Life on the Page

By Lynn Freed

Harcourt. 237 pp. $22

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." Like those two books, Lynn Freed's memoir, in the form of 11 essays, has an essential quality largely lacking in the permissive, indulgent culture of the writing-school era: honesty. Freed knows, contrary to what the writing gurus would have their acolytes believe, that not everyone can be a writer, that writing is hard, that talent is necessary, not to mention "long years of practice and a ruthless determination to succeed."

Freed, a native South African who has spent most of her adult life in the United States and has lived for many years in Northern California, is in the writing-school milieu but not of it. The author of five novels and one collection of short stories, all of which have been well received but none of which has been a bestseller, Freed has patched together a livelihood from books, freelance journalism and stints as a writing guru at various institutions of higher education, none of which she names in these pages. She is grateful for the steady income these associations have brought her, fond of many of the students whom she has taught but utterly without illusions about what she calls "the cash cow of many humanities departments -- graduate programs in creative writing."

Freed stands in stark contrast to Bret Lott, another writing-school guru whose recent "Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life" carried pandering to new heights, or depths. Freed is sympathetic with people's yearning to be writers but utterly unsentimental about the ways the writing programs offer false promises. Early in her writing-school career, she realized that "I had landed myself in a situation in which the inmates were running the institution" and that, in an age of "the supreme relevance of the self," the institution "had come to depend for its continuance on the pleasing of that self." She discovered that too many writing students, aided and abetted by their professors, knew little about "the literary canon" and instead were steeped in "contemporary fiction, particularly that which has emerged from writing programs like [their] own."

The writing schools sell the notion that with the proper training and guidance -- preferably at a place that charges plenty of tuition and has a large teaching and administrative staff -- anyone can be a writer. Freed will have none of that:

"Talent is the naked emperor of writing programs. How, for instance, does one approach the subject in a workshop that may well be devoid of even one student showing a hint of it? Mentioning talent serves only to make everyone nervous. (Do I have it? Does she? Anyway, who is she to judge? I just got a personal rejection from the New Yorker.) Mentioning vocation, on the other hand, is likely to make everyone feel comfortable. In a world that confuses the calling to write with the desire to be a writer, 'vocation' is just another word for ambition."

If there's a more succinct summary of what is wrong with American literary fiction these days than that final sentence, I haven't read it. Writing fiction (or poetry or any other form of so-called creative writing) is a calling, not a job. It isn't enough to want to be a writer. There can be no other choice. Anne Tyler has written about characters tugging at her skirt, demanding to be brought to life. That is what happens when someone is called to be a writer. Much of Freed's slender but powerful book is concerned with precisely how hard it can be to translate calling -- or vision, or whatever one cares to name it -- into fiction. Like O'Connor and Welty, Freed knows that fiction cannot be willed into being: "fiction does not come out of ideas. The sources of fiction are myriad and complex -- a character, a character in a situation, a phrase, a scene, a setting, a smell -- anything at all but an idea attached to an intention."

For years, a story has made the rounds about William Faulkner, unknown and unappreciated, working as a night watchman at the University of Mississippi and writing "As I Lay Dying" on an upturned barrel. The story is almost certainly as much a fiction as anything Faulkner wrote, but it makes the point: Real writing gets done because the writer has to do it, not because he or she merely wants to do it. Thus Freed tells us that after the success of her wonderful second novel, "Home Ground," she came under pressure to follow one success with another:

"I forgot everything I knew about ideas and fiction. But desperation and vanity does this to a writer: It makes her stupid. In fact, finding an idea for a novel is easy. I came up with one idea after another. In this case, coming up with an idea for a book was almost a guarantee that whatever I wrote to fit that idea would falter. The more obsessed I became with chasing down a plan, with wresting the idea into the confines of an abstraction, the more the real fiction eluded me. . . . I had deafened myself with thinking."

At first glance that may strike you as odd, but it's exactly right: "Nothing seems to make a writer stupider than thinking. Rational intelligence has little bearing on fictional intelligence; it can make one forget the contradictions inherent in life, the constancy only of surprise. Knowing too much, we find ourselves paralysed by choice -- this characteristic or that, this scene or that?"

Freed knows from experience that fiction can't be willed into being. Early in her career, trying to write about South Africa, she found herself under the gaze of "the Keepers of the Moral High Ground," writing "predictably horrified short stories" about apartheid and related matters that were "full of fake daring, fake feeling, fake everything." Nobody accepted them because "the subject matter was public property; I could not find a way to make it my own because it was not my own." Not until she started writing out of personal and familial experience did she begin to find her subject, "taking on the living" in ways that sometimes startled her parents and sisters but never, to her surprise, offended or angered them.

As she quite correctly says, "the distinction between fiction and autobiography" is "between one sort of truth and another," and in fact, fiction may come closer to truth than autobiography because it is free from the constraints of "fact." For Freed, the most important experience has been leaving home, "the conundrum of alienation and belonging," "place and displacement." It is, obviously a subject of immense pertinence and interest in today's world, and in both fiction and nonfiction Freed has explored it with acuity and sensitivity. She also, it should be mentioned (and not merely in passing), writes with acuity and honesty about herself and her family; the recollections of her pleasingly eccentric mother and father are among the many attractions of this book. But mainly it is about writing, and it is one of the best books on that complex, elusive subject to come my way in a long time.