Guest Writing about: Writing about Writing

by Eliezer Sobel

There is nothing more distracting to a writer than reading books about writing. I usually have one of two responses: Either the more I read, the more frustrated and restless I become because the book is speaking about something I wish to be doing, rather than reading about. That can be as frustrating as reading a book about swimming while lying in the hot sun, uncomfortable and sweating profusely. (Not to mention reading The Joy of Sex on a lonely summer night.)

Or, because of the subject matter, another response I can have is to read such books during the time I’ve set aside for actual writing, and convince myself that it is job-related research. Thus, while avoiding the brutal, empty page, which is the day’s true task and demand, I can rest comfortably in the knowledge—delusion—that I am being productive.

And now, ironically, I have been asked to add my own thoughts to this dubious genre here. Instead of working on my novel, I can while away my afternoon writing about writing. In a variation of the axiom, “Those who can, do; those who can’t teach” –(my apologies to educators, for I well know that to truly do it right requires nothing short of sainthood, not to mention an 80-hour work week)--it could also be suggested that “Those who can, write; those who can’t, write about writing.” And perhaps those who really can’t, merely read about writing. My apologies again, this time to those who may have put out a book about writing, but only after having already published many works in their own right. John Gardner comes to mind, Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King—they have all certainly earned the right to write about writing.

But have I? I’ve published five books if you count the little self-published one, and if you count the one some guy paid me a thousand dollars for, printed in his basement in the days before computers, and sold through ads in the National Enquirer. Okay, so three bona fide books and perhaps 50 articles and short stories over the years. But what should the cut-off point be before a writer is permitted to write about writing? As the Carmelite monk, Father William McNamara once said, “Never read good books; there’s not enough time for that. Only read great ones.” This especially holds true for books about writing. To learn about any skill, it’s always wise to turn to those with true expertise.

So if you truly can’t stand writing and prefer to read about it, rather than put my two cents in here, I will instead steer you to a handful of books on the subject that are worthy of your time and attention.

For starters, there’s Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. That one alone might be sufficient, except for the unfortunate inclusion of several lines that could put you off the idea of writing forever: “Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” Write or die??? Come on, Ranier, cut us humans a little slack.

For sheer entertainment value, there’s Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. At one point she speaks of writer’s jealousy, as in when you find that your friend’s great publishing success is basically a huge bummer. What rescued her from this torment, she says, was seeing a poem in the New York Times entitled, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.”

Carl Sandburg called Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write “The best book ever written about how to write.” And as we all know, Sandburg was no monkey. (FYI, Chapter Ten is entitled, “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect it For Their Writing.”)

Henry Miller on Writing has always been a favorite of mine, filled with raw and brutal honesty about his own process: “I entered it [writing] without any apparent talent, a thorough novice, incapable, awkward, tongue-tied, almost paralyzed by fear and apprehensiveness. I had to lay one brick on another, set millions of words to paper before writing one real, authentic word dragged up from my own guts…I had to learn to think, feel and see in a totally new fashion, in an uneducated way, in my own way, which is the hardest thing in the world.”

For sheer mental exercise, loosening up the brain and getting one’s originality and voice kicked into gear, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones has become a classic guide for what she calls “writing as practice.” By “practice,” she means spiritual practice, akin to meditation or other techniques for exploring one’s inner world and consciousness. Writing practice is to use the act of putting words to paper as a method for gaining insight into the nature of one’s own mind. And when actual coherent, meaningful or beautiful passages result, they are a mere by-product of the practice, not the goal. The goal is the process itself, learning to loosen the reins of the inner censor and allow one’s natural thought-stream to flow freely, without regard to product, result, or certainly publication. “The deepest secret in our heart of hearts,” Natalie writes, “is that we are writing because we love the world, and why not carry that secret out with our bodies into the living rooms and porches, backyards and grocery stores?”

Finally, for those who prefer an Eastern, poetic flavor to their books about writing, I recommend The Art of Writing by Lu Ji (261-303). The first lines of his opening verse say it all:

A poet stands between heaven and earth

and watches the dark mystery.

That is pretty much all we need to know about our vocation. Later, Lu Ji says,

A writer makes new life in the void,

knocks on silence to make a sound,

binds space and time on a sheet of silk

and pours out a river from an inch-sized heart.

That truly does say it all, so now it is time to put down the books about writing, tap into our inch-sized hearts, dredge up an authentic word or two from our guts and start writing about something, anything, besides writing.

Eliezer Sobel is the author of Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, which was the winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, as well as The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist’s Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments. And other stuff.

Visit his web-site here.


Douglas said...

Well said Eliezer. But rather than flog yourself too deeply (be it a blogflog or a shipboard flog) try considering writing about writing like a writer going to the coffee shop. Clearly for the self-employed artist any community, whether cyber or bricks and mortar, qualifies as a legitimate supportive community. It's hard to work in a void and writing about writing is singing to the choir, a very helpful and valid practice when the whole world has on Bose earphones tuned to something else. Doug Day

kathleenmaher said...

I really enjoyed this, but am afraid my resistance to learning how others write, great or not, is hopeless.
Not that I don't acknowledge a boundless need to learn--I do.
But for me writing requires delusional self-confidence. Discovering that I go about it all wrong would be akin to finding out I had been confusing writing with sex; or with food, money or religion. It would mean I was insane, my towering unpublishable mss. standing as proof.

Sydney Nash said...

I'm a Hemingway fanatic. He said, "What difference does it make if you live in a picturesque little outhouse surrounded by 300 feeble minded goats and your faithful dog...? The question is: Can you write?" Many are called, few are chosen, eh?

Thank you for sharing!

Stella said...

Fun post. I've never read books on how to write fiction. I've tried on one or two occasions, but usually I end up disagreeing with most of the advice they give. I don't know if that's because I have some contrary streak - it's not unlikely. But I also think it's because all writers get comfortable doing their own thing and build a whole creative system around it. They end up giving creative advice according to this system and it's really based on their own preferences. (And I'm not excluding myself in this.) I think in the end there are very few creative principles that apply to every writer.

Personally, I've never felt comfortable with the "write or die" philosophy. I get the point but it's melodramatic. If you want to write, you'll find a way.

Hackpacker said...

I was recently given the Bird by Bird as it's just been published in Australia by Scribe ( The humour saves this book from becoming too 'self-helpy'. There are a few good techniques suggested (she writes of re-drafting as tucking an octopus into bed - everytime you put one limb under the covers another seems to sneak out) but the value is that it's like having a writer friend who can give you a series of pep talks on writing motivation, distraction and knowing when to finish.

Paul said...

Great article, which has prompted some very interesting comments. Thanks, Eliezer.

Madison Richards said...

Thanks for the recommendations! I've read several of these, but now I know to stay away from Brenda Ueland’s book - I already neglect entirely too much housework in favor of writing - or at least, reading about writing. And sometimes, writing about writing. Oh my - perhaps I should go write something else. Anything but housework!

Mike French said...

Hi Madison

Perhaps there is a gap in the writers services that various companies provide - what is needed is:

a clean your house whilst you write company

You write, we wipe!

Er sorry, I'll get my coat

gary davison said...

I once went and started an M A in creative writing. I left after the second lesson because all everyone wanted to do was talk about writing and act out scenes (verbally but with drama) of stuff they'd written ages ago. There was myself and one other bloke who wrote every day. If you enjoy writing, you'll write, and it will eventually get half reasonable. After all, who are we trying to please when we write? For moi, it is moi first, audience second. Writers write. Can't remember who said that, but I'm in agreement. You can't beat a bit of enjoyment and whether you delve into the depths of your mind or just write about an incident at the bus stop it's got to be all about enjoying one's self, hasn't it?

Mike French said...

Well put Gary and I agree: you have to write for yourself not for other reasons like for the market.

Jane Turley said...

Yep, I agree with Gary too. After I started writing a couple of years back I thought perhaps I ought to read some books on writing and I discovered that unconsciously I was already doing many of the suggestions anyway. However, I do think that for some people they can be beneficial - to a certain extent it is a skill that can be learnt like any other. Of course there are some less technical aspects of writing that are harder to teach (or release) like imagination and self exposure. Those hurdles are harder to overcome and possibly very difficult to learn between the pages of a manual.