Why We Write is a collection of essays from 20 authors*, edited by Meredith Maran. The essays are written by authors who “have written books that sell in the kinds of numbers that make publishers send them flowers and leather-bound first editions, and most important, new book contracts.” Maran calls them the successful ones, the ones that have “beaten the odds,” and her intent is to examine their success. The authors range from Ann Patchett to Gish Jen to Terry McMillan and many others.
Maran explains in the introduction that she wanted to find out why these writers do what they do, and how they do it. The essays all include a “why I write” statement, that then leads into other avenues of reflection. Also included for every auther is a bibliographical list of the their work, and a blurb at the end of the section containing advice that the author gives to the reader.
In addition to the longer introduction at the beginning of Why We Write, Maran introduces each of the authors and her tone is both gushing and over the top. In the formal introduction, she emphasizes several times how well these authors have done, how they are the dream children of agents and publishers, and she does it again with the individual author introductions. She clearly places the authors on a pedestal above all other writers, which I found alienating.
As the authors represented are very familiar, and as Maran writes so much about their success in the introduction, the individual accolades are too much and I found myself skipping over them… only to go back and read them as to not miss anything for this review. Sadly, the only introduction that steered from this method of operation is the one for James Frey, whose infamous name made for a more interesting read.
The Positive Aspects
Within the chapters, the author’s responses were occasionally interesting, especially if you are familiar or a fan of that particular writer. For me, I enjoyed Isabel Allende’s entry; and I also found David Baldacci’s entry intriguing. I was inspired by their work ethic. For instance, before becoming a full time writer, Baldacci wrote from ten p.m. to two a.m. six days a week. Exhausting, absolutely, and a bit inspiring.
There were also good ideas here and there. For instance, Sue Grafton keeps a novel journal for every novel she writes, where she can put down bad and good ideas, whine when it is not going as she would like it to, and record everything else that does not go into the actual novel. I thought that a good idea.
The book was a constant reminder that even these amazingly successful writers have demons and moments of blockage, and they too have dealt with rejection, information that I did not find particularly helpful (of course they do!); however, perhaps other readers might find this knowledge comforting. The brief moments of personality here and there were refreshing.
The Not-So-Good Aspects
I was disappointed at the almost formulaic feeling of the responses to the question “why I write.” I have read so many books on writing by writers that to read the response “I write because I have to” is boring and cliche. It might be true, absolutely, and I am not putting that on the authors who responded, but rather on the question itself. The lack of originality in these sections had me itching to skim over the entries. Of course, if a favorite writer of yours is represented, you might find these sections enlightening and interesting, but I felt the responses only scratched the surface of reality.
Additionally, the author advice at the end of the essays was a bit frustrating as it is the same thing over and over again: don’t write for money; don’t give up; work hard; and read. This is great advice for someone who has never picked up a writing book, taken a writing class, or otherwise engaged in the world of writing… for those of us who have, this is old hat advice, presented in a very unoriginal away.
This brings me to my last point.
The Last Point
This book is a good starter manual. If you are just getting into writing, the essays could help you to realize the reality of writing. Writing is hard work. It is rejection. There can be success if you stick with it. You need a bigger motivator than money. Publishing does not equal money. Etc. Etc.
But, note, if you are a first time writer, do not pay any attention to the introduction as Maran’s gushing of the author’s brilliance transposed with the reality of publishing will leave you wondering why you are embarking on this journey (she cites that only one percent of a million transcripts out there circulating will ever find a publisher).
In the end, there are better writing books out there. Perhaps this one started out as a sincere attempt to provide inspiration for writers, but for me it fell flat. It might be interesting to those who like the authors represented, but I would still suggest borrowing it from a library rather than giving it a permanent spot on your bookshelf.
Disclaimer: this book was received courtesy of Plume / Penguin Publishing for review purposes.
*The authors represented in the book are: Isabel Allende, David Baldacci, Jennifer Egan, James Frey, Sue Grafton, Sara Gruen, Kathryn Harrison, Gish Jen, Sebastian Junger, Mary Karr, Michael Lewis, Armistead Maupin, Terry McMillan, Rick Moody, Walter Mosley, Susan Orlean, Ann Pratchett, Jodi Picoult, Jane Smiley, Meg Wolitzer.