Don’t Write About Writing

My fiction workshop is discussing an undergraduate’s short story about a bad breakup. It is detailed and told earnestly through entries in the dumped girl’s journal. At the end the narrator looks back and realizes that, through writing about this loss and disappointment, she’s created something permanent and beautiful.

“I liked your story,” one boy begins, “except you’re not supposed to write about writing.”

I ask the class if this is a rule they’ve heard before. Several nod in agreement.

Someone backs him up. “Yeah, you’re not supposed to. Readers just want a good story.”

Surely. But isn’t a story about writers just as likely to be as good (or as bad) as a story about shepherds or architects or above-ground swimming pool salesmen?

One girl says, “If you write about writing then they’ll just think you’re in love with yourself.”

I reflect that, of all the writers I’ve known over the years, an excess of self-love doesn’t top the list of their afflictions. Maybe some got into writing because they were in love with the sound of their own voices, but the best writers write because we can’t stand being alone with it.

“Maybe books are like laws and sausages. Nobody wants to know how they’re made.

But people buy memoirs and biographies about writers by the boatload.

Fans write letters, go to readings, follow authors on Twitter… even if many readers don’t especially care, it isn’t like books are made by grinding up animal byproducts and extruding them into intestinal casings (though I think Palahniuk may have tried). Aside from being tedious, there’s nothing inherently repugnant about the writing process, is there?

“People will think you don’t have anything else to say,” someone else ventures.

But, I point out, this particular story is also plenty else: young love, disappointment, fear… and doesn’t it add something surprising, even uplifting, to suggest that heartbreak becomes beautiful when shared with others? Surely there’s a country song or twelve hundred in there.

Does any other art form face this prohibition? Rembrandt, Velazquéz, Molenaer, Courbet, Vermeer… there is a long tradition of painters painting painters painting. Vivian Maier, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and Annie Leibovitz all turned their cameras on themselves, long before selfies were cool. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and A Midsummer’s Night Dream each involve the production of other plays. The hit Broadway farce Noises Off is about staging a farce. A Chorus Line, a musical about musicals, ran for 7 bajillion performances.

Can dancers dance about dancing? Do sculptors sculpt about sculpting? If someone hasn’t already written an opera about opera singers staging an opera, they should. I’d go see that.

Sunset Boulevard, The Artist, The Player, 8 ½, Ed Wood, Adaptation, Day for Night, Barton Fink — just a few movies about people making movies. How about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Hour, 30 Rock, Murphy Brown, Episodes, The Comeback, The Larry Sanders Show? All TV shows about TV shows. Aaron Sorkin has done three: Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and now The Newsroom, (plus a Broadway play called The Farnsworth Invention about the man who invented television.)

OK, so then what about books? Is writing about writing really forbidden?

No, in fact, it turns out you can find novels featuring writers written by: Jonathan Ames, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, James Baldwin, Nicholson Baker, John Barth, Saul Bellow, William Boyd, Truman Capote, Michael Chabon, J.M. Coetzee, Michael Cunningham, Don DeLillo, Geoff Dyer, Dave Eggers, Richard Ford, John Irving, Henry James, Erica Jong, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Nicole Krauss, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Mario Vargas Llosa, Thomas Mann, William Somerset Maughm, Ian McEwan, Stephen Millhauser, David Mitchell, George Orwell, Philip Roth, Richard Russo, JD Salinger, Carol Shields, Wallace Stegner, Lawrence Sterne, William Styron, Amy Tan, Colm Tóibín, Kurt Vonnegut, Adelle Waldman, Nathaniel West, Jeanette Winterson, Thomas Wolfe, and Richard Wright — and surely this list is nowhere near exhaustive.

With so many excellent examples to the contrary, why, then, would we tell young writers not to write about writing? After all we’ve been telling them over and over again to “write what they know” — here, at least, is something they surely know.

But perhaps this is exactly the concern. Because what we’re really telling them when we say “write what you know,” but also “don’t write about writing” is… “get out there and know something else!”

Whenever our class discusses great novels and stories, we inevitably discuss the lives of their authors as well.

Because we’re naturally curious about how books are written the students want to know about the real life experience that the authors brought to the page — that Herman Melville spent time on ships, that Hunter S. Thompson did tons of drugs, and that Sylvia Plath struggled with mental illness. And they aren’t bothered by the fact that Ishmael, or Raoul Duke, or Esther Greenwood are (gasp!) writers, because they feel reassured that their creators weren’t a bunch of navel-gazing, ivory-tower-inhabiting no-nothings — they weren’t just writers.

I ask my seniors what their plans are for after graduation. There is a consensus among them that MFA programs are a big waste of time and money. Besides, they are sick of sitting in classrooms, while real life is going by out there. No, they are interviewing to Teach for America. They have unpaid internships at non-profits. They are going to Portland or Bed-Stuy. They are going to hang around movie sets in LA. They are moving back home again. They are pretty much uniformly terrified. They ask me what they should do. What’s going to be best for their writing?

When I was a senior, feeling just as terrified, I asked my professors the same question. Get on with living, or with writing? One of them told me to get my MFA, but only if it wasn’t going to cost me anything. This didn’t help much, as the one program I’d gotten into was offering no financial aid at all. I went to speak to a Dean, to see if he would sponsor me for a fellowship that might pay some of the tuition. He laughed and said there was absolutely no way. “If you want to be a writer you’ve got to get out there and wander the desert! Get some grist for the mill!”

Though after four years of studying writing I knew not to mix my metaphors, I also knew I was only just beginning to grasp the discipline it’d take to get better. Without some structure, I feared the voice I’d begun to find would fade to a whisper.

So I took out loans to pay for school and moved to New York City (which incidentally has never had any shortage of grist for young writers). And when I got there I did the only thing that any writer should be required to do — I worked my ass off.

I went to my classes. I read three books a week, sometimes more. I wrote dozens of stories, sent them out, and pinned the rejections to my wall. Between classes I fixed computers part-time, worked with kids in a public school, taught speed reading to adults in New Jersey, and tutored at a city college. I wrote a novel about New Jersey and tossed it in a drawer. I adjuncted for $2000 a semester, five classes a semester, at two schools an hour and a half apart. I took a course on captaining a catamaran. I watched my parents lose their house. I watched two close family members die very slowly; a third one went while no one was looking. I paid off (some of) the loans, and wrote a novel about a family living on a boat. I spent a week in Africa (drove through some desert at least), tossed that second novel in a drawer. I watched a friend struggle with mental illness and addiction. I got married. I taught some more. I wrote a book about a guy whose friend has a mental illness. I went to Thailand. I moved to Brooklyn. I tossed the third novel in a drawer. I wrote sixty-six new stories in twenty-four months and then wrote another book — and that one finally got published.

It’s about writers writing about writers writing. I’d pause to appreciate the irony of this, but I don’t really have time — I just became a father and started writing another novel.

I don’t say this just to pat myself on the back (though I think I will anyway, thanks). I say it to illustrate the point — that the Dean was an idiot, because wherever you wander, grist happens.

You don’t need to board a ship or inhale a pharmacy or stick your head in an oven — at least not in the name of being a better writer.

Life will do its thing, one way or the other — the question is, once it does, will you have been practicing? Can you turn that into something permanent and beautiful? Can you write about what you’ll know — as well as the many things you won’t? Can you write so well that nobody can tell the difference?

First as a student and now as a teacher I’ve sat in classrooms beside young men and women who want to be writers. They can’t stand being alone with the sound of their own voices. Some of them have witnessed atrocities, suffered abuse, lost their parents, stared down addiction, been to jail, mental institutions, and lived on the streets. Others have managed to get by relatively safe and sound. But here’s the best part… when they I read their stories, I can’t tell which are which.

For me this is one of the greatest joys in reading fiction. Where does it all come from? Life experience? Vivid imagination? I have no idea what their lives are like; I only know what they write and that they’re all choosing to be in my class.

It isn’t an easy A; there aren’t bright job prospects at the end. We meet once a week for three and a half hours in a tiny basement room in the Natural Sciences building. It is too hot and the windows cannot be opened, which is unfortunate because it makes the room attractive to the fruit flies being bred in the genetics labs. We spend a good amount of time swatting at things no one else can see. Some of them write what they know, and they know plenty. Some of them write what they don’t, which is basically everything. But they are hard workers and they are rule-breakers. They believe that what they are writing matters. So I do, too.

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