February 8, 2011

Book Review: Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times

Writers on Writing is a collection of 46 essays published as a series by the New York Times. Many of the authors featured in the book were familiar to me – E.L. Doctorow, Carl Hiaasen, Barbara Kingsolver, David Leavitt, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. – but the majority were unknown. Some of their pieces were inspiring or interesting enough to make me want to read their longer works. Others, not so much. This sort of essay collection is really a mixed bag. Committing to read each and every essay is a risky move; often one page into an essay I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of it, but I felt the compulsion to soldier on. Some pieces took a turn for the better by the end, while others continued downhill until they rolled off a cliff.

I kept a pen with me as I read Writers on Writing, underlining particularly insightful passages or witty comments that I wanted to remember. This pen also came in handy every time I finished an essay in the collection. If it was good, I flipped back to the table of contents and marked it with a little dash so that I could keep track of which ones might be worth rereading in the future. Looking now at my crooked little ink marks, I found 19 of the 46 essays enjoyable. If I were to judge this book mathematically, it wouldn’t fare so well: 19 out of 46 is 41%, and any report card would tell you that’s a failing grade. Of course, it would be wrong to pronounce each essay in this collection a failure based on the company it keeps. Some of the essays were really very good, and occasionally I had to restrain myself from underlining almost every sentence.

Let me single out a few of my favorites.

“Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen or Just Any Paper” by Mary Gordon: This essay is a tribute to the idea that beautiful words deserve a beautiful home. Gordon confesses her love of fancy pens and hand-crafted notebooks, writing, “In my closet there is a shelf entirely devoted to notebooks. I choose among them for the perfect relationship between container and the thing contained.” Each project she starts has its own special notebook to live in, and her collection is quite international: student exercise books from France, long ones in canary yellow from Dublin, terra-cotta-colored books from Italy, handmade paper books from New Hampshire. Gordon’s essay made me immediately want to go out and buy a new notebook of my own.

“Opting for Invention over the Injury of Invasion” by Carol Shields: This essay tackles the thorny issue of borrowing character quirks from friends and family. Though she says she is often tempted by a particularly eccentric admission or behavior, Shields cautions writers against taking the bait, unless the person’s friendship isn’t particularly valuable. After all, who wants their great aunt to stop sending them birthday presents because she happened to notice that the protagonist in their new story has a relative with a familiar birthmark and a reputation for bad breath?

“For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day” by Walter Mosley: Here Mosley gives his advice on writing, saying that if you don’t want your muse to shrivel up or leave you for a more attentive patron, you have to write every day. As he puts it, “Writing a novel is gathering smoke. It’s an excursion into the ether of ideas. There’s no time to waste.” Valuable, straightforward advice. If only I could get myself to follow it. We’ll see.

All in all, I would recommend Writers on Writing, though I would certainly whisper a word of caution into any prospective reader’s ear: carry a pen and learn to skim when the going gets rough.

Writers on Writing © Times Books and John Darnton, 2001.


  1. This really sounds fascinating. I have a few books I've read with pen in hand; this would be another one, I think!

  2. Sounds like a great book! Mary Gordon and Carol Shields are a couple of my favorite authors, and it's interesting to see excerpts of their observations.


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