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Book Review: Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg

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A writer’s life is never as easy as it looks on a dust jacket – no 20 world blurb of polished prose to suggest the effortless flow of words as they land on the page.

The truth is conveyed in the hard-earned prose of Michael Greenberg, a writer of little means, who took on whatever jobs needed to keep writing. And that’s the secret here: not just telling stories, but living through them, even if it means inquiring into the life of a transgender dinner guest, with notepad in hand. He does so because, well, because a writer has to write. From the reader’s perspective, his writing seems to come easy, with conversational, urgent phrasing, yet thoughtful and conclusive essays.

Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life will become a bestseller today and a classic inspiration tomorrow. Just as people carried Kerouac and Bellow in their back pocket, Greenberg’s conversational tone stays with you, and you want to read his essays again and again.

Unlike a memoir in a traditional narrative thread (this happened, then this happened, then this), his collection of 44 essays shows Greenberg’s development as a writer, but told in selfless prose, examining and questioning the lives of others — from the experience of living under the command of an inventive toddler to the chronicle of the mundane daily commute, entitled “Notes of an Anti-Traveler”:

“Most people regard with distaste the possibility of adventure that comes with being in a closed capsule crowded with strangers. If something out of the ordinary occurs, commuters ignore it and hope that it will soon end. I was seeing things from another angle: unable to break out of the monotony of my days, I focused with greater intensity on it, in the hope that there was more to the monotony than I had suspected.”

Flying through the 1970’s and 80’s, we can sense Greenberg recalling long forgotten details and writing of them with a wiser eye as he reflects on the people he met. From one-time encounters to his efforts to improve a neighborhood situation, or befriend a person in need, we’re watching a writer tell his story.

After a string of dead-end jobs in the 70’s, the author finds himself with too many writing, ghosting, or screenplay jobs, ‘in the margins of industry’ as he called them. Greenberg admits: “Lately, I’ve grown suspicious of my ability to manufacture sincerity, to write with apparent conviction about that in which I have no real interest."

Every sentence in Beg, Borrow, Steal is thoughtful and conversational in a fast-paced memoir. When Greenberg visited a mental treatment center in his neighborhood, his aim was to convince the tenants in his building that they didn’t need to erect barriers against the people across the street. What he discovered, along the way, were the parallels between the treatment patients and his own life, and a true supportive community, perhaps living more meaningful lives than the residents of his Upper West Side building.

The journalist hiding between the covers of this book is inquisitive and caring. Many of his troubles stem from encounters where he is trusting and helpful, to a fault. That doesn’t stop him from helping the next person next time.

Greenberg also writes honestly about his experience in writing Hurry Down Sunshine, the memoir of his daughter’s mental illness. He reflects on the trouble with writing about people you know, and how it affects people. As with the story of his daughter’s illness, he takes care to avoid wounding people with his words, In fact, he once went so far as to intercept a magazine from a relative’s mailbox to keep him from seeing a story he’d written about him.

Every author’s book tour dismay receives an honest treatment in the essay: “The Writer’s Stock Exchange.” Greenberg confesses to obsessing over his Amazon sales rank, as most of us do. He also shares the experience at a book signing where five people showed up for his reading, including an elderly woman drinking from a Santa Claus mug the whole time. “I count on one finger the number of books I sold in Laguna, and wonder how it matches up with my mounting expenses.”

We hope by now, with thousands of Hurry Down Sunshine fans ready to read Beg, Borrow, Steal, that Greenberg will be motivated to keep observing, writing, and counting us among his grateful audience.

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About Helen Gallagher

  • http://www.andrewblackman.net/ Andrew Blackman

    Great review! The writer’s life is certainly not an easy one. I can certainly empathise with the dead-end jobs, the struggling to make ends meet, the book signings with a handful of people there. But the good thing is, whatever happens, you can always write a book about it…

  • Ted

    Good job. I’m totally going to buy this book now.

  • Peg Miller

    I love this guy and will buy this book at once! How Gallagher got to the heart and soul of Greenberg is quite amazing.