Wednesday, December 18, 2013

More of the Best-Ever Writing on Writing

"Ten of the greatest essays on writing ever written."

 A few days ago, Flavorwire published another of its infamous lists. With that title. I don’t disagree that the essays listed are brilliant. I admire them all. Return to many of them often. But the list irritated me for several reasons. Greatest essays on writing ever written. Ten white authors? Only three women? Nothing written more than ninety years ago? Nothing in translation?

So I decided to whip together my own list. It’s the Year of the List, apparently, so I’d better get mine out there before 2013 races off and leaves me brushing its dust off my coatsleeves. 

I welcome your additions to:  

Wendy's Top Ten: Some of the Best-Ever Writing on Writing ~

"Art Positions," Marco Rountree, from Madrid, 
Art Basel, Miami Beach, December 2011
 #1) Gloria Alzaldúa's  How to Tame a Wild Tongue or, even better, “Tlilli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink” 

These lovelies are back to back in Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Spinsters/Aunt Lute Press, 1987)

#2) Aristotle's Poetics 

Like the slogan for Goddard College’s low-residency creative writing programs: “the first and still the best.” Yes, Poetics is composed of incomplete lecture notes; it was never intended for publication. But it was definitely the first. And we’ve not lived it down yet, two-thousand-three-hundred years later....

#3) Toni Cade Bambara's “What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow” (1980) 

This lovely, energetic essay contains one of my all-time favorite quotes on writing:

“The greatest challenge in writing, then, in the earlier stages, was to strike a balance between candor, honesty, integrity, and truth—terms that are fairly synonymous for crossword puzzlers and thesaurus ramblers but hard to equate as living actions.” 

You can find it, and many other lovely essays on writing, in Janet Sternberg’s The Writer on Her Work (Norton, 2000)

#4) Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's “Respuesta a Sor Filotea” (1691) 

In which sor Juana defends women’s write to study, write and teach, in a letter to her bishop, all the while addressing him as señora, as if he were a nun. A shortened version of this revolutionary essay, translated to English by Margaret Sayers Peyden, appears in Peyden’s anthology Mexican Writers on Writing (Trinity University Press, 2007).

#5) Gabriel García Márquez's brilliant 1981 interview with a (rather underinformed and badly outmatched) Paris Review interviewer

In spite of being asked terribly dull questions, with his then-teenaged son pressed into service as English-Spanish interpreter, García Márquez comes up with gems like this:
“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved.”

"Art Positions," Marco Rountree, from Madrid,
Art Basel, Miami Beach, 2011
#6) Walt Harrington's recreation of Rita Dove creating a poem, published by the Washington Post in 1995 as “A Narrow World Made Wide” 

Later published in anthologies as “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” it’s one of the best evocations and explications of the creative writing process that I’ve encountered.

This short-and-sweet essay began life as perhaps the only interesting presentation ever given the Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conference, in 1977.

#8) Lu Chi
's The Art of Writing

This work in verse is as relevant today as when it was written seventeen hundred years ago. I wrote an essay inspired by it a few years ago, you can read it here.  

#9) Elena Poniatowska's introduction to Here’s to You, Jesusa!

This excellent exploration of the ethics and politics of immersion reporting appears only in the novel’s English version (published in 2001 and translated by Deanna Heikkenin).

#10) Luis Alberto Urrea's short essay about why he wrote his lovely 1999 book Wandering Time, titled “A Note from Luis” 

It is true that LAU could scribble driving directions on a cocktail napkin and I’d probably call it brilliant work, but this little ditty really is.
Post Art Basel, Miami, December 2011

It seems I'm always happy to fritter away my writing time reading essays on writing, so please send your suggestions along! 


1 comment:

  1. #8 is a great favorite of mine. I'd add Muriel Rukeyser's Life of Poetry.