Writers on Writing, Volume II : More collected essays from The New York Times

by Jane Smiley (Introduction)

Hardcover, 2003




New York : Times Books, 2001-<2003>


Now in paperback, today's most celebrated writers explore literature and the literary life in an inspirational collection of original essays. By turns poignant, hilarious, and practical, "Writers on Writing" brings together more than forty of contemporary literature's finest voices. Pieces range from reflections on the daily craft of writing to the intersection of art's and life's consequential moments. Authors discuss what impels them to write: creating a sense of control in a turbulent universe; bearing witness to events that would otherwise be lost in history or within the writer's soul; recapturing a fragment of time. Others praise mentors and lessons, whether from the classroom, daily circumstances, or the pages of a favorite writer. For anyone interested in the art and rewards of writing, "Writers on Writing" offers an uncommon and revealing view of a writer's world. Contributors include Russell Banks, Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, Richard Ford, Kent Haruf, Carl Hiaasen, Alice Hoffman, Jamaica Kincaid, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Miller, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Alice Walker, and Elie Wiesel.… (more)

User reviews

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I have to believe that the primary readers of these articles and, accordingly, this book, are writers. All types – accomplished, neophyte, wanna-bes, all of us who put word to paper or, at least, really, really, really want to put word to paper someday. I was unfamiliar with this series of essays from the New York Times where writers (and I keep wanting to use the word author, but the Times seems to insist on writer – some day I’ll have to explore the difference) explore literary themes. Okay, I stole that last bit from the blurb on the Times, but it looks like writers were told to talk about writing – and then left to their own devices.

The result is as mixed as the individuals chosen to participate and as unfocused as any group “left to their own devices”. This is not a bad thing. Yeah, it all started out a little rocky, with that artsy-fartsy feel that authors (now I’ll use the word on purpose) can far too often bring to a description of their craft. “Do I, as a writer, have what he [the dentist] called a ‘hidden nerve’?” “I never set out to write a whole book about my dog…” These are the kinds of lines that make me cringe and fear I am about to be thrust into psycho-author-babble – the kind of thing that makes “Life is like a merry-go-round – both have horses” profound. But the book gets over that quickly, and there are many interesting, entertaining, and inspiring essays within the collection.

And, you know, that is probably the important part. Why do people read these essays and this book? I’d say that it is because each of us (each of us with a writer inside) is looking for insight and inspiration. Now, for some, that inspiration may well be the thought that writers have a hidden nerve or that they can write an entire book about a dog. For me, it was the writers who talked about their process – what went wrong, what went right. And, in general, the ones that I found best were from those who didn’t take their jobs that seriously; the ones who seemed to look on, bemused, that they are actually making money (not lots of it, but money nonetheless) doing something they are compelled to do, something they hate to do, something they love to do, something that is too much work to do, something that many of us envy even if we have dabbled in it ourselves.

So, on the “how much did I enjoy it and how much did it motivate me” scale, the book was a success. And, while I wouldn’t call it a must-read (particularly for non-author-writers); it is far from a waste of time. There are ideas to make you think and, maybe more importantly, thoughts that make you realize you aren’t quite as weird as you thought you were. Yeah, you’re weird, but just not really weird.
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