Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why it Matters by Mark Edmundson (Bloomsbury, New York 2016)

Mark Edmundson is a professor at the University of Virginia with books to his credit like Why Teach? and Why Read? Why Write? un-limbers the old cliché that the mind is a muscle and then cobbles together a hyperbolic set of examples that demonstrate the truth of the cliché by reference to “writing” as weight-lifting. Not only has modern neuroscience and cognitive psychology begun to give a frame to what philosophers used to call “mind”, but the frame itself has come to fruition in works by Nobel prize winners like Daniel Kahnemann and serious philosopher/scientists like Daniel Dennett, Stephen Pinker, Jeremy Rifkin, Antonio Domasio and many others. Edmundson makes explicit his claim that “the mind is a muscle”; then, he continues to pile error on error by claiming that the muscled-up mind produces a muscled-up memory. Modern science now knows that, at best, memory is a hit-and-miss proposition, though certain feats of memory can be produced with training of a specific sort. Even taken as “metaphor”, the “mind as muscle” idea is false.

Edmundson claims that he’s examining the “art” of writing, but almost nothing about the “art” itself is mentioned. Short chapters explore why writers write (for revenge, to get the last word, for money, etc.) and a section or two explores revision and related items. However, the “art” of writing is pretty much untouched, either as a theory of creative cognition or as aesthetics. Here again modern neuroscience and cognitive psychology ride to the rescue: If one wants to understand the relation between creativity and aesthetics there are modern scientific masters at work like the pioneering Howard Gardner and Eric Kandel (among many others).

One thing Edmundson says rankles: Writing is not about publishing, he says. Writing is about writing. Sadly, this is untrue. Writing to be read is about the only thing worthwhile about real writing. If you do not wish to present your work for publication, then consort with your “daily diary” for a few minutes a day, then keep it hidden under lock and key.