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Writers on How They Think and Work

edited by Marie Arana

Pub Date: May 1st, 2003
ISBN: 1-58648-149-5
Publisher: PublicAffairs

Fat, juicy plums from the Washington Post Book World’s long-running “Writing Life” column.

Book World editor Arana launched her column in 1993 (Stanley Elkin was the first contributor) in the format it retains today: a few paragraphs of biography preceding an essay by the writer of the week on the practice of his or her craft. This collection, loosely organized around such themes as “On Becoming a Writer,” “Raw Material,” and “Hunkering Down,” meanders through everything from practical advice to thoughts of childhood to vague but entertaining musings on a career. We begin with Francine du Plessix Gray's four central principles of writing, Joyce Carol Oates's pointed recollection of bullying and gender roles in childhood, and James Michener's advice on “how to identify and nurture young writers.” Alice McDermott, Scott Turow, John Edgar Wideman, Anita Desai, and Julia Alvarez, et al., discuss the roots of their writing. Wendy Wasserstein gives specific instructions on how to get a hotel room and write for a New Year's deadline. Ray Bradbury recalls his long relationship with the movies. Though there is plenty of discussion of the writer's “self-doubt and wry paranoia,” as Julian Barnes puts it in an intriguing piece about being literary executor of Dodie Smith's estate, most of the authors more or less comfortably accept that this is, in fact, the career that defines their lives. Challenges are myriad, of course: Michael Chabon fears that readers will too closely identify him with his protagonists (a homosexual, a frustrated author, a bad father), and according to Jimmy Carter, co-authoring Everything to Gain with wife Rosalynn almost broke up their 40-year marriage.

A sprawling, addictive addition to a seemingly bottomless category that this month also includes the New York Times anthology Writers on Writing (see below).