Alice McDermott’s What About The Baby is a collection of essays on the craft of writing that touches upon everything the process, the exercise, and the career demands of those of us to whom it calls. Beginning with a passionate urging by a teacher when she was in primary school, McDermott has built a bestselling career as writer and teacher of novelists. We are treated to a great set of fourteen small lessons on everything from incorporating faith and the personal thematic core in our work to the true instruction of understanding where the sentence and syntax can move from perfection to the meaningless drivel of a phrase that can be both original and immediately cliché at the same moment. This was an excellent masterclass by yet another master writer and teacher, and yet again, I am blown away by the brilliant philosophical and technical advice I found in this collection.
I had many favorite moments in this book – my favorite recurring one was easily her effortless referencing to a broad knowledgebase of other great writers and great works (many of which I have read, but what a treat to come across something you’ve never heard of that a truly great writer has such passion and excitement for in a course such as this). While the whole book was excellent, two essays really stood out to me: the title piece, where we learn how deeply a missed opportunity can become the core of a story when approached the correct way – that backward thinking that ultimately sets a piece apart from its peers in originality. I also really enjoyed ‘Remembrance of Things That Never Happened,’ and we hear about her reverence for Frank McCourt (that we share) in a lecture that she delivered at his first Memorial at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. The anecdote about what he taught her about her own work during a conversation at Lincoln Center is unforgettable.
A great collection that needs to be visited by anyone who is attempting to enter the profession we would all recommend they stay away from, but also those who love McDermott, great literature, and peeking under the hood of how the authors engine truly runs.
Image: McDermott at the National Book Festival Presents Irish American Women event at the Library of Congress. Photo by Shawn Miller.