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Professors and graduates of the highly acclaimed Iowa Writer's Workshop, including T. Coraghesson Boyle and Doris Grumbach, offer insightful essays on the craft of writing and on the writing life. For The Eleventh Draft, Frank Conroy solicited essays about writing from 23 fiction writers--all of them one-time Iowa Writers' Workshop students or faculty members. "My instructions to them," says Conroy, "were deliberately vague.... Leaving it open seemed to me to heighten the chances of getting the strongest and least predictable work." Conroy guessed right. Beyond the shared sentiment that writing is hard work, there is, blessedly, no common thread here. For T. Coraghessan Boyle, writing is an addiction as powerful as "putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm." James Hynes claims that writing takes such a toll that "just writing this essay is probably as bad for me as a pack of cigarettes." And Barry Hannah describes writers as "not always the most vital people in the room, but often nearer ghouls sniffing at the trough of other living blood." In the book's most pessimistic piece, Doris Grumbach maligns word processors for destroying the richness of the English language, megabestsellers for the decimation of forests, and the notion of writer-as-celebrity (lionization, she says, does not advance one's writing).
Most of this book's contributors aim, often by way of story, to get at the mysterious heart of the fiction writer's experience. Fred G. Leebron recalls the moment he realized that the characters take the author by the hand, and not vice versa. Elizabeth McCracken confesses to having no inner or outer life, but to stealing all her material from her family. And Scott Spencer underscores the courage needed to create fiction. "A writer who will not risk hurting someone's feelings," he says, "is finally no more effective than a firefighter who will not smash in windows." --Jane Steinberg