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Authors: Meredith Maran

Why We Write

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A PLUME BOOK

WHY WE WRITE

MEREDITH MARAN
is the author of ten nonfiction books and the acclaimed 2012 novel
A Theory of Small Earthquakes
. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, she writes features, essays, and book reviews for
People
,
Salon
, the
Ladies’ Home Journal
,
Real Simple
, the
Guardian
(London), the
Boston Globe
, the
Chicago Tribune
, and the
San Francisco Chronicle.
She’s been a writer in residence at UCLA and at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and a fellow at the MacDowell, Mesa Refuge, Ragdale, and Yaddo artists’ colonies. Meredith divides her time between sunny writing spots in Oakland and Los Angeles, California.

Why We Write

20 Acclaimed Authors on
How and Why They Do
What They Do

Edited by Meredith Maran

A PLUME BOOK

PLUME

Published by Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 707 Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3008, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books, Rosebank Office Park, 181 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parktown North 2193, South Africa • Penguin China, B7 Jaiming Center, 27 East Third Ring Road North, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100020, China

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Printing, February 2013

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

Copyright © Meredith Maran, 2013

All rights reserved

Each selection is the copyrighted property of its respective author and appears in this volume by arrangement with the individual writer.

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Maran, Meredith.

Why we write : 20 acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do / Meredith

Maran ; with Isabel Allende…[et al.].

p.cm.

ISBN: 978-1-101-60282-9

1. Authorship. I. Allende, Isabel. II. Title.

PN165.M37 2013

810.9’0054--dc23            2012018687

Printed in the United States of America

Set in Adobe Caslon Pro

Designed by Eve L. Kirch

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT QUANTITY DISCOUNTS WHEN USED TO PROMOTE PRODUCTS OR SERVICES. FOR INFORMATION PLEASE WRITE TO PREMIUM MARKETING DIVISION, PENGUIN GROUP (USA) INC., 375 HUDSON STREET, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10014.

ALWAYS LEARNING
PEARSON

For those who read, write, publish, purvey, and love books.

And in memory of Françoise Sagan, who made me
a reader and a writer and a lover of books.

Acknowledgments

Becky Cole: Best. Editor. Ever.

Linda Loewenthal: Best. Agent. Ever.

For making magic possible: the MacDowell Colony, Ragdale, the Mesa Refuge, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo.

For making this book, and innumerable reading hours, not only possible but delightful: The Twenty.

Contents

Introduction

Chapter One:
Isabel Allende
Chapter Two:
David Baldacci
Chapter Three:
Jennifer Egan
Chapter Four:
James Frey
Chapter Five:
Sue Grafton
Chapter Six:
Sara Gruen
Chapter Seven:
Kathryn Harrison
Chapter Eight:
Gish Jen
Chapter Nine:
Sebastian Junger
Chapter Ten:
Mary Karr
Chapter Eleven:
Michael Lewis
Chapter Twelve:
Armistead Maupin
Chapter Thirteen:
Terry McMillan
Chapter Fourteen:
Rick Moody
Chapter Fifteen:
Walter Mosley
Chapter Sixteen:
Susan Orlean
Chapter Seventeen:
Ann Patchett
Chapter Eighteen:
Jodi Picoult
Chapter Nineteen:
Jane Smiley
Chapter Twenty:
Meg Wolitzer
Introduction

W
hy do writers write? Anyone who’s ever sworn at a blinking cursor has asked herself that question at some point. Or at many, many points.

When the work is going well, and the author is transported, fingers flying under the watchful eye of the muse, she might wonder, as she takes her first sip of the coffee she poured and forgot about hours ago, “How did I get so lucky, that this is what I get to do?”

And then there are the less rapturous writing days or weeks or decades, when the muse is injured on the job and leaves the author sunk to the armpits in quicksand, and every word she types or scribbles is wrong, wrong, wrong, and she cries out to the heavens, “Why am I doing this to myself?”

It’s a curiosity in either case. Why do some people become neurosurgeons, dental hygienists, investment bankers, while others choose an avocation that promises only poverty, rejection, and self-doubt? Why do otherwise rational individuals get
up every morning—often very, very early in the morning, before the sun or the family or the day job calls—and willingly enter the cage?

Is it the triumph of seeing one’s words in print? Statistics show this isn’t a reasonable incentive. According to the website Publishing Explained, more than one million manuscripts are currently searching for a U.S. publisher. One percent of these will get the nod.

Nor can we credit the satisfaction of a job well done. As the ever-cheerful Oscar Wilde put it, “Books are never finished. They are merely abandoned.” Only thirty percent of published books turn a profit, so we can rule out material motivation. God knows it can’t be for the boost in self-esteem. To paraphrase Charlie Chaplin’s depiction of actors, “Writers search for rejection. If they don’t get it, they reject themselves.”

Why, then, does
anyone
write? Unlike performing brain surgery, cleaning teeth, or trading bonds,
anyone
can pick up a yellow pad or a laptop or a journal and create a poem or a story or a memoir. And, despite the odds against attaining the desired result, many, many people do. We fill our journals and write our novels and take our writing classes. We read voraciously, marveling at the sentences and characters and plot twists our favorite authors bestow upon us. How do they do it? we ask ourselves. And
why?

“From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”

So declared George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” in which he listed the “four great motives for writing”:

  1. Sheer egoism
    . “To be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm
    . “To take pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.”
  3. Historical impulse
    . “The desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
  4. Political purposes.
    “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
BOOK: Why We Write
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