Why We Write – 20 Acclaimed Authors on Why and How They Do What They Do

Why we Write

Twenty of America’s bestselling authors share tricks, tips and secrets of the successful writing life. Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heart breaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write, twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most and least about their vocation. Includes answers from authors such as Jennifer Egan, Jodi Picoult, David Baldacci, Ann Patchett, Sue Grafton and James Frey.

Meredith Maran has asked 20 highly acclaimed writers how and why they write. The outcome is an entertaining, thought-provoking and insightful collection of essays by today’s most successful writers. While many of the authors collected here are not among my favourites – I’m even pretty  sure that I will never read them – it was still interesting to read about their routines and techniques, and how they felt about what they were doing.

Each chapter opens with a quote from the author’s latest work. This is followed by a brief introduction written by Maran and a section containing important dates and a list of publications. After this the author writes about his or her vocation, the way he writes, what it means for him to write. The best part however is the end of each chapter in which the author provides advice. Not all of these contributions are equally interesting, but since they were all written by the authors themselves it was still fascinating.

The chapters I liked best were the ones written by Jennifer Egan, Mary Karr, Terry McMillan, Sue Grafton, Ann Patchett, Sara Gruen and Walter Mosley.

There is always a debate whether or not you should write an outline for a novel and I wasn’t surprised to read that Jody Picoult sketches everything in advance, tailoring every scene. I was astonished to find out how much Walter Mosley has written. I always thought he was a crime writer only but, no, he has written Science fiction, non-fiction and even Erotica.

Some of these essays are very open. Baldacci, for example, knows exactly that he will never win a Pulitzer and admits in all honesty that he is paid to deliver often and quickly and that this doesn’t allow polished writing.

There were some interesting bits about movie deals too. Did you know that a writer sells his book twice? First he gets money for the film rights and later, when the movie is shot, he will get another, bigger portion. Selling the film rights seems not to signify that there will be a movie.

Jennifer Egan’s essay may be the most interesting one because she speaks so openly about how painful it can be to write. She had panic attacks and severe depression during the writing of some of her books. Contrary to what most people think, her favourite book, the one she thinks is her best is not A Visit from the Goon Squad but Look at Me.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes from the “advice” sections:

Meg Wolitzer

Writing that is effective is like a concentrate, a bouillon cube. You’re not just choosing a random day and writing about that. You pick ordinary moments and magnify them-as if they’re freeze-dried, so the reader can add water.

Jennifer Egan

You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.

Sue Grafton

There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts. As an aspiring writer, what you need to know is that learning to write is self-taught, and learning to write well takes years.

Kathryn Harrison

At the end of each workday, leave yourself a page marker, an instruction that tells you where to start the next morning, so you’re oriented immediately when you sit down at your desk.

Sebastian Junger

Don’t dump lazy sentences on your readers. If you do, they’ll walk away and turn on the TV. You have to earn your paycheck by earning your reader’s attention.

Mary Karr

Any idiot can publish a book. But if you want to write a good book, you’re going to have to set the bar higher than the marketplace’s. Which shouldn’t be too hard.

Walter Mosley

Don’t expect to write a first draft like a book you read and loved. What you don’t see when you read published book is the twenty or thirty drafts that happened before it got published.

Why We Write is surprisingly rich, a book you can pick up again and again and you’ll always find something interesting. Even the authors I would normally not read had something valuable to offer. I loved to see how different every writer’s personality is and how this shined through in what they wrote. There are well-behaved writers, caustic ones, matter of fact ones, highly inspired people and some irreverent ones like Mary Karr.

54 thoughts on “Why We Write – 20 Acclaimed Authors on Why and How They Do What They Do

  1. I can see would-be published authors getting something out of this, but beyond that do you think the appeal might be limited, for most people, to those who read the authors listed here? (you addressed this on a personal level in the last paragraph.) I don’t read most of them, so for me the appeal is low.

    For example, I tried a Picoult novel and swore to never pick up another. She’s very popular of course and has tons of fans.

    • That’s hard to say. It’s written for people who want to write but not only. The “advice part” obviously is but the rest is purely biographical and it’s juts amazing to see how different they all are. I found it a bit sad that she chose only successful writers in terms of high sales (she says that btw) and I was sceptcal but I ended up liking most chapters. ven Baldacci. I had no idea that some people only make such a lot of money because they are contract writers really. And there is still a line up of authors I like.

    • I think you will like a lot of it. Maybe, like me you don’t read half of these authors but it’s interesting. I never knew that smeone like SEbastina Junger crafted his non-fiction books so carefully or that Egan was on the brink of a total breakdown…. You will love Mary Karr’s piece. She’s so cheeky. I like that.

  2. It seems to be a book aimed aspiring writers. And I understand how interesting it must be to read about that when one intends to write too.

    As a reader, I’m not very interested in what happens behind the curtain. I feel the same way about films or paintings. I’m interested in “why” but not much in “how” Do they explain why they became writers?

    Why do I know none of these writers? Not one. I wonder. Am I living in a strange bubble?

    • Yes, they write about the “why” as well.
      I don’t know about living in a bubble. There are all sorts of writers, some very literary some pure mainstream. I haven’t read many of them but I knew all the names and have books of quite a few. I would have thought you know Jennifer Egan, Ann Patchett, Sue Grafton and Walter Mosley. Kathryn Harrison and Mary Karr are worth knowing too, so is Meg Wolitzer.

  3. I saw this somewhere else recently and thought it looked interesting. Great set of quotes, Caroline–made me want to read the book more. What an honest thing for Baldacci to say. You’d think after earning all that money he’d want to stop and take the time to write seriously. . . .

    • I don’t know what contracts they have. It sound slike slavery. I saw something written by Sandra Brown the other day in which she said she had to hide writing a specific novel because it wasn’t in line with what she wrote and in parallel to a contract book. Horrible!
      I think you’d like it. It’s so varied.

        • I saw it. It seems she didn’t do it for that reason but because she didn’t want people to think of Harry Potter when reading it. I don’t even think she has this type of contract. While she is super successful I never saw her as a “book machine” writing a novel every year no matter whether she had anything to say or not. I’m not a Harry Potter fan – or not yet – but I think she’s got a lot of imagination.

            • They certainly feel plotted. I don’t think you can write that type of book, or most of the crime/thrillers I’ve read, without some serious plotting.
              Sometimes people say “I’ve wrote this book in a month or so” while I don’t doubt that, I think they should not forget to mention how long the planning took.

  4. This looks like an interesting book, Caroline. It is nice that the book includes writers of different types and doesn’t stick to writers of one genre. I didn’t know that a writer got paid two times if his / her book got made into a movie. I thought if the film rights were purchased that was the end of it. I liked very much all the quotes you have posted. My favourite is the one by Sebastian Junger – it made me smile 🙂 My second favourite is the one by Mary Karr. Thanks for reviewing this book.

    • I’m glad you liked it. I love Mary kart. I’v e read her mmeir and her poems and she’s a gifted person and painfully honest. She writes some interesting things. JUnger surprised me because I didn’t know how much effrt went into his books. I also didn’t know he wrote the documentary “The Perfect Storm” which was then made into a movie. It’s an interesting book.

  5. I need to find a copy of this book! Thanks for sharing. The Kindle version is 8 quid so I may resort to buying a paperback copy. It might be nice to have. I reference King’s On Writing all the time for tips and suggestions.

  6. I too am not likely to read most of these writers but this still must be a very enlightening book. It sounds as if most of these folks have very different ways of going about their craft.

    I had heard that movie rights get bought/sold all the time for films that never get made.

    • Totally different. Some are like architects, planning, drawing, and only when everytging is put in place do they start. Other’s are more intuitive.
      I didn’t know that about the film rights.

  7. Thank you Caroline!
    Have you read Jennifer Egan’s books? I have only read “A Visit …”, which I liked a lot, but now you made me curious about “Look at Me”.

  8. Caroline,
    I love to dig and delve into this kind of a book. I must order it from the library. Especially because I try hard to be a writer, it will be meaningful.

    Are you a writer, as a professional or for your own enjoyment?

    I have been wondering about that and would like to know.


    • A bit of both, really. I did a lot of ghost writing and I have written tons in German, however I’m a perfectionist and do not want to publish or find an agent/publisher before I feel I’m ready.
      I thought it was an inspiring book, I hope you will like it as well.
      I didn’t know you were writing. Nonfiction or fiction?

  9. Interesting. Sort of like a compressed version of the on-going Paris Review series of interviews with writers.

    Quite an impressive list she’s assembled. Michael Lewis and Sebastian Junger are both very good. I’m tempted by Egan now the fuss has died down.

    Unlike others I am always interested in what happens”behind the curtain” – in Emma’s perfect phrase. It’s the variety I find fascinating – how people arrive at polished works.

    • I thought it was a great read. Not as in-depth s some of the Paris Review interviews but more practical somehow. I gave me a good of what being a really populra writer is or how hard a follow-up novel is . . .
      Like you, I liked to have a look behind the curtain, in any art form. I like those collections best that look into inspiration and where ideas come from, this was in the background here. I knew Junger must be good but I wouldn’t have thought he writes so carefully.
      I’ve read Egan long before she was known and her success put me off a bit. Tood bad really as she is an interesting writer.

  10. No Stephen King? oh well. I have only read picoult in that list. What Walter Mosley said is same with King. He mentioned about draft in his On Writing.

    I like Junger Quote thebest because that’s how I feel when I came acrros not so interesting book…switch on the tv 😉

    Love the cover, very colorful and looks like a fun book.

  11. I’d be interested in this – I love hearing writers talk about their craft, and I think creativity is a fascinating subject, one that we don’t know anywhere near enough about. Although in a way, having the beauty of its enigma is probably a lot better than a load of deflating scientific ‘truths’ about the process.

    • This book gives just enough insight without deflating anything.
      I think if you truly want to to underatand something like creativity you cannot ananlyze it you have to try to create as well.
      I thought it was inspiring and the different approaches are so interesting.

  12. I’m not a writer and don’t aspire to learning how to write really well–at least in the same way these authors create (does that sound awfully lazy–though I have improved considerably since I have been bloggins), but it would be interesting to read from a reader’s standpoint-to see the behind the scenes work. Did you find any of it really surprising? Or was it mostly what you expected considering the sort of books each writes?

    • I thought some were quite surprising. Isabell Allende in a very annyoing way, Sara Gruen and Jennifer Egan were quite touching and Mary Karr is so cheeky.
      Terry McMillan too, btw. It’s been a long time since I’ve last read her but it was very interesting.
      I think you’d like it. It’s amix between biography and advice.

  13. I like the sound of this; as someone just starting to write and try and find my voice I love reading books with tips and hearing about the experiences and methods of other writers. Thanks for sharing the quotes, I like the Jennifer Egan one in particular.

    • I think you’d find a lot of it quite inspiring. I like the Jennifer Egan quote, liked her part a lot because she so openly acknowledges her vulnerability. Writing isn’t always easy, most of the time it’s not. It’s very hard to let yozrself write badly but most forget that you can always revise. It’s important to just do it, isn’t it?

        • I know very well what you’re talking about. I’ve read Barbara de Marco Barretts Pen on Fire not too long ago and she says the essential is to write daily, if only for 15 minutes. It’s a really good book. Not that Why we Write isn’t but the other one has exercices.

  14. Pingback: Teen Writing Tip | TeenGirlsthatWrite

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