The subtitle sums it up beautifully: ‘Twenty acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do.’ The introduction wittily reframes the question of why so many people write and offers famous solutions, including George Orwell’s suggestions: 1, sheer egoism; 2, aesthetic enthusiasm; 3, historical impulse; 4, political purpose. I think Terry Tempest Williams’ answer is an excellent one too, ‘I write to make peace with the things I cannot control.’
A summary of the author’s work and a table of ‘vitals’ introduce each section; did you know that Isabel Allende’s father was the first cousin of Chilean President Salvador Allende? Or that Jodi Picoult wrote Wonder Woman for DC in 2007? Isabel Allende is the first to share her reasons and methods. She writes lyrically about the trials and successes of her career and finishes with this: ‘Language: that’s what matters to me. Telling a story to create an emotion, a tension, a rhythm – that it what matters to me.’ I also found myself pondering one line of her advice long after reading it: ‘a story should feel like a conversation…not a lecture.’
The writing is often introspective, but intelligent and open; everyone has had different crises, panics, rewrites, rejections and doubts: though all of them have ultimately succeeded. Each section ends with words of wisdom for writers. There are so many good ideas in this: read at the level at which you want to write; bypass publishers, put it out yourself; adopt an international viewpoint; push for original ways of describing things; pick ordinary moments and magnify them.
David Baldacci’s description of the profession is delightful: ‘I’m paid to daydream.’ Basically, I could spend this entire review quoting line after line from this book because it is all crafted by such accomplished writers. Armistead Maupin warmly remembers an encouraging teacher; Susan Orleans considers the awkwardness of calling oneself an ‘artist’. Almost every word in it feels like it is in its right place. That said, I did skip the Jane Smiley chapter – I was made to write one too many essays on A Thousand Acres and I’m keeping a promise I made to my teenage self that I needn’t read her again.
Many of the pieces have strong similarities, so it is more a book to dip into than to read all at once. There is a good mix of common issues, idiosyncrasies and practical concerns. The writers answer the question of why they write with brilliant honesty (from ‘the money’ to ‘I can’t think what else I’d do’) though one idea seems to pervade for the majority: something in them knows that they must write. They simply have no choice.
So, now I’m curious: why do you write? Comments please!
It’s an interesting book for writers and others interested in the craft. It’s also a worthwhile purchase: part of the profits goes to 826 National, a youth literacy organisation. Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.