On writing

Earlier this month The Guardian published a profile of Joan Didion and reprinted one of her essays, “Why I Write”:

“… In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.”

“Which was a writer.”

“By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

I love reading Joan Didion’s essays, like “In Bed” from her collection The White Album. But I feel a little metacognition like the passage above goes a long way. Writers love writing about their craft. Last week I posted about Zinsser’s Writing to Learn, and recommended his On Writing Well. This week Oliver Burkeman’s Imperfectionist newsletter was about “How to make writing less hard”. One of my favorite non-fiction writers, Robert Caro, published a book in 2019 about the craft of biographical research and writing. I’m sure I’d learn something from it, but given a choice, I would rather read one of Caro’s biographies than read about the process of writing them. I have the same attitude toward books by famous scientists that purport to answer Big Questions for a lay audience. Their work itself is thought-provoking enough.