provides a lot of historical background and shows us that certain constructions which we might view as recent and incorrect have been around for centuries. For example, Curzan tells us that Shakespeare used both singular they (which Chicago now accepts) and double negatives (Celia in As You Like It: “I cannot go no further.”). The Bard even uses the subject form of a pronoun where we would expect to see the object: “Yes, you have seen Cassio, and she together.” That’s not to say that we should be doing so in formal writing today.

The course title is misleading. This series is both fun and informative. In fact, of all the Great Courses series that I have purchased, and that number now exceeds one hundred, it is the only one for which I have purchased the full course transcript (as opposed to the guidebook that comes with the course).

If you are a grammar or language nerd you will find English Grammar Boot Camp well worth your time.


tools and writing

I had some reasonable freelance income for the first five months of the year, though things have quieted down considerably here in June. I was looking at income versus business expenses, and I realized I had booked very little on the expense side. Now, I don’t mind paying taxes with the current administration in Washington, but I still like to minimize how much I do pay in taxes. So I decided to indulge myself.

writing and bloggingI bought a one-year subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud suite. Now the consensus in the forum for writers and editors to which I belong is that the Adobe pricing is expensive (perhaps bordering on unreasonable). Still, I had a few reasons for making the purchase. One was access to the full-featured version of Acrobat, including the ability to edit PDFs and create fillable PDF forms. Another was Photoshop. I bought a new computer last September, and even if I could have located the CD of my ancient Photoshop version, I had no idea of where to find the license key. Then there’s the web-based portfolio development tool, which allows one to create a visually appealing web portfolio. Finally, there is InDesign, the direct lineal successor (as my classics professor in college would say) to PageMaker. Not sure I’ll do a lot with that, but it might be fun to dabble.

I no doubt will discover other cool things that I can do with Creative Cloud. For example, sometimes I find a recipe in a magazine that I want to add to my recipe software, but which is not on the magazine’s web site. I often scan such things with my Dropbox iPhone app and create a PDF, but the PDF is an image, not copyable text, so I would need to open it in Word or some such thing. I just discovered that the full Acrobat can run OCR on the PDF so I can copy and paste the recipe text into my software. Very useful.

There is nothing in Creative Cloud that directly supports my writing. But with all the tools available, and there are many more than I enumerate here, perhaps I will find some inspiration to give me a kick start and get me back on track with my own writing. Given that my contract writing work has slowed down considerably and I’m feeling somewhat at loose ends, that would be a Good Thing.


The End of the Road for My Favorite Dictionary

I am a word nerd. I love language. Given that, it should be no surprise that I love dictionaries. (But you likely knew that.)

American Heritage Dictionary coverMy favorite dictionary has long been The American Heritage Dictionary. You may have noticed that is the American Heritage Dictionary (or AHD) next to me in my profile picture. It was something new and different when it was first published in 1969. The development of the AHD was prompted by what was conceived of as the permissiveness of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. What made the AHD unique was its usage panel. The editors polled a group of writers as to the acceptability of the usage of certain words, and from those responses usage notes were created for certain entries.

For example, with respect to the word hopefully meaning “it is to be hoped,” the usage note states:

In 1999, 34 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the sentence “Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified.” In 2012, 63 percent accepted this same sentence.

I bought a copy of the first edition of the AHD when I was in high school. During my B. Dalton Bookseller years sales reports showed that I swung sales away from the Merriam Webster Collegiate and to the AHD in whatever store I happened to be working. (That ended up being a total of five.)

Alas, it seems that the days of the American Heritage Dictionary being actively maintained have come to an end. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has made no proactive announcement, but the evidence is clear. The usage panel appears to have been disbanded. The last blog entry was published February 2018, and the most recent list of word additions were announced in January of that year. The most recent print edition is the fifth, published in 2011, with a “50th Anniversary Printing” of the fifth edition published in October 2018.

My first email to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asking them about the status of the AHD went unanswered. The response to the second came several days after I sent the email.

As of January 2020, we do not have any new print editions planned at this time. However, the website is being occasionally updated, including for biographical changes (e.g. death dates/political terms ending), and sensitivity issues (most recently updating the word Black to show the racial/ethnic group sense can be either upper or lowercase and be equally valid).

Note the word “occasionally.” That means no active maintenance. No updates as meanings of words change. No additions of neologisms as they come into common use. No new polls of the usage panel as a particular usage of a given word becomes more common or less frequently used.

That’s it.

That leaves the Merriam-Webster family as the only dictionaries in the United States being actively maintained. Since I began doing freelance work I have subscribed to the online edition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary. It is now my go-to reference.

Ah, but American Heritage, we knew you well.


Why We Write

Why We Write coverWhy We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
Meredith Maran
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.