Thursday, October 23, 2014

How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors Edited by Dan Crowe and Philip Ottermann

So many of us Bookish Ones love to read about writers and catch glimpses of the places they work. We want to make pilgrimages to their homes and visit literary sites. We wish to stand next to a favorite writer's desk. Browse his bookshelves. Breathe in the atmosphere of the room where she created. 

I have written before on books that feature writers and their desks: The Writer's Desk (here) and Writers of the American South (here).

But this book, How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors edited by Dan Crowe and Philip Ottermann, is a closeup look at what objects authors keep on their desks or in their studies or on their walls that spur their creativity. It is about the talismans they hold close at hand for inspiration...or luck. 

The editors asked sixty-seven writers to respond to the following question: 

Can you think for a minute about which object, picture, or 
document in your study reveals most about the 
relationship between living and writing, and then 
send it to us? 

What the editors ended up with, and what are presented in such an attractive, graphically-designed book, are short vignettes written by the individual writers musing on their choices.

For Alain de Botton it is his entire desk that runs along two walls of his office in London and is "a good five meters of solid Canadian oak." The size, he writes, enables him to spread and pile books and papers without "generating a feeling of chaos."

American novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt writes about the metal ring of seven keys containing the label "unknown keys" written in her father's hand. They are a reminder not only of her father but of the act of unlocking the "dream spaces of fiction."

British novelist and journalist Will Self  jots down ideas, observations, and bits of dialogue on yellow Post-it notes and sticks them on the wall. Notice the plural. The accompanying photo in the book shows not just one or two, but hundreds of the little yellow squares covering his study walls.

Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife) keeps on her desk a small, white plaster saint's head that she bought in San Francisco. It reminds her "to believe that eventually the words will come out right."

Joyce Carol Oates writes that she is surrounded by numerous works of art in her study. Her favorite piece, though, is the above portrait of her that was done by Gloria Vanderbilt.

Oh, this is an extremely fascinating book. It doesn't matter that I am not familiar with all of the authors as each story is a treat to read. The photos and graphics leave no question that creativity abounds not only with the authors writing about their inspiring bits and bobs but also with the designers of the book.

I have already paged through the volume many times and tend to dip in and out of it. It comes with its own red ribbon bookmark which is helpful for these random readings. I still have two more renewals before my library will call it back home. The book appears to be out of print but, as always, it is available somewhere online or maybe I will be lucky enough to find it at a secondhand book shop.


  1. Dear Belle, I just picked up "Still Writing. . . " from the library, and here you have me yearning for this beckoning book about writers. I'm enthralled and will be on the lookout for "How I Write .. . " .

    My own desk is an utter mess right now, a creative but utter one. Sigh.

    1. I just cleaned off my desk yesterday, Penny. It won't stay neat for long but I will enjoy the uncluttered-ness of it while I can.

      I know you will enjoy 'Still Writing'. "How I Write' is more of dip in and out sort of book to be enjoyed for a few minutes at a time with a cup of coffee or tea.

  2. Another winner for those of us who like to write and read. I'll have to add it to my list. I just checked out Still Writing this week and I think I'm going to like it. (I need to stop reading and start writing, but oh, well...)

    1. Such power! You and Penny both reading a book I recommended at the same time! I think you will like 'Still Writing', Kathy. Perhaps it will inspire you to write. In any event, it is a very pleasant read. Let me know how you liked it.

    2. I finished Still Writing recently and it is one of the best books I've ever read for motivation to keep writing. I absolutely loved it and plan to get my own copy. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    3. Kathy, I am so glad you liked 'Still Writing'. I agree that it offers plenty of motivation. I also read another of Ms. Shapiro's books, 'Devotion: A Memoir', which is just as well written and gives an intimate look at her spiritual journey.