To most people, Robin Black might not seem like the obvious choice to write a book about the writing life. Black, in her 50s and the author of two books of fiction ("If I Loved You I Would Tell You This" and "Life Drawing"), did not write for at least 18 years of her life, even though it was the thing she most desperately wanted to do. But it was that period — and the productive yet painful years of writing and publishing that followed — that makes Black the perfect person to write about the vagaries of, as she says, living "a life of profound uncertainty."
There are two sections of the book: Life (& Writing), and Writing (& Life). Using the essay format — some only one page, others five or more, a classic "To Do" list with footnotes — Black uses the Life (& Writing) half of the book to explore her life as a stalled writer. "It was strangely easy for me to forget how miserable I was over the period of many years when I so, so wanted to write, but could not." She doesn't write about it with self-pity or blame, just a clear honesty that any artist can relate to.
As a mother of three daughters — including one with special needs — a wife and a recovering agoraphobic, Black may have had many valid reasons to abandon a life of profound uncertainty for a busy family and personal reasons. But she couldn't. She "barely has a conscious impulse to write. I have instead an itch. A discomfort when I don't write."
Her inability to write disappears shortly after the death of her alcoholic father, and it's no coincidence. Black tackles the issue of "silencing voices" head on. "It's all too easy to succumb to those silencing voices — whether they come from an anonymous reader or from forces we have been battling all our lives. … I speak from experience. Nearly twenty years of blank pages, fear and anxiety winning out."
The Writing (& Life) section addresses craft, but not in any kind of dull prose that can deaden instructional texts. She gives plenty of tips and advice, but she will also tell you how she didn't follow that advice and got to where she was anyway in a humble "Who am I to give advice?" sort of manner.
As a fan of Black's fiction, I was thrilled to read "Crash Course" and found myself nodding in agreement with every page. She didn't, couldn't write, and then — lucky for us — she could. There was no magic, just the winding path of life.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in New Hampshire.