It may seem odd to call a book about writing "ruthless," but that is my lasting impression of Lynn Freed's splendid new work, "Reading, Writing...

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“Reading, Writing and Leaving Home: Life on the Page”
by Lynn Freed
Harcourt, 237 pp., $22

It may seem odd to call a book about writing “ruthless,” but that is my lasting impression of Lynn Freed’s splendid new work, “Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home.” She describes writers as “natural murderers” in their approach to storytelling. If true revelation in fiction is “done right,” she insists, “someone will be hurt.”

The author of five novels and a short-story collection, Freed was born and raised in Durban, South Africa, in an educated and privileged family. She later migrated to the United States.

In 11 distinct essays, Freed writes with humor and intensity about disparate parts of her life, all informing who she is as a writer (this is the book’s narrative thread): her parents and sisters, her self-imposed exile in America, and in one of the final chapters, a lovely image of her childhood house.

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She returns to her thoughts on writing fiction repeatedly, perhaps because the process has been so mysterious and elusive to her. Even though she is a longtime teacher of writing (now at the University of California, Davis), her own experience as a novelist undermines her profession. “Writing cannot be taught,” she says.

Difficult as it may be, the novel writer must reject anything short of the truth, no matter how ugly or discomfiting. Freed writes: “Little in this so-called process fits the modern idea of the writer-as-good-citizen — that midlist, pension-minded, smilingly affirmative, steadily productive, properly reviewed, ethnically overplayed, and, in the main, rather innocuous collegiate schlep … The real writer, by contrast, is a moral reprobate … If this is not the case, writing degenerates into a form of advertisement, and art itself is corrupted.”

One of her few false notes — ironic because it is a story in a book about writing stories — is an essay about her ex-husband’s thunderous snoring, but otherwise Freed never strays far from her fierce devotion to the art and hard work of writing.