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Writers writing about writing: 'Why We Write'

January 28, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Books on display at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles.
Books on display at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Joan Didion had it right. In her 1976 essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review, she lays out the template in no uncertain terms: “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Didion’s call to arms is quoted in the introduction to “Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Writers on How and Why They Do What They Do” (Plume: 228 pp., $16 paper), edited by Meredith Maran, who is donating part of her royalties from the book to 826 National, the advocacy and literacy organization for kids. If none of the contributors here (among them Susan Orlean, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Walter Mosley and Armistead Maupin) discuss the craft of writing quite that starkly, they reveal themselves in other ways.

“The only thing that makes me crazier than writing is not writing,” observes “Water for Elephants” author Sara Gruen; James Frey (James Frey?) admits, “I’m really not qualified to do anything else.”

Mary Karr stakes out a balance between spirit and substance: “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.”

Maran, of course, is interested in more than simply the spark that drives a writer; she means to get at the practicalities as well.

“During the 1980s,” Kathryn Harrison recalls, by way of explaining how she came to write her first novel, “I worked as a book editor at Viking Penguin. I loved the job. … But, after I’d been working at Viking for six months or so, my husband said, ‘This is really stupid. You’re working on other people’s writing instead of your own.’ So I began getting up at five in the morning, to write until seven, when I got ready for work.”

There’s nothing groundbreaking about such a revelation; we already know the lesson it offers, which is that if you want to be a writer, then you have to write.

And yet there’s a peculiar reassurance in seeing talents as diverse as these wrestling with common issues, common pressures: confidence, commitment, the need to carve out writing time.

“Exercising is a good analogy for writing,” observes Jennifer Egan. “If you’re not used to exercising you want to avoid it forever. If you’re used to it, it feels uncomfortable and strange not to.”

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