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Reviewed by:
  • The Writer on Her Work
  • Patricia Henley
Janet Sternberg, ed. The Writer on Her Work. New York: Norton, 1991. 288 pp. $19.95.

This is volume II of The Writer on Her Work, subtitled New Essays in New Territory, a meaningful metaphor. Twenty contemporary women writers from around the world contributed to this collection of essays. Reading them, I had a sense of plunging deep into new territory, new ways of thinking about the act of writing and its significance. The essays speak to the concerns of all writers—man or woman—but I was particularly curious to see what other women would say about the paths they have been traveling. It was a bit like going to a dinner party with people you've long admired, and walking away with gem after gem of understanding and recognition.

Here is a sampling from The Writer on Her Work:

Carolyn Forche: "The past leaves its residue of debris: the past itself, the world in pieces, which we fondly and in our bewilderment retrieve so as to make our meaning. We live in ruins then, which are by turns abandoned, inhabited, excavated, and destroyed." And, "Whatever keeps you from doing your work has become your work."

Margaret Atwood: "Next day there's the blank page. You give yourself up to it like a sleepwalker. Something goes on that you can't remember afterward. You look at what you've done. It's hopeless. You begin again. It never gets any easier."

Natalia Ginzberg: "As far as the things we write are concerned, there is a danger in grief, just as there is a danger in happiness. Because poetic beauty is a mixture of ruthlessness, pride, irony, physical tenderness, of imagination and memory, of clarity and obscurity—and if we cannot gather all things together we are left with something meager, unreliable, and hardly alive."

Through these far-ranging and incisive essays we gradually perceive the spiral, rather than linear, journey taken by women writers, the way the past informs the present for all of them, and the accretion of wisdom occuring when one has intense, joyful work that transforms. These essays seem a necessary addition to any writer's shelf and certainly a boon to any teacher or reader of contemporary fiction. [End Page 542]

Patricia Henley
Purdue University


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