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Book Review

Reluctantly, Writers Attempt to Put Their Muses Into Words

WHY I WRITE; \o7 Edited by Will Blythe\f7 ;\o7 (Little, Brown $23, 252 pages)\f7


Asking a novelist why he or she writes is a bit like throwing an egg into an electric fan. The joining of fragility (the writer's ego) to furious torque (also the writer's ego) risks a cloud of spatter.

Will Blythe, putting the question to 26 well-known American writers, does emerge with a dribble or two of egg on his face. It is worth it. Along with doses of posturing, unhinged prose, kiss-offs and maneuvers, he has elicited shrewd and poignant revelations about the process and the pain. Twenty-six writers--26 ways of begging an unanswerable question, if you like--but what a lot is delivered in many of these beggars' naked hands.

Blythe, short-story editor at Esquire--not a bad place from which to cajole his writer contributors--started off with Norman Mailer, who sent back a phrase from a French novelist friend: "The only time I know the truth is when it reveals itself at the point of my pen." It's a good quote but seems prepackaged: Mailer is past the stage when a question compels an answer. Still, his name served to persuade at least one reluctant contributor to reply.

In many cases it was clearly not easy to; as well ask a high-wire artist in mid-peril how he keeps his balance. There are nerves; there is the elaborate diversionary dance of the crane stilting away from her nest and eggs. The diversion points unfailingly to the eggs, of course; and even the most oblique of the writers' replies provides a good deal of revelation.

Amy Hempel wanders off, seemingly, about her dogs. It is a circuit she takes--the designer Galliano putting on a jacket upside-down for flair; a baby smearing its diaper on its head--and then back to a dog she lost in the woods. The ranger offers to consult a printout of highway road-kill. "It is the place I hate to look," he tells her, and the writing ordeal is defined.

Even Steven Wright, who seems to blow the question off by typing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" 82 times, answers it. Amid the repetition, a sudden misprint here and there: "all work and no boy" or "makes Jack a dull joy." Writers pound away interminably at their brains until a synapse bends and typewriting turns to writing.

Some of the novelists take refuge in inflated grandiloquence, though even here they will let slip a taut, revealing phrase. Barry Hannah, in mid-rampage, quiets to suggest that a writer, far from being more alive than other people, may be "deader . . . a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work." Joy Williams' exuberance sobers to note that "a writer is not supposed to make friends with his writing."

The theme is picked up by Jayne Anne Phillips who, after a brief crane's dance of refusing the "why do you write" ("I don't know why and I hope I never find out"), writes searingly about what it is like. It never rests in itself and is never over ("it is a process book to book, finished piece to abandoned fragment"). Only occasionally is there a miraculous instant of relief when "the writer can begin to follow the work, descend with it, a brain in a diving bell, breathing through a tube."

"Descending" is also the image used by Rick Bass for such a breakthrough. He writes, otherwise, of the two worlds, real and imaginary, both of which the writer needs to inhabit in permanent, precarious balance. From his Montana cabin one morning, he saw a mountain lion attack a fawn; for the rest of the day, imagination was crowded out.

A number of the writers turn to their childhoods; it doesn't exactly answer the "why" but it does place it. Elizabeth Gilbert cites her indulgence by parents passionate about books and writing; when she sold a short story, her father was moved to tears. She goes on, in one of the collection's finest pieces, to relate the quirky process of wrestling with a story and having it come together.

Other writers cite dreadful childhoods. There is an element of brag in some of them; on the other hand, Mark Richard limns his life as a miserably "special child" with such grace and wit that it could stand alone as a short story or serve as the start of a novel.

One of the plainest and strongest accounts, in an occasion that tempts a few to take effusive holiday from their craft's discipline, is Robert Stone's. As a child, he writes, "I thought there were times when the world, in its loneliness, required something other than the vast silence in which we labored. I knew no other way of not being alone in the world than through language.

"Eventually the silence came to seem to me like an absence of something that must somehow be invoked. I knew only writing, that message in a bottle, with its artificial sounds and mimicked speech and tropes, as a means of invocation."

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