Exploring the art of prose



Hidden Machinery, Margot Livesey
Tin House Books, 2017

A collection of ten essays on writing by the great Margot Livesey is a book to be savored, to be read again and again. A thoughtful reader as well as writer, Livesey’s essays are full of terrific ways in which to become better at both disciplines. Every claim that she makes about writing is based on examples from classic texts—Austen, James, Woolf, Shakespeare, to name but a few—and she takes the time to explain how each excerpt works towards the point that she is making. Reading this book is akin to taking a class that combines literature and writing.

There are essays here on dialogue; on homage; on research; on the intersection between life and writing. Livesey’s style is conversational and yet weighty. She uses her own experience as a writer—with humility and humor—to show us both her successes and her failures. The essay on homage speaks to literary texts but also uses visual art—with examples—to explain the process of speaking or responding to another artist.

Each essay stands on its own, so it’s possible to read this book in whatever order you chose, and yet there’s a pleasure to be had in seeing how each essay speaks to the others. One’s knowledge builds as the book progresses and there’s enough to be learned here to warrant multiple reads. As Livesey says in the chapter on homage: “Indeed some people would argue that the pleasure of revisiting is superior to that of the first encounter.”