Saturday, April 29, 2006

Recommended Reading: Writers on Writing

If you want insight into a writer’s life, one of the best ways to get it is from working writers themselves. Beginning in early 1999, The New York Times began publishing a series of commissioned essays by American novelists, essayists, journalists, poets, and playwrights to explore literary themes, approaches to writing, and just about any creative idea that can come from topics as seemingly mudane as walking a dog or as controversial as engaging in politically subversive activity. The result was nearly a hundred lucid, succinct, and engaging essays covering an impressive range of topics, including writers' responsibility to their world, how ideas become the seed of a full-length novel, what it takes for a writer to survive financially from one book to the next, and tips to overcome writer’s block.

Those essays are available in book form. Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (Times Books, 2001) and Writers on Writing, Volume II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times (Times Books, 2003) comprise a collection of 92 pieces from the eclectic likes of Russell Banks, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, William Kennedy, Jamaica Kincaid, Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Joyce Carol Oates, Anna Quindlen, Amy Tan, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and some eighty more celebrated American authors.

The contradictory viewpoints expressed by these writers are often striking. Take Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), who begins his article by noting, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. The consistency, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily reoccurrence,” and contrast it with Carolyn Chute’s (The Beans of Egypt, Maine) observation, “Usually it takes three days to get into writer mode. Three days of quiet nonlife mode, lots of coffee and no interruptions.”

For aspiring writers these collections have plenty of fodder. Consider the observation from teacher and novelist Nicholas Delbanco (The Martlet's Tale): “To engage in imitation is to begin to understand what originality means. … Imitation is deeply rooted as a form of cultural transmission; we tell our old stories again and again.”

Both books are well worth the $11 cost from for anyone looking for fresh thinking or inspirational ideas.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: