Readersforum's Blog

February 2, 2013

Writers writing about writing: ‘Why We Write’

Books on display at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles

Books on display at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles

By David L. Ulin

Joan Didion had it right. In her 1976 essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review, she lays out the template in no uncertain terms: “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Didion’s call to arms is quoted in the introduction to “Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Writers on How and Why They Do What They Do” (Plume: 228 pp., $16 paper), edited by Meredith Maran, who is donating part of her royalties from the book to 826 National, the advocacy and literacy organization for kids. If none of the contributors here (among them Susan Orlean, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Walter Mosley and Armistead Maupin) discuss the craft of writing quite that starkly, they reveal themselves in other ways.

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