Writing About Writing: Five Noteworthy Stories and Poems

writing about writing

This is an essay by Erika Dreifus.

A funny thing happened as I immersed myself in the study and practice of writing: I found myself appreciating stories and poems about writing—works in which central characters are writers or central themes or actions involve aspects of craft, process, or business of writing—more and more. I say that this is “a funny thing” because the more I hear from other writers, the more it seems that I’m in a decided minority in my enjoyment of these works.

Take the perspective articulated by Roxane Gay, a noted writer and editor whose views on writing and publishing are always worth thinking about:

“This may well become an annual announcement but writers, you must, for the love of all that is holy, stop writing stories where the main characters are writers. I understand the appeal. You are, perhaps, writing what you know. You’re writers so you’re creating stories around the experience of being a writer. In recent memory we have read stories about writers hoping to be published, excited to have been published, writers who have entered contests and won contests. You have written stories about happy writers and miserable writers and lonely writers and desperate writers. Sometimes your writers have sex and it is awkward. Very often they drink, smoke, or use illegal substances. Some of these stories about writers have been satirical (but not) like when you pretend to be kidding but really you’re serious.”

Trust me, many others share this view. Evidently, a contingent of readers (and editors) don’t necessarily want to see more stories written by eager emerging auteurs about this particular obsession. But perhaps the cohort can concede that some truly wonderful literary creations already exist for us to read and think about. Especially if we’re writers, or writers-in-training, some of these stories and poems may inspire us. Some may amuse us. Some may actually make us (more than) a bit uncomfortable. Some may make us think more carefully about what it really means to be a writer in the first place.

Here are five brief works—three short stories and two poems—that are among my favorites when it comes to “writing about writing.” All of them are available to read online.

  • “Electric Wizard,”by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Published in The Atlantic in 1998, “Electric Wizard” presents us with a poetry teacher in the aftermath of the suicide of one of her young workshop students—and the parents of that student who seek to know what he had been writing for the class.
  • “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned this Cliche?” by Lorrie Moore. Included in Moore’s first short-story collection, Self-Help (as “How to Become a Writer”), this story is oft-anthologized and cited.
  • “How to Tell a Story,” by Margo Rabb. Originally published in Zoetrope in 1999, this story introduces us to a narrator, Anna, who is a third-semester student “in the Master of Fine Arts program at Southwestern University.”
  • “Workshop,” by Billy Collins, is a poem that continues to throw light (of a sort) onto that very strange animal—the writing workshop.
  • “Digging,” by Seamus Heaney (who passed away in 2013), also comes from the world of poetry. But it takes a much more solemn approach to the work of writing—and to the place of writing in the larger world.

What do you think about fiction and poetry “about” writers and/or writing? Any favorites (whether available online or not) that you might recommend?

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Erika Dreifus (Ed.M., M.F.A., Ph.D.) lives in New York City, where she writes poetry and prose and reads as much as she possibly can. Follow her on Twitter @erikadreifus.

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