Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life
by Michael Greenberg
New York: Other Press, 2009.
This is another book of columns.
I first read about the book in a review by Elizabeth Bachner at Bookslut, and, as was my wont in those days, rushed off to buy it immediately. It migrated to several TBR piles, then, eventually, to my books about books shelves. (I hesitated to put it away because of the beautiful cover art as much as anything else. A Cara Barer photograph.)
I finally read it last week after reading Alan Taylor’s brief review in the TLS. I read it in two great gulps, in many ways because you can read each of the essays themselves so quickly, and the momentum just picked me up and kept me going.
I think now that a slower pace would have been equally rewarding. His is a wonderfully distinctive voice, and each of the essays is polished to perfection; they deserve breathing room between them.
Michael Greenberg’s columns appeared in the TLS between June 2003 and April 2009, and in them, he chronicles a writer’s life. His style is clipped and each column is pared down to its essentials. A little is said about the actual practice and habit of writing, but mostly, he writes about the goings on in his life, on his street, in his family, in the lives of friends and strangers around him. Much of his material is gritty and odd, in a way that only New York can be. He writes about rats and subway car drivers, about immigrants and crazy landladies, about attending literary soirees and scraping together enough cash to live as a writer. I lost count of how many jobs he’s had, but what is clear is the ethos of “just enough.” He will work for a paycheque for just long enough to finance a writing life. He has an enormous cast of friends and acquaintances, quirky, passionate and fully alive in his hands.
I found his autobiographical essays very engaging, but it is as a chronicler of New York life that he excels. He is very much a go-between. He seems thoroughly at ease in whatever milieu he describes. He seems to be able to strike up a conversation with just about anyone. I would not want to live in the worlds he describes, but he makes me grateful for having visited.
Alan Taylor’s review in TLS of February 19, 2010, ends, “It is recommended without reservation to potential students of creative and non-creative writing courses: if this doesn’t put them off, nothing will.” It’s a funny thing to say, but not quite apt. It’s the very fact that Greenberg had to do all kinds of odd jobs that makes his writing in these columns so interesting. He’s had more jobs than I’ve lived years, and it’s material. Great material.