Our Favorite Essays about Unconventional Writing Teachers
Could watching the Great British Bake Off do more for your writing life than an MFA?
For those of us who want to become real writers—whatever that means—the countless resources available can feel a bit dry and uninspired, ranging from tired but true clichés to well-lauded craft books (Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir on Craft sits dustily on my shelf). Many of us find ourselves falling down late-night internet rabbit holes, hours of research wasted with no more clarity on the To MFA or Not To MFA debate. But whether you believe a formal, academic route to professional writerdom is the answer or prefer a disciplined regime of scribbling on Post-Its while waiting in the car line, there’s no right way to learn to write. That said, there are ample teachers in the world around us, if we’re paying due attention and remaining open to organic inspiration.
The following essays argue that life can be the best writing coach, with TV shows, podcasts, video games, non-writing careers, and even pregnancy proving a valuable wealth of knowledge when it comes to understanding characters or narrating a compelling story. Whether it is balancing one’s youthful hubris as a basketball star with the more humbling court of the page or allowing the earnestness of the Great British Bake Off bakers to encourage perseverance, here are some of our favorite essays on the unconventional writing teachers of everyday life.
“The Secret Writing Tips I Learned from Kendrick Lamar” by Leila Green
Leila Green long admired the verses of “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst,” and found Lamar’s lean lyricism a comfort when trying to cut down and edit her short story collection. But when her book failed to find a home in traditional publishing, she turned to the song’s trailed off verse to make peace with some of the more difficult realities of being a creator and the relationship between writers and their audiences.
“I had put a lot of work in, but it seemed I just wasn’t worth it. The whole project felt terribly futile. Yet again, I recalled the moment I didn’t want Kendrick’s second verse to end, the time I wanted so badly to know what the silenced voice went on to say. I thought about the act of listening and the act of rapping. The act of receiving art and the act of making it. And I struggled to reconcile my art with its nonexistent audience. The vocal trailing off in “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst” ironically forfeits the glory attached to presenting art to an audience. This raises the question: what happens when art exists outside the realm of validation? What of an unread novel? What is art unattached to a contract or an auction? Most importantly, what should be made of every artist’s “stripped away vocals” — our stories that no one reads, our songs that go unheard, our paintings that no one buys? Does the lack of validation make them meaningless?”
“Everything I Know About Writing a Novel I Learned from Watching British People Bake” by Becky Mandelbaum
Many of us writers likely sighed with relief when this year’s Great British Bake Off final aired last month, finally able to put the guilty pastime aside and get back to writing. But for Becky Mandelbaum, the sweet treat of 60 minutes in a tent in the English countryside fueled her motivation and kept her writing life from going stale.
“At some point it dawned on me why I felt so connected to the show: it is, emotionally and often structurally, exactly like a writing workshop or, more loosely, like the art of writing as a whole. A cookie in place of a poem, a cake in place of a story. All day, the bakers stand at their little islands, feverishly attempting to create something that is both beautiful and tempting, that others might enjoy. At the end of each challenge, they’re covered in flour and chocolate, their cooking areas a mess of dirtied spoons and orange peels. Then, one by one, they are forced to approach the judges bearing the fruits of their labors, vulnerable to ridicule and eager for praise. They then wait patiently as their superiors literally tear their creation into pieces before determining their worth as an artist. Whatever the contestants have baked, it’s the best they can do, and yet they understand that sometimes the best is still not enough.”
“How Playing ‘Myst’ Taught Me to Write Fiction” by Blair Hurley
First person computer games were ’90s babies’ first taste of immersive storytelling. Players helped discover and create the plot as they wandered through elaborate environments, and for Blair Hurley, the quiet contemplation and constant puzzling of these journeys helped shape her writing. Her piece explores how playing games like Myst or Riven allowed her to recognize the power of negative space in a narrative or even how a story can unfold in an empty room.
“I pretended I was an explorer really visiting these places. When characters spoke to me, saying, ‘You must have come to help us,’ I took my role seriously. The experience of immersion, which I talk to my creative writing students about, can be achieved with such paltry tricks: a stranger who seems to know you, or an entreaty, a riddle begging to be solved. An open door, with a light on in the room beyond; a winding pathway through the trees. There were other islands on the horizon of the game, and locked doors I couldn’t enter, and it made me want to visit the world again and again. I sought it not just as a game to play, but a full-body experience, a deep, entrancing pleasure to place myself in another person’s puzzle.”
“Becoming an Actor Taught Me to Write” by Ennis Smith
Drawing from a long lineage of artists who operate in multiple mediums, Ennis Smith insists his time on the stage has translated to the page. From lessons in discipline and failure to bringing the truth of his emotions to both characters and his memoir, you’ll want to give this essay a standing ovation.
“I find myself revisiting ideas again and again, or what one of my writing teachers called combing it back through your brain. Sometimes it’s a matter of retyping. Words get moved; better ones are found. Paragraphs are rearranged or redrafted sentence by sentence. Sometimes nothing happens at all as you sit in front of an open document; there’s only the valuable repetition of keeping the appointment, of showing up day after day, if only for an afternoon, an hour or even fifteen minutes. The blank page becomes my rehearsal room. Each revision clears away the fog until something true emerges. Just as in the rehearsal hall, I give myself permission to fail; often I chip and chip, but never get to the end, just as in acting I might fail to find the character you’re playing.”
“How Pregnancy Taught Me To Say No To Everything And Write Novels Instead” by Caeli Wolfson Widger
Perhaps the best writing tip of all is simply to write often, but that can be a tall order for even the most diligent of writers. For Caeli Wolfson Widger, pregnancy was a gateway towards prioritizing herself, and in doing so, making time for her true passion.
“I no longer need to be pregnant to hold writing at the center of my life. This is fortunate, since I’m in my 40s now and not having any more babies. It’s sometimes still a struggle to guard my writing time, to protect it, to make it nonnegotiable, to not let competing priorities swallow it. Having a writing life, I’ve learned, is a matter of balancing desire with responsibility, discipline with flexibility, generosity with self-care. I’m still not immune to granting small yeses to the wrong requests. But I’ve learned to pause and ask myself what I really want from the brief, precious hours of my day. And when anyone asks, I never hesitate to tell them I’m a writer.”
“How Learning to Shoot Hoops Taught Me to Write” by Jefferson Navicky
For most of his life, Jefferson Navicky thought his status as a beloved high school basketball player was at odds with the bookish introvert he felt himself to be — but it was those hours on the court, the relentless practicing and trying, and even the acceptance of failure that allowed him to flourish in his more adult and lasting identity as a writer.
“I don’t really know why I was a good shooter, or how I became one, other than I practiced thousands and thousands of jump shots. Still, I knew plenty of people who practiced their jump shots and weren’t particularly good. It’s all about how the ball leaves the last inch of your hand, which is such a small aspect of the things that make a good jump shot (feet alignment, leg strength, jumping ability, upper body strength, elbow alignment, support hand position, eye sight, courage, confidence, practice and probably another half dozen intangible elements). But how the ball leaves the top of one’s middle finger…that’s it. A poet might work forever on a turn of phrase or a title, but it all comes down to a poem’s final line, that’s it. How the poem leaves the reader’s mind determines if the poem hits its mark to remain lodged in memory, or if it’s forgotten.”
Sometimes it can be hardest to write about the things we feel we need to write about, to successfully convey the tensions that hit closest to home. Dorothy Bendel shares lessons on linearity in prose and subverting expectations, a crash course in “how to write trauma in a way that feels as visceral, surreal, and challenging as living with it.”
“My memories of homelessness often appear as dream-like, disconnected scenes without a clear narrative arc: a man threatening my life in the dead of night, a pregnant girl begging strangers for a place to sleep, the elderly man at the shelter who always saved a serving of butterscotch pudding for me. I often have difficulty pinning down exact dates, and memories of specific threats sound repetitious. Stories like Twin Peaks help me trust that I can lay out the pieces, collage-style, and arrange them in a way that makes sense to me while being honest about my experiences with readers.”
“Dungeons & Dragons & Communal Storytelling” by Bridget Irvine
Writing is often an impossibly lonely task. It is your own discipline bringing you to the desk, a brutal process of self-reflection required to craft believable characters, and, of course, the self-doubt and fears of public perception with which to contend. But Bridget Irvine writes of the humor and joy of creation, of writing as communal and the better for it — as illustrated by the real-time narration, world building, and plotting on a family run Dungeons and Dragons podcast, The Adventure Zone.
“RPGs as a medium are inextricable from metafiction, which makes it an ideal genre to examine how storytelling functions. This is due to the fact that, in an RPG, the narrators of the story are the authors speaking in character persona. This seems like all fiction at first glance — isn’t Pale Fire just Nabokov narrating as an obsessive scholarly persona? — but the importance lies in the immediacy of the story. There is no filter of voice or structure or even an editing process to screen the RPG authors from their readers. There is no script. All of them are in the same room, digitally or physically. And consequently, the ‘writers’ of TAZ are constantly talking about their own ‘writing.’”
All of us have at some point found ourselves overcome with emotion by the rising intensity of a battle scene’s soundtrack or the soft and rueful notes carrying us through a character’s heartbreaking death in a movie. When Essa Hansen creates the sound design for a given moment, he considers how to manipulate a viewer’s emotions while still conveying critical information about a scene. To achieve the same emotional, embodied effect in writing, he has learned to tune into cadence, rhythm, and oral dynamics, letting the sound of the words do the work.
“My work as a sound designer has cross-pollinated into my fiction, where I use the same tools in both to craft the wondrous unknown—particularly important in sci-fi and fantasy where unusual concepts are the norm. In my writing, I want to fill the space between the words and the reader, wrapping them up like I would in a theater and making them forget where they’re sitting. That means recognizing that manipulating the meaning of language isn’t enough. You also have to consider how it sounds, and the effects those sounds work on the reader’s body and brain.”