Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Writing Life: Writers on How they Think and Work; A Collection from the Washington Post Book World Edited by Marie Arana

Marie Arana has compiled a collection of fifty-five writers from several different genres.  Each chapter starts with an introduction by Arana who gives a brief biography and commentary on the writer and is followed by an essay by that writer.  Most writers talk about what they write about and why.  Many of them go into how they come up with the material, organize it and flesh it out.  Others give interesting perspectives on specific cultural or sociological situations.

Part one is titled, On Becoming a Writer.  Several popular writers provide essays on how they became writers.  Authors include Joyce Carol Oates, James Michener, Mary Higgins Clark and John Keegan. 

Part two is called Raw Material where writers give the reader an insight as to where they gather their material.  Authors include Alice Mc Dermott, Jayne Anne Phillips and John Edgar Wideman.  George P. Pelecanos explains how he comes up with his crime stories.

An especially interesting essay is by Scott Turow titled, Can Whites Write About Blacks?  I thought his insight to the racial tension between the two races was perspicacious.  This particular essay was one of the most well articulated and researched of all of them.  Not that all the authors didn’t write well, but Turow’s lawyer background must have given him the ability to deal with a sociological theme in a way that was informative and absorbing.  It was also interesting to discover that the author of Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof wrote his books on the train ride to his law office and continues to practice law.

Parts three and four (Hunkering Down and Old Bottle, New Wine) include authors from different genres, such as historical writing (David McCullough) and science fiction (Ray Bradbury).  Other authors include Patricia Cornwell, Stanley Karnow, E.L. Doctorow, and Umberto Eco. Some, like Eco, discuss the problematics involved in translating a book from the original language into another.  Richard Selzer, who is a surgeon, writes on how he uses his job to provide plot lines and accurate information to his stories, which, naturally, center around doctors and hospitals.  Others tell us how they research for the historical nonfiction. Ray Bradbury gives us some extremely interesting background to his life and what his intentions are with his stories (“they’re all metaphors”).

Part Five, Facing the Facts, are a collection of authors who write nonfiction.  Carl Sagan has an essay here and so does Jimmy Carter.  Stacy Schiff lets us know that each of her biographies are love affairs and letting each of them go is extremely difficult.

The final section, Part six (Looking Back) has essays of authors, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley and Ward Just.  My favorite was of Michael Chabon, although I can’t help feeling a little bit jealous.  How many of us would die to have a college professor submit our work to a literary agent, without telling us, and end up with a nice, fat, writing contract? Chabon eventually wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize for his book, the Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. 

Every essay is interesting in their own way because it gives you the back story of people who started out like the rest of us but were propelled to success through various means.  I also like getting inside the head of other writers and seeing what makes them tick.  It also lets us know that there is no one way to write.

Of all the essays the one I found the most telling was by Michael Korda.  Korda is not a writer but an editor.  He reveals in his essay the difference between people who write literature and writing whores.  I know that’s a vulgar term but I don’t know how else to describe them.  For them it’s all about the money and they don’t care what kind of tripe or trash they have to put out to get it.  They’re hugely successful too, so if making a lot of money is your goal...whatever.

 Korda describes his session with one particular popular writer who writes erotica.  She

“liked to have me sit across from her in her pink I could read each page as it came from her pink typewriter (on pink paper) and edit it on the spot.”

Korda goes on to state that this woman was not only open to plot suggestions but demanded them.  Page by page she went over every thing with her editor.  It wasn’t about writing art, it was about making sure the product was marketable.

“When warned that one of the book clubs might not take her novel was too shocking, Jackie said... “I don’t write for middle aged men in suits.  I write for women on the subway.”

Then there was Graham Green who

“...neither needed nor accepted editorial changes.  Greene’s manuscripts arrived on my desk with a forbidding, neatly typed note on the title page that read, “Please do not change any of Mr. Greene’s punctuation or spelling!”  When his previous publisher had expressed some doubt about the title of one of Greene’s books, he had received a terse cable in reply that read:  “EASIER TO CHANGE PUBLISHER THAN TITLE.  GREENE.”

I’m under no illusion that I am the next Graham Greene, but I take comfort in the fact that we share the same principles when it comes to writing.

In conclusion, this is a great book for those who are aspiring writers and an interesting and enjoyable read  for those who would like to know more about their favorite authors.


  1. I often think about writers, how, at least from the point of view of looking at their output, they all seem so different. This book looks to she some fascinating insights on them.

    The quote from Graham Green is hilarious.

    1. Brian: It was a very interesting book. Not one to be read in one gulp. I read an author a day until I was done. Yes, I very much would like to have the autonomy over my work as Graham Greene one day. So far I don't and I've been pretty upset over how a few editors have butchered my articles.


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