Why should it seem surprising that if we want to know what writers think--really think--about writing, we should read more of what they write and listen less to what they say? Having been a speaker, an audience member, an interviewer and an interviewee at the question-and-answer sessions that so often follow literary readings and panels, I have witnessed, and been responsible for, those moments when a writer takes the easy way out and simply repeats a facile statement she’s made before, or blurts out something to fill the silence, whether or not it’s true.
Writers are creatures who (to paraphrase Wordsworth) function best when we can recall the writing process in tranquility. Which isn’t to say that the experience of sitting in front of the blank page or screen is necessarily a tranquil one, unless you are the sort of masochist who finds peace in hideous anguish. Still, the closest writers may ever come to saying something accurate, let alone useful, about what we do is when we are alone, at our desks, in private--when we write the sort of essays collected in The Writer’s Notebook II.
I think it’s probably safe to say that most writers would rather lose themselves in a story or a poem than remain in the prison of their conscious selves and attempt to describe what we do. And though most writers would rather write a story or a poem than an essay about writing a story or a poem, the fact is that we are occasionally--thanks to teaching or lecture commitments, a deadline or an invitation--moved to think about this bizarre activity that is at once our life’s blood and our job.
Nor should it come as a great surprise that writers can actually write, even when they are writing about writing. Each of the essays in this collection finds its unique voice in the way that each author chooses to place one word after another--vocabulary and punctuation decisions, matters of tone and diction, of perspective, detail, and length. The way in which these essays are written are lessons in themselves, lessons that reach us, above and beyond the substance of what their authors are saying.
You can open The Writer’s Notebook II at random and find some sentence that will surprise or delight you, a phrase or paragraph that will make you think, or laugh out loud. Or both. Here is Elissa Schappell on what may be the all-time worst ending in the history of fiction: “There is a legend about a story that ends with the revelation that the narrator of the story, whose point of view is extremely limited, is a squirrel with a paper bag stuck on his head.” And Steve Almond on a young writer’s desire to be taken seriously: “If enough people took me seriously, then I might start to take myself seriously, thereby dispelling the notion, forever lurking at the gates of ambition, that I was a sad clown who should quit writing and return to my given career as a professional masturbator, a career for which I am even now somewhat nostalgic.” And listen to Karen Russell on the richness with which literature excites and satisfies a child’s imagination: “As a kid growing up in Miami, I lived in the closet of my mind, trying on costumes . . . I wanted scales and wings. I’d figured out that you could do these really bizarre tricks in the library, in full view of the imperturbably cheerful librarians. You could, for example, metamorphose. You could suture a character’s wings to your eight-year-old body. You could drop time like a skirt and step outside its wrinkled orbit.”
If one had to find a common thread stitched through all, or most, of these intensely individual essays, it might wind its way around the question of how much writers read--and how much inspiration they take from the work of their predecessors. Maggie Nelson pays tribute to the poetry of Alice Notley and Anne Carson; Mary Szybist contributes thoughtful and perceptive readings of Emily Dickinson and John Ashbery; Jim Krusoe views an array of literary masterpieces through the lens of the dream; Bret Anthony Johnston examines the magic with which Tim O’Brien and Lorrie Moore alchemize experience into art; Ann Hood takes us on a lively tour of introductory sentences, from the familiar beginnings of Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice to the less often quoted but no less arresting introductions to Mrs. Dalloway and Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry. Anthony Doerr looks to Camus’s novel The Stranger and to Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?” for instruction--which he kindly passes on to us--in how to build and maintain suspense. And Christopher Beha transcribes an extraordinarily beautiful and useful passage from Saint Augustine about, as Beha puts it, “the beauty to be found in a well-made whole.”
Much of what any writer needs to know is contained in this helpful book. Andrea Barrett muses on the pleasures of research, the challenges and rewards of incorporating history into one’s work. Benjamin Percy considers the importance of work itself--the jobs that people do: “Writing is an act of empathy. You are occupying and understanding a point of view that might be alien to your own--and work is often the keyhole through which you peer.” Adam Braver describes the experience of editing a manuscript with the aid of a pair of scissors and a roll of Scotch tape. Antonya Nelson comes as close as anyone ever has to describing how she--or anyone--writes as she tells us about a class in which she asked her students to “undertake the process of writing that I myself undertake.”
In her essay “On the Making of Orchards,” Aimee Bender quotes a line from Dante suggesting that art is God’s grandchild. After finishing the last of these essays, we may all feel a little closer to being the distant relatives of art or nature or God. Reading The Writer’s Notebook II is like spending a couple of hours or days or weeks in the company of writers whose voices you want in your head, whose words you want to keep beside your desk. Go ahead, they seem to be saying. Here is how writing has been for me, and this is what I’ve learned. Consider this, think about that, read the books that have inspired me. I’m going to tell you what I know, but the rest is up to you. All you have to do now is just sit down--and begin.