Beg, Borrow Steal, By Michael Greenberg

Tales from the writer's confessional

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The Independent Culture

There is not much begging, but plenty of borrowing and stealing, in this marvellous collection of essays. The New York writer Michael Greenberg operates at the intelligent, naked edge of confessional non-fiction, where what others confess is as much fair game as what you bring to the table yourself.

Greenberg's memoir, Hurry Down Sunshine, dealt with his daughter's mental "crack-up". Here he admits that he only sent her the book a few weeks before publication. (Happily, she is now recovered and says she enjoyed the book.) This is no isolated incident. "A couple of years ago," Greenberg writes, "I staked out a relative's apartment so I could intercept from the mailman a magazine with a story I'd written about him."

This book's 44 pieces were written as columns for the Times Literary Supplement, exploring aspects of the writing life with the imperative that each "had to spill a drop of blood". They range from thoughts on the ethics of writing to the more mundane cogs and wheels of recording audiobooks, checking one's ranking on "the writer's stock exchange" – Amazon – and trying to write a Hollywood smash. "They offered me a laughable fee, which of course I accepted."

If you want to know what it takes to be a writer, this collection stands as an excellent primer. Greenberg has worked as a furniture mover, cab driver and street cosmetics vendor. He has been a ghost writer and he has written voiceovers for television programmes. His script for the two-hour Golf: The Game that Defined a Century leads an executive to praise his "intimate feeling for the game" and invite him to play a round. Of course, he has never played.

So Greenberg is a jobbing writer, but a very fine one – in a way that involves not just putting words on the page but seeing the world precisely and creatively. "As an experiment, I planted myself on the corner of 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue for several hours without moving," he writes. It was raining. Now that's what I call a writer.

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