I was not at all familiar with Margot Livesey before reading this. When I requested this book I was on a bit of a kick to read books about writing (if you’ve been following my blog you can probably recall a few titles that have been reviewed here). I was also attracted to the very unusual nature of the cover for this book.
I felt a connection to the author very early on when she writes:
Because we come to reading and writing so early—as a life skill, not an art form—people often overestimate their own abilities as fiction writers. “Oh, yes, I’m thinking of writing a novel,” my fellow passengers tell me on planes and trains. As soon as we consider Serena Williams playing tennis, or Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello, we recognize the absurdity of thinking that one can easily move from audience member to performer. No one would imagine that all they had to do was listen to music and then they’d be able to play at the Village Vanguard, or visit the Metropolitan Museum regularly and then paint a masterpiece.
How succinctly she puts it! I’ve heard other authors say this, but never quite so simply and smartly. That she also makes the distinction between writing as an art form and (as she puts it) a ‘life skill’ makes tremendous sense, and this is something I have not previously run across.
I absolutely adored the essay “Mrs. Turpin Reads the Stars: Creating Characters Who Walk off the Page.” “I am character handicapped,” Livesey writes and notes that not being able to write vivid characters is akin to golfers who can’t putt or drummers with no sense of rhythm. And yet, judging by the characters I see in so many books, there are plenty of character-handicapped authors out there. But this seemingly simple essay has more depth to it than most books. This essay alone is worth the price of the book and should be required reading in high school and college writing courses.
From her recognition of what she doesn’t do well with thoughts on how to rewrite and overcome her own deficiencies, to writing prompts and rules (i.e. “Every character should have something I absolutely do not share: perfect pitch, the ability to recognize edible mushrooms”) this essay – a personal reflection on writing – is packed with tremendous advice for writers of all levels.
“Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be: Paying Homage” is a wonderful essay touting the case for borrowing or ‘re-imagining’ stories. There’s a fine line between re-imagining and plagiarism, but Livesey’s arguments are worth considering.
I could quote at length from this book. So many times I read, then re-read a sentence or a paragraph because there was so much power, so much truth in the words, and I highlighted my digital copy in almost systematic fashion. When I was done reading my digital ARC I immediately put a hard copy in my online shopping cart. I want this book handy to be able to call upon it time and again.
Looking for a good book? Anyone even slightly interested in writing should own a copy of Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing
author: Margot Livesey
publisher: Tin House Books
paperback, 302 pages