"The Writer on Herself" would have been a more accurate title for this collection of commissioned essays by contemporary women writers. Instead of discussing their craft, as other authors have done in the similarly titled series, "Writers at Work," interviews compiled by The Paris Review, the writers, responding to a questionnaire, have tended rather to change the focus of the discussion from their art to their situations and psyches.
We hear from such acclaimed writers as Joan Didion, melodramatically revealing why she writes, "to find out what I am thinking." Maxine Hong Kingston gives a visionary evocation of the embryonic "Coming Book." Mary Gordon speaks about finding her subject, the world she needs to study and portray. We also hear from struggling writers whose work we may never have encountered. We follow one writer through her diaries as she approaches the concrete conception of a novel. There are liberal doses of feminist anger, black-feminist anger, and the coy cultivation of the "me, the delicately balanced, child-woman artist on the brink of the abyss" image.
I found many of the essays self-indulgent, dispiriting, and just plain boring. It seemed as though some of the writers took this opportunity to ramble on about their net grievances and hostilities, to use unformed pieces that had not found other publishers, or simply to hear the sound of their own voices; these lapses of judgment and discipline were suffered by the acclaimed as well as the lesserknowns.
The broad, socialogically focused essays are the least successful; as an argument for feminism and a woman's right to the pen, Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," which some of the contributors invoke, remains more cogent, relevant, and artistic than anything here included. I found Susan Griffin's "Thoughts" pithy and provocative. I would have liked more of the essays of the really estimable quality of Anne Tyler's and Gail Godwin's. These two writers describe their struggles to master their art while trying to live full lives, including marriage, children, earning a living, cleaning the house. The describe their struggles with a sense of objectivity and humor that is both engaging and inspiring. They tell a good story, and in the process give us some idea of why one would want to write and of how much art goes into the act of transforming the welter of daily life into a composition of harmonious color, form, and transcendent meaning.
Janet Sternburg, the editor of the collection, confesses in her introduction that she was more than a little surprised at the subjects some of her contributors chose to discuss, rather than discussing their work. She takes the position that their approach is "creative," that their evasion of the questions of craft and their concentration on self reveals more resonant truths than straightforward answers may have done. Maybe. The book might serve as a useful and fascinating document to those interested in the life styles and psychological patterns of women engaged in creative writing at this particular point of history. For those interested in questions of craft and art, the pickings, while here, are slimmer.