By Susan McBride
The most marvelous thing happened to me soon after my first novel debuted. I got an email from a man named Mark Waldman who invited me to submit an essay for an anthology he was putting together. At first, I wondered if this was some kind of gag, but I quickly realized he was dead earnest. A development editor for Putnam, he was collecting essays from writers on the subject of writing. He wanted to find out why we were so enamored with words, what possessed us to write, and when we realized that was our destiny. Waldman compiled pieces from 60 authors and put them together in THE SPIRIT OF WRITING: CLASSIC AND CONTEMPORARY ESSAYS CELEBRATING THE WRITING LIFE. The result is such a fascinating look at the writer's spirit that I wanted to find more about the man behind the book. And my first question to him is why?
Susan McBride: What gave you the idea for the project that would become THE SPIRIT OF WRITING?
Mark Waldman: THE SPIRIT OF WRITING was a dream I'd harbored for years, sparked by the many great authors whose memoirs had inspired me to write. For more than a decade, I had collected, amongst the thousands of books I own, a few dozen works that I considered masterpieces on the writing life. I wanted to put together a collection of the most inspirational passages and anthologize them for others to share and enjoy-a sort of spiritual journey of the pen, or "Inking Through the Soul," as I had originally entitled the book.
SM: Who are your favorites from the classics you collected?
MW: My favorite, then and now, is Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. No other author, in my opinion, has gone so deeply into his or her own soul with such elegance, capturing the underbelly of a writer's obsession with words. And then there's Henry Miller, the man who loved to flirt with his pornographic muse. I could use art as a comparison between each writer's style: Dillard as Renoir--evocative, transcendent, serene-and Miller as Jackson Pollack, splashing and spraying his free-associative pen across the canvassed page. Breaking all the rules and trampling where no one had dared. I searched hundreds of books looking for the thirty selections I made.
SM: How did you decide what contemporary authors to include?
MW: Originally, I was going to stick with the "classics"-Plath, Steinbeck, Rilke, Twain, Anais Nin and Octavio Paz-and pepper them with excerpts from some of the better known writing teachers: Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott, along with Cameron, Zinsser, Ueland, Saltzman and Maisel-people who inspired millions of others to write. Next, I turned to other anthologies of writers writing about the writing life (I love how that sounds to my ear!) and selected various nuggets of experience. Then I dreamed up a rather dangerous idea. Using writers' websites and sorting through hundreds of author interviews gleaned from Amazon.com and other sources, I invited forty writers-most of whom had garnered more awards than I'll ever hope to see hanging on my walls-to submit a three to five page memoir. The only requirement was that they use their most creative, experimental, outrageous and humorous muses to compose their literary pieces.
Thirty-five writers responded (including an American Poet Laureate), and, except for three or four pieces, the writing was exceptionally good-even brilliant. This never happens! Not in the publishing world at least. Ask a famous writer to submit a story and, more often than not, you have the embarrassing duty of telling them that your publisher thinks it stinks. It didn't happen, and the pieces that now comprise half of this anthology represent some of the finest examples of literary self-exposure in print. This is the gold that lays buried in the writer's heart, which so rarely seeps out of their veins. Of course, I did have to deal rather brutally with Tom Bradley's 15,000 word "short" memoir-a psychedelic adventure that lingers on the edge of psychosis-which I hacked down to 3,000 memorable words. Bradley screamed and threatened and coerced; but, as every writer knows, the editor's sword is mightier than any writer's pen. In spite of the bloody reduction, we have become the best of email friends.
With the addition of these new voices, the whole direction of the anthology turned around. I created new sections, one which focused on the memories and inspirations that stimulate most writers to write, a section on advice to writers young and old, and, my favorite one called "Breaking the Rules" which is filled with a variety of experimental forms (holopoetry, hyperdrama, Joris's problem with letters that fall off the page, and other paradoxical beasts) that explore the most creative dimensions of the craft.
I also added memoirs and reflections by authors who are all too often ignored by the literary press: award-winning journalists and genre writers (mystery, science fiction, romance, nonfiction and children's literature) whose stories are essential if we want a comprehensive picture of those who celebrate the writing life.
SM: What was it about each essay that made it work in the anthology?
MW: Each piece had to have a quality that spoke from the writer's soul. But how do you identify such a trait? Intuition, perhaps, is the only honest response I can give; and, I suppose, since I've been an editor for decades in both academic and New York publishing circles, the exceptional writing stands out. I wanted to capture the spirit of writing, and so I looked for those nuggets of light.
SM: What are your feelings about living the writing life in the twenty-first century? Is it harder now to follow that dream, or easier?
MW: I've been involved with the writing community for thirty-six years, ever since I published my first newsletter at age fourteen. More people are writing today than every before in history, and, as a reviewer and an acquisitions editor for various publishers and agents, I have seen a tremendous increase in writing. But no matter the quality-I see many incredible works that, for reasons too complex to explain here, will never be published by a commercial press-I want to emphasize that you continue to write and read: diaries, fiction, memoirs great and small. For the act of writing deepens your understanding of yourself and others. It improves your ability to relate. It even enriches the overall functioning of your brain.
There is, however, a dark trend that I'd like to mention: too many writers have a fantasy of being published, although the odds, even for a seasoned writer, are a thousand to one. That's the average number of manuscripts that are submitted each year for each space a publisher makes available for a book. Write because you have to write, because you have something to communicate or impart; but the dream of being published may bring more misery than you wish, distracting you from what you really love to do.
SM: What's the next project you're working on?
MW: I'm just completing a four-volume illustrated anthology called ARCHETYPES OF THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: REFLECTING AMERICAN CULTURE THROUGH ITS LITERATURE AND ART. I also have a few months to complete another anthology (my eighth so far!) called WILL GOD SURVIVE THE 21ST CENTURY? DANGEROUS VISIONS, RADICAL HOPE. And I'm halfway through a book, co-authored by my pre-teen son, called HOW TO SQUEEZE GREAT STORIES OUT OF KIDS--literally, as my very thin son will attest.
I've just begun to compose my "writer's manifesto," a book that has been burning inside for a year: a psychological exposé of the writing life, including the editors and agents and the unseen powers-that-be in the publishing world today. It's a radical book for people who love to play with words, and it will teach you how the game is played.
SM: Tell us a bit about your past projects?
MW: My other work includes LOVE GAMES and THE ART OF STAYING TOGETHER, two books that show people how to achieve greater and lasting intimacy in their lives. LOVE GAMES describes over 130 exercises and problem-solving tricks to improve communication and sensuality with your partner. I also co-edited DREAMSCAPING with Stanley Krippner. It's an anthology that explores new ways to work with one's dreams. One of the essays provides science to the reality of parapsychological and psychic phenomena. Psychology, consciousness, relationships and words-that about sums up my life. And, let's not forget my garden or my kid!
SM: What's your favorite part about being in the publishing business?
MW: Being an editor (both freelance for nonfiction writers and authors, and as a developmental editor for Tarcher/Putnam) is as enriching as being a therapist. Both require a profoundly intimate dialogue with some of the most interesting people I've ever met. I love the world of writing, and the opportunity it provides to occasionally open a door for someone else. For example, I included a memoir by a Pepperdine College student, Joe Balay, whose talents, I believe, rival those of a young Hemingway, including his capacity to drink. My god, the stuff he throws away is better than 90% of the manuscripts that are published in this country today. It gives me great pleasure to help new writers along the path. Be it publishing, editing, writing or being a therapist-it's all about people for me. Writing and conversation, sitting in nature with your friends, what more does a person need?
SM: Any words of wisdom for aspiring authors?
MW: Write dangerously, take chances and throw away your Strunk & Whites. Read Harry Potter and listen to the books on tape. Then take a long hard look at what is happening to so many people in the world-the suffering, the turmoil, the hate-and write for those who dare not speak for fear of imprisonment or death. Write of the racision and prejudices that inflict our cities as well as the darker corners of our hearts. Make your story heard to anyone who wants to hear, expose your vulnerabilities and wounds as well as your triumphs and your faith. Maybe, just maybe, another revolution will stir-one that can wake up the world with words.
"When I'm writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we're capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. Maya Angelou (From THE SPIRIT OF WRITING)
THE SPIRIT OF WRITING is an intriguing look into the souls of over sixty different writers. From Mark Twain to Stephen King, we are able to examine the spark that motivates the muse, and in return, perhaps more clearly see the face of the spirit that dwells, sometimes hidden and unnamed, inside any of us who have asked ourselves what if?
The passions that inspire each writer, although varied and unique, weave themselves into a pattern that all writers can identify with. Author Bob Shacochis writes for revenge; "Revenge against apathy against the bullets of assassins against the Devil against the silence into which we fall." Sylvia Plath confronts the most well-known literary demon - insecurity. Mark Twain takes a hysterical and irreverent stab at those who call themselves writers in "Littery Men." Author Jane Eaton Hamilton equates the production of a novel to the pain of childbirth, and Stephen King looks at the monetary side of writing in a funny piece called "It's Not the Money."
In "Getting It," written by MyShelf.com's own Susan McBride, we're given a personal glimpse into her struggle to silence the negative forces around her, until she could finally hear a voice from inside saying, "Don't quit. Your time will come."
THE SPIRIT OF WRITING is a book that will stay close by the side of anyone who writes, who wants to write, or who knows a writer. And for those who are discouraged, this book is essential. It will stir the embers until the fire inside you is burning brightly again!
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