Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Epstein and What It Takes to Be a Writer

For a while, Joseph Epstein was the darling of the Best American Essays Series. I read a number of his essays in those collections and came to like him a lot. I even went to see him read at Wash. U. once. Though I've come to recognize that his political beliefs don't necessarily correspond to mine (I was particularly irritated by his coy little jab at Obama in the third paragraph of this book review in the Wall Street Journal), I still like his prose style and find his voice compelling. This reflection on turning 70 that he wrote a while back is worth reading.

Epstein has reviewed Malcolm Gladwell's new book for the Weekly Standard. It's a pretty interesting review, mostly critical. But I found this passage particularly noteworthy:

For three decades I taught courses in prose style to students who, by taking the course, had in effect announced their interest in becoming writers. Some were immensely impressive in their talent--much more talented than I at their age. Yet many of the most talented among them washed out, drifting off, perhaps happily enough, into other kinds of work, settling for the consolations of security, marriage, family life, for all I know excessive venery. Why? Not, I think, for want of practicing--for failing to put in Malcolm Gladwell's requisite 10,000 hours--but for want of desire. They didn't want to be writers strongly enough. Whence does desire derive? I don't know, and neither, I venture to say, does Gladwell. Nor would a full battalion of scientists or social scientists in white coats armed with plush research grants be likely to find out. In the realm of desire, we are in the presence of a mystery and have no choice but to live with it.

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