four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
Lynn Freed
user_rating: 
0

Life on the Page

A-ReadingWritingLeaving"If it is done right, someone will be hurt," writes Lynn Freed, acclaimed novelist and short story writer. In this collection of 11 essays, she candidly, even brutally, reflects on the art of writing. As examples, Freed proffers her childhood in a household of whimsical thespians in Durban, South Africa, the snoring of her former husband, and the "creative writing gulag"—the MFA programs that employ her. In the unflinching pursuit of her art, she eviscerates those dearest to her: her mother, father, sisters, ex-husband, and, perhaps not so dear, her students. She is as painfully funny and tender as she is relentless in her penetrating portrayals. According to Freed, life on the page is an unforgiving, violent affair, and the creation of a story "takes time, endless practice, a measure of luck, and also a sort of pathological refusal to be put off by failure."
Harcourt. 237 pages. $22. ISBN: 015101132X

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"To the tiny list of necessary books for people who aspire to the writing life—Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor, and One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty— must now be added Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home. … [I]t is one of the best books on that complex, elusive subject to come my way in a long time." Jonathan Yardley

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"This memoir of her formation as a writer is characterized by such virtuosity and rigor that the reader is tempted time and again to linger, admiring the view, retracing the shape of a sentence. … Over the course of this book, she proves wonderful company, entertaining and astute, ruthless in her willingness to sacrifice even the people she loves for the sake of a story." Holly Brubach

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Lynn Freed has to be one of the most honest writers I’ve come across. Unlike many of the writing books and memoirs crowding the shelves, Freed’s is, at times, a bitter pill: You don’t like the taste, but you know it’s good for you." Michelle Reale

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"While a few of the shorter essays seem slight, Freed’s best pieces serve as master classes in the art of getting it right. They make this collection something for every writer, published or aspiring, to befriend over a period of years, a generous source of heat, heart, energy, and consolation." Jesse Berrett

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is a work that is simultaneously funny, angry, touching, and perceptive. … [W]hen she writes—with what appears to be brutal honesty—of her parents, South Africa, her ex-husband, her not-so-talented creative-writing students, we are left to wonder: Is this reality, or just another form of creative reordering?" Margorie Kehe

Critical Summary

In the risky genre of writing about writing, Freed has emerged with a finely crafted and revelatory work—and with an honesty that bludgeons. In her essays (first published in various magazines and newspapers), she bemoans that writing cannot be taught and that in her role as a teacher, "the job is turning me into a dancing ape." Whatever goes on in her classroom doesn’t matter: she teaches us now with her essays. And what she teaches is that writing is wholly demanding and that mere intention is insufficient. But when the demand is met, we get work something like Freed’s—transforming, enigmatic, and painful in its brutal honesty.

Supplemental Reading

Bird by Bird Some Instructions on Writing and Life | Anne Lamott (1994): In an article on writing in our Jan/Feb 2004 "What One Book" section, Carolyn See and Caroline Leavitt both recommended Lamott’s tart look at the process of writing.