Writers writing about writing has always fascinated me. One of my favourite units when I taught creative writing to high school kids was one called “Writers on Writing.” Students read, researched, and wrote about a writer they loved. In particular what the writer had to say about writing and the creative process. It was a great way to get the students thinking and talking about writing from the perspective of working writers. Not to mention the finished products were really interesting to read. For instance, I never knew that, when Robert Frost was walking in the countryside and he didn’t have a piece of paper to hand, he wrote ideas on the sole of his shoe. Hopefully, he then ran home and wrote the poem. Ha.
I amassed quite a collection of my own books about writing over the years, writers writing about themselves, about their writing, or the writing of others. In my writing classes, I encouraged kids to read the memoirs of writers. I told them how I adored Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. How reading it for the first time made me want to move to Paris and sit in a café sipping white wine, smoking those skinny cigarettes, and scribbling in a grubby notebook.
I used to pull writing activities from the books that writers wrote about writing. One semester we tried to “write one true sentence” à la Hemingway. This activity morphed into something a bit bigger which became probably the most successful writing assignment I ever designed. I used it semester after semester. I mined Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing for inspiration. Her suggestion to write “I remember” on a page and then write for ten minutes became the best journal starter ever.
In one chapter of Writing Down the Bones Goldberg suggests writing about colour. I’d ask the students to turn to a fresh page in their journal, to write the name of a colour at the top of the page, then to leave the room and wander around the school or outside for ten minutes looking for their colour. While they were gone I’d write on the board some questions: Where did you find your colour? What does it smell like? Sound like? What texture does it have? What emotion does it evoke? … stuff like that to give them some direction if they needed it. When they came back, they had to sit quietly writing about their colour for fifteen minutes, as Goldberg suggests. Then we’d read our responses aloud.
It always amazed me how much the kids had to say about pink, or yellow, or blue. Or orange. One day a boy bounded back into the room after his ten minute wander, and almost shouted at me, “I had no idea there was so much orange out there. Orange is everywhere!” A girl wrote in her journal that the car windshields in the parking lot were all blue that day. And she’d never noticed that before. After we’d read our jottings, we’d discuss how we never really observe what we think we already know. How to be able to write about things we first had to learn to look at things. That was the coolest part for me, as a teacher.
I’ve been thinking about writers writing about writing this week, because I just learned that one of my favourite writers, Jo Baker, has a new book out. The Body Lies is described as a literary mystery. I gather from Sarah Moss’s review in The Guardian, that Baker’s latest book is part mystery story/thriller (who is that dead body at the beginning and who killed her?), part meta-fiction (fiction about the writing of fiction), and part “campus satire,” as Moss puts it.
The narrator of the novel, a successful writer herself, takes a position teaching creative writing at a northern university, and moves with her young son to a remote cottage in the countryside. The victim of a violent attack outside her London home, the narrator hopes that her escape to the country will ease her fears of living in the city. But the teaching is stressful, the students work sometimes disquieting, and the demands of raising her son and navigating a new profession are huge.
Moss describes the students in the narrator’s class as: “a lawyer writing generic misogynist crime fiction, possibly related to that dead body, with disturbing relish; a young woman mining her own not very interesting past; and a troubled posh boy upsetting everyone by writing rather brilliantly about the workshop.” You can read Moss’s review yourself here, if you like. Apparently, the dead body crops up every now and then throughout the story. And Baker includes, as part of the narrative, snippets of the students’ work. And we get all this in Jo Baker’s exquisite prose.
I mean, I ask you… a writer, whose work I love, writing about a writer teaching writing, and a dead body… who can resist that? Not I, my friends. I ordered The Body Lies for my Kindle and plan to while away countless hours of literary mystery enjoyment with a glass of wine in hand and my feet up on the balcony of our little condo in L’Anse-Saint-Jean next week.
If you’ve not read Jo Baker, you are in for a treat. I highly recommend Longbourne, which I’ve written about before on the blog. It’s the story of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants at Longbourne. I also loved A Country Road, A Tree, which is the story of Samuel Beckett’s life during world War II in France and his experiences in the French Resistance. I thought it was one of the best books I read in 2016.
There are tons of other novels out there in which writers write about writers, some of them are even mysteries. Three of my favourites are Carol Shields’ book Swann about the murder of poet Mary Swann, her hard-scrabble life, and how the literary world feeds off of her life and her work after she is dead. It’s a wonderful book, in my opinion. And Shields is one of Canada’s best loved writers. Then there’s Robert Barnard’s Death of a Mystery Writer. About the death of a well-loved, and totally loathsome mystery writer. It’s classic snarky Barnard. But maybe you might prefer P.D. James’ Unnatural Causes. About the death of a mystery writer as investigated by Adam Dalgliesh, James’ poet-detective.
You know, sometimes I miss teaching writing to teenagers. All that youthful enthusiasm. The willingness of the students to try anything. To play weird brainstorming games, to wear funny hats and write from the perspective of the person in the hat. Stuff like that. I know that some of their desire to play was due to the fact that my course was not like a “regular” English class with novel study and Shakespeare. I didn’t assign Math problems for homework, or make them memorize the first twenty elements of the periodic table. So in a way, I had a bit of a free ride. My class was an elective; students took my course if they wanted to write. And those who didn’t really want to write, but only signed up because they didn’t want to read Shakespeare, soon learned that writing could be hard work.
But as much as I loved playing with the kids, teaching was hard work too. Especially the marking. So I’m happy to look back on that part of my life with great fondness, but no real regret. Now I get to write what I want, when I want, about whatever pleases me. And lately I’m thinking I’ll take the advice I used to give to my students and get back to journal writing. Especially on these 5:30 (or earlier) mornings when I can’t sleep and decide I may as well get up and make a cup of tea. After all, that 9:00 A.M. bell holds no power over me any more. I can go back to bed if I want.
Now, it’s your turn my friends. Your homework is to tell us, in as many words as you choose, if you also enjoy writers writing about writing.
You can find all the books I’ve reviewed at Amazon. I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon. If you buy the book by clicking on my link, I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you. Longbourne, A Country Road, A Tree, and The Body Lies by Jo Baker. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Swann by Carol Shields. Death of a Mystery Writer by Robert Barnard. Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.
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29 thoughts on “Writers Writing About Writing”
I liked A Room Of One’s Own very much. Apart from that, I don’t think I’ve read that much about writers writing. I’m not sure I want to look under the bonnet, if you see my meaning, at how all the pistons work. But, like you, I loved teaching children to write. 10 year olds can be amazingly talented, imaginative and a joy to help. Most of my weekends were spent marking the work I put so much effort into but it was worth it.
I’ve never read A Room of One’s Own I’m ashamed to admit. But I love looking under the hood, as you say. Makes me feel that the writers I admire are, after all, human like me, struggling to find a way to tell their stories.
Oh, I can scarcely bear it! Blame the G&T Paul just served me (I’ve finished it now, and he’s offered another, and I’ve said a very firm “NO!”. . . . but somehow I clicked myself away BEFORE my comment was published. It was a fulsome one too. . .
If I can remember, it said something about Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which features a poet/writer. Not nearly as likable as the author/writer herself, as represented in her memoir The Cost of Living, a writer whose life and observations resonate. But even more, I loved and found compelling tbe first of her memoirs (she calls the ongoing project “a living autobiography), Things I Didn’t Want to Know — which conveys both the impossibility and the urgency of writing, based on the difficulty of her immigration to England from South Africa, in her teens. . .
As well, of course, the writer-protagonist of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. And while I’m in Italy, I recommend also Jhumpa Lahiri’s fascinating Linguistic Journey, the much-acclaimed (Pulitzer, among other prizes) writer’s experiment in writing in Italian, as part of her immersion in that language, in a life in Italy.
In my lost comment, I said that your interesting post should/might inspire me to pursue this topic in a post on my rather-neglected reading blog — I know there are more titles I’ve read that would qualify and I wouldn’t mind listing those in one place.
And I also said (See? It was a juicy long comment, and that damn G&T has a lot to answer for!– and can you believe I’m regretting my No to the second one? ;-)) that I know you would enjoy the Woolf essay, which doesn’t take so long to read and is SO engaging and convincing and image-filled (there’s an Oxbridge lawn and a beedle and a gold nugget. . . .) I see there’s a lovely a-v narration of it on You Tube as well. . . .
Oh, Frances. You make me laugh. There are so many wonderful books about writers, and writing, both non-fiction and fiction. I could have mentioned so many but didn’t want to dilute the Jo Baker review with too many choices. In particular Possession by A.S. Byatt who I love. How could anyone resist a mystery about two Victorian poets explored by two modern academics, plus a bunch of poetry? The poetry was so well done that I even tried to research the fictional poets to see if they actually existed. I don’t know how Byatt can be so brilliant. You’d better have that second G&T. I’ve never had G&T before. Wonder if I’d be as erudite as you if I did? xo
Love, love, love that book! It saved my sanity during a move to Montreal, living in a hotel with a 13-16-month-old child. I love your blog and have not yet read Jo Baker, so shall savour that in our upcoming move to your region in Canada after 20 years in Europe. Thank you for the recommendations and your insights. I too am a retired teacher and love the energy and wacky, open, creative efforts of the young. I do miss it, but not the pressure…..
Isn’t Possession a wonderful book? Enjoy the Jo Baker… and welcome home, Janet.
I like the writers writing about how to write genre – that is, at least, I like Stephen King’s version of same.
I haven’t read Stephen King’s book about writing, although several students read it one year and loved it.
Hard for me to join this conversation . I don’t think I’ve read any books of this genre & I didn’t realise there were so many out there . I can say you must have been an inspiring teacher & I wish I’d been there . G & Ts I am familiar with -love them but I hardly ever have one . One makes me depressed & by two I’m a weepy mess . People know not to let me near gin .
I’ve never had a G&T. And now I think I’ll stay away. I’d probably go the weepy mess route too. 🙂
The writer and humorist Russell Baker wrote frequently about gin (and sometimes its perils). One of my favorite quotes: “June is for leaving people alone so they can fish, get married, graduate children and make the seasonal switch to gin and tonic.”
I’ve never actually read the book, but I love the movie Cross Creek about Marjorie Kinnen Rawlings.
Hmmm. I guess everyone knows what I’m missing when it comes to gin.😀
I really hadn’t thought about this as a genre of books. I have read the PD James book mentioned but it was a long time ago. I will dip into the list provided.
I would love to have taken a course like the one you ran. It sounds interesting and engaging for both student and teacher. My education was much more pedestrian.
I used to tell my writing students that I loved teaching regular English… but Writers’ Craft (the name of my course) was why I got up in the morning. It was so much fun to teach.
I love writers writing about writing and I particularly love listening to writers talking about how they write at writers’ festivals. I’ve learned so much about different paths to creativity, which I find it curiously comforting that there are many different approaches. One of my favourite writers is Lily Brett. She grew up in Melbourne but has lived in New York for 30 years. Her parents were Holocaust survivors and she has written several novels that are quite autobiographical, several volumes of short stories and poetry. She’s funny and wise and writes with great insight. I especially enjoyed her reflections on writing – how she organises her time, the importance of stationery, pens and folders to collect her notes and rubber bands to keep things organised…
Oh, me too. When I go to a reading at our Writers Festival here in Ottawa, I’d as soon hear about how the book came to be as hear the author read from the book.
The minute I started reading your post, I looked up to my bookshelf to see Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life”. Published in 1989. Now I must go back and reread it.
As for writing practice, a while back–in June, I think–Frances mentioned on her blog that she was supposed to write at least 250 words a day for a writing class she was taking. Just reading that comment got me back to journaling again. I’d stopped writing in March. (Thanks, Frances! Have another G&T on me. 🙂
As for your teaching methods–how lucky your students were to have had such a wonderfully creative writing teacher. An amazing gift.
Ha! You should not encourage me, Mary, but as it happens. . . ;-). . .
Frances–If I ever make it back to Vancouver, I’ll be sure to buy you one.
I’ll hold you to that, Mary, and I’ll buy the second 😉
Good for you to get back to your journal writing, Mary. I kept one for years, but never diligently enough.
What a wonderful post. I have read some of the books you mentioned. Lisa mentioned the Steven King book on writing. Never thought that I would enjoy one of his books. It’s really quite brilliant, and explains a lot about him personally.
Between you and Frances, and Lisa, I’m enjoying a master class on writing.
Ah, thanks, Ali. I must read the Stephen King book on writing. Right after the new Jo Baker:)
If I had such a wonderful creative writing teacher like you…
I think it must have been so interesting, both for you and your students
Looking forward to the new Jo Baker book
I love to read books about writing,but on my “holiday mode” can’t remember any of english ones,except P.D.James
In Croatian-there are P. Pavlicic,J.Matanovic,S. Drakulic…..and some others
For the record (and especially for Frances)-I love G&T! Next time….we’ll take a taxi!
Ah, thanks Dottoressa.
This post is brilliant! One of my favorite books about writing is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I read that on the recommendation of a creative writing teacher and it has held a prominent spot on my bookcase for decades and I reach for it when I need writing inspiration. My favorite class in high school was my creative writing class and these 27 years after high school, I still remember that teacher with fondness and appreciate how he allowed me to discover my own writing voice. And that reminds me now, I should track him down on social media and send him a big ole thank you for now I am writing what I love, when I want, and living my writing life to the fullest!
You should track your writing teacher down. He’ll be thrilled. 😊
Thanks to your rave review, I just read “The Body Lies” today. It’s been decades since I read a book in a single day. O. M. G.!
I’m tempted to starting reading it again. Right now!
Thanks for that, Ann. I haven’t started it yet. I’m so happy you liked it! I think Jo Baker is brilliant.
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