Annie Proulx: Why Do We Write?

The gloriously tough-minded and tender-hearted Annie Proulx gave the keynote address at the AWP Conference & Bookfair in Seattle this year, entitled Why Do We Write?. One of my favorite authors, she’s also a fine speaker, as you can see here.

Her keynote is full of gems worth excavating.

Annie Proulx at the 2014 AWP Conference & Bookfair, Seattle
Annie Proulx at the 2014 AWP Conference & Bookfair, Seattle

“If the e-book had existed during the 1930’s, Somerset Maugham, the highest paid writer of the period, would have swooned with joy. He traveled the world and everywhere he went, his enormous canvas bag of books with double-stitched seams, reputed to weigh 400 pounds, came with him.”

“Kindle and Nook, various tablets and other devices well suited to the obsolescence game are, when compared with a sturdily bound book, fragile and slippery, awkward and uncomfortable to use … How long will the device last? Months? Years? Generations? … One cannot toss the ephemeral thing into a rucksack and take off for a month-long canoe trip through the boundary waters, nor use it in a remote cabin or tent unless one has a solar charger and some sunshine.”

“We … look at that time [post-World War I] as the golden age of publishing … In real life … the small publishers began to be swallowed up by bigger publishers, who, in their turn, were swallowed by leviathan corporations with little interest in books or literature beyond the bottom line.”


“The well-known agent Andrew Wylie remarked … “What gave publishers the idea that this was some big goddamn business? It’s not. It’s a tiny little business selling to a bunch of odd people who read.””

“Several years ago, someone scanned Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling, a tremendously popular book in the 1940’s, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, later made into a movie. The hoaxer presented the faux “manuscript” as new writing to Scribner, the original publisher. The editor on whose desk it landed failed to recognize it and rejected it.”

“It is a pity that all manner of encouragements, stipends, residencies and awards are directed at “young writers” when older people bring richer observations of life … to the writing desk.”

“A longing for fame and fortune … motivates some who want life defined by public readings, festival appearances, award ceremonies, panels, travels, dinners of honor, fans and signings …”

Annie Proulx poster AWP Conference & Bookfair, 2014, Seattle

“Others are attracted to writing because [it] exudes some flavor of a glamorous or romantic occupation … how much more interesting it would be to say you are a writer than a junior executive, or beet grower, or convenience store attendant.”

“To some … it looks like a pleasant way to make a living, free from the horrors of commuting, office cubicles, and endless meetings … until you … come up against disillusion, sporadic income and relative poverty.”

“Some write … to present ideas to the world …Dickens, Jacob Riis, Charlie LeDuff … There are also writers who aim to build up a body of literary work and a rack of awards that will ensure a place in posterity. Others … use writing as a way to explore distant and exotic places.”




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