A master reflects on the joy of writing

By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / December 14, 2009

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After writing a memoir about his interest in books and the book trade, it makes sense that the prolific and celebrated Larry McMurtry would turn to the subject of writing. In “Literary Life,’’ the sequel to “Books’’ and the second of a planned trilogy, the Pulitzer Prize-winner does just that, documenting in his typical terse prose his own path to becoming a successful creator of published fiction. Along the way, he gives nods to and occasionally discusses other writers, friends, and colleagues, and, most important, applies his simple and direct language toward explaining the joys of putting pen to paper.

Much of this book is told conversationally, in the kind of dry, almost laconic style fans of McMurtry’s fiction will recognize. Holding his own first book, 1961’s “Horseman, Pass By,’’ for example, he reports that he “just felt sort of flat.’’ Pondering the bound volume, he realizes that his greatest thrill comes not from being published but from the process itself - “the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life,’’ he explains.

He charts his development from age 6, when he seemed to learn to read “spontaneously.’’ His early reading was voluminous, but he is quick to downplay any claims of inherent superiority and basically presents his budding love affair with the written word as a booby prize for not being able to master math.

As a young writer, McMurtry explains, he benefited from having a few good teachers and growing up in an era that still celebrated the written word. But even as he describes those who helped along the way, what becomes clear is that he also possesses a work ethic that has him writing five pages each day, even through periods when he is teaching, moving, or watching his 11-year-old son perform on the set of “Daisy Miller’’ in Europe (the boy had been cast in the film by director Peter Bogdanovich, a family friend).

Such dedication isn’t always easy, and he writes winningly about an artist’s insecurities. “I hoped to be a writer, but it was not until I had published my fifth book . . . that I became convinced that I was a writer and would remain one,’’ he admits. Later, while finishing “Terms of Endearment,’’ which he considers “among the very best pages I have written,’’ he confronts the writer’s version of a midlife crisis: “I still wrote my five pages every day. It was just that I no longer liked the five pages . . . in fact, I disliked them, sentence by sentence.’’

The result is an invitation into the working writer’s head, presenting the art of creating literature as simply another craft at which folks labor and often jealously compete. And compete they do: Seemingly without hesitation, McMurtry recalls feuds and affairs. And although he is light on the details, he does name names. While appreciating Ken Kesey’s work, for example, he points out that the former collegiate wrestler’s ego hurt their friendship: “He really had to be the stud duck.’’

But while he picks apart others’ writing foibles, he is guilty of allowing some odd bits of his own to appear in the text. Speaking about his longtime editor, Michael Korda, for example, he mentions “his second wife, Margaret, who, like President Obama, has spent some time in Kenya.’’ Does he mean she has, like the president, visited three times?

In addition, he tends to pick up and abandon phrasings. Discussing the Stanford poet Gus Blaisdell, for example, he writes, “Gus is unfortunately now ‘late,’ as they say of the deceased in the delightful Botswana novels of Alexander McCall Smith.’’ A few pages later, he says more prosaically of Wallace Stegner: “He died as a result of a car crash in New Mexico.’’ “Late’’ is used again, as are more straightforward terms, with no apparent rhyme or reason. This book is a conversation, and perhaps that excuses such lapses; the focus, after all, is on the author, not the book.

Clea Simon is the author of five novels, the most recent being “Shades of Grey.’’


A Second Memoir

By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster, 192 pp., $24

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