A few weeks before the new year, I found myself wandering through my local book shop as snow gently floated outside of the store’s big bay window. I’d come with the explicit purpose of selecting the first book to read during my year of writing and reading to come. Less than five minutes into my browsing, Mark Edmundson’s book Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why it Matters seized my attention. “Why write?” the inside cover asked. “Why write when it sometimes feels that so few people really read—read as if their lives might be changed by what they’re reading? Why write, when the world wants to be informed, not enlightened; to be entertained, not inspired?” I nodded so forcefully that my head felt it might bobble off my shoulders. We were only a few weeks out from the worst election in U.S. history, and I couldn’t help but think of a nation obsessed with fake news and Facebook politics. I’d only read the synopsis on the cover, but this book was already speaking my language. So I snatched it up and headed home, excited to crack the cover when the new year, and my year of reading, officially began. Unfortunately, I’d soon discover that my year of reading would not start with a bang, as they say, but with a whimper.
Edmundson begins strong with a beautiful and inspiring foreword. Among other reasons, like learning to think and building up the muscles of your mind, Edmundson says that writing is important because “by coming up with fresh and arresting words to describe the world accurately, the writer expands the boundaries of her world, and possibly her readers’ worlds, too.” Afterwards, Edmundson breaks down the book by reasons you should and should not write along with the pleasures and perils that come with the craft. Each chapter is dedicated to a possible benefit or pitfall with Edmundson using his own reflections, experiences, and interpretations of what other famous writers have said about writing to argue his position.
The first chapters of the book are enjoyable enough; Edmundson discusses the importance of writing, even in a world inundated with the mindless prattlings of everyone on the internet, and reflects upon the difficulty of transitioning from your “habitual self,” which is still thinking about the dishes in the sink and the humdrum tasks of everyday life, to the creative self, which can delve into the words and worlds of your creative mind. Despite these welcome reflections, the book quickly becomes insufferable. Edmundson takes every opportunity to wax poetic about his favorite canonical authors, leaving the reader feeling as if she were stuck in a lecture hall while Edmundson talks in circles about the greatness of old, white men.
At another point, Edmundson retells a story that appears in Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me. Without crediting the story to Solnit, Edmundson recaps her personal experience with a man who explains the premise of her own book to her, insisting that he knows more about the subject even after he discovers that she’s the author of the book he’s explaining. After his retelling, Edmundson says he’s “not sure [he] believes this one out and out.” I’m sure Solnit would not appreciate the irony of a man explaining her experience to his readers in his own words without so much as mentioning her name or granting credibility to her story. If I didn’t have a book quota to meet, I would’ve snapped the book shut right then and never turned back. One Goodreads reader remarked that “women were an afterthought for Edmundson,” and it certainly seems that Edmundson thought he could cover his bases by citing Emily Dickinson and, on occasion, substituting the masculine pronoun for the feminine one. Unfortunately for Edmundson, his lip service to women can’t cover up his white male privilege.
Despite its many downfalls, Why Write? did offer a few refreshing insights. For example, Edmundson discusses the importance of choosing the right medium for writing, noting that word processors can block our creativity, if only because our words appear so official and well-formatted, like a work that’s already complete the moment the words are written. Instead, he advocates for putting pen to paper when drafting; as a writer that mostly drafts on a computer, I was pleasantly surprised at how composing in a notebook opened the floodgates of my brain and how easy it was to edit my jottings into something more polished as I converted my draft into a typed document.
However, Edmundson’s best argument is for the importance of writing itself. Why write in the age of information overload and rampant skimming? It’s the question that hangs over the whole book. Edmundson argues that writing—good or bad, published or unpublished—preserves the timeline of our lives and is important for that reason alone. “Our writings create constellations[,]” Edmundson say. “They are the way we look back (or look up) and see that we have had a life.” Really, what could be more beautiful than that? Unfortunately, though, a handful of thoughtful or inspiring ideas does not make a remarkable book.
Last year, I moved for the third time in less than three years. As I packed up my belongings, I resolved that, moving forward, I would keep only the books that truly inspired me, books that I’d regularly refer to as a writing handbook of sorts. It’s safe to say that Edmundson’s book will soon find its way to the donation pile.
If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which also delves into the importance of writing in the modern world as well as how writing is akin to a spiritual practice.
Typically, I’d also link to a review from a more well-known publication as well, but I couldn’t find any to date. So, for now, I suppose you’re stuck with my opinion.