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.

Discovering My Passion & Talent Through Writing

finding passion in writing

This is an essay by Ashley Kabajani.

The Question That Helped Me

Being the last born in a huge family of seven (six girls and one boy), it is not easy when your older siblings all have found their purpose, gifts and talents. See, I come from a family of strong, established go-getters, and I always seemed like I was trying to follow in someone’s footsteps but never finding my own path.

It all began when a friend of mine, who admires my siblings, gave me a call to ask me the strangest, yet most life-defining call. She asked me how I felt about being the last born when all my sisters and brothers are very successful in their own right. My mind started racing, and I gave her a long essay-type answer about advantages and disadvantages. It seemed simple but for some strange reason, it had me pondering and meditating for days on end.

The Little Girl Who Craved Information

I grew up in a small mining and farming town called Kadoma in Zimbabwe. My mother tongue being Shona, I was not articulate in English until I was in school. My siblings made fun of me all the time whenever I pronounced something wrong.

From the age of 8, I discovered a secret world where I could escape that boring little place, and it was reading. My father made all of us join the local library, which was not free by the way, but he was amazed at my massive appetite for information. I remember my friends were choosing books with pictures and big letters, but I wasn’t interested. I discovered Roald Dahl and never looked back. I read all the Nancy Drew series, the Goosebumps series, the Sweet Valley High series. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, even encyclopaedias, student companions and even newspapers. You name it, I read it.

From Reading To Writing

Before long, my written and spoken English improved, I was excelling in my studies and was always in the school quiz team, which included general knowledge, spelling and other topics. In high school, I was a bit lost. All the comparisons started from teachers who had taught my siblings or those who became teachers and were in school with them.

Life dragged on. I never really knew what I wanted to do. My sisters wanted me to become a doctor, my parents joined the bandwagon. I was lost. Everyone was busy with their lives and force-shaping mine. I continued to drift through life’s challenges and had journals for almost every defining moment and reading to escape my reality.

When my father lost the battle to anaemia, I was 15 years old. Crying didn’t help. I decided to write a letter to God, and I just poured it out on paper. I didn’t think as I wrote. I wrote about how I felt and asked God why this happened. Even though there was no answer, I felt at peace.

Decoding The World With Words

This trend continued, even when my mother passed away too. I just wrote it out and cried through the pain. From my first heartache, to my major heartbreak, to my prayer requests and even dreams, hopes and goals. I wrote more than I read as I began to experience the pain, pleasure, disappointments, accomplishments, joys, sorrows and just every other ideology I had that was shattered by life. I was living this life and things were happening, and all those defining moments were shaping and forming my character and writing skills.

I continued reading up on everything and everyone. I made sure I was a member of the library everywhere I went. I was not only escaping but learning. Soon the internet made reading more interesting. All this wealth of knowledge out there, and I could easily access it. I would read the news, read about medicine, new developments, read and see the world from my own home.

In the midst of all this searching and learning, someone asked me to start blogging after picking up one of my very full journals, full of pictures, notes, prayers and letters. I still haven’t come around to do it, though I write every day. Not too sure to who but I just write. In all this scribbling and reading, I seemed uncertain about one thing – my talent. Who am I? What am I doing here? Am I just a wife, mother, sister and friend?

The Epiphany

I got married at 25, had a baby at 26. He is now a gorgeous 1 year old little man. Though I lived most of my young life (all of 17 years) in Zimbabwe, I followed my sisters who had previously relocated to South Africa. I met my Namibian husband while studying in Capetown.

I moved to Namibia after we got married and hadn’t been able to find a decent job, so we lived on one income for so long. I think I sent a hundred job applications every week, but to no avail as more than half of the Namibian population’s unemployed.

Out of frustration and pure drive of finding my calling, passion and talent, I asked myself, “What is it that I can do with my hands that I can contribute to the world?”

Then I remembered how my research topics and assignments in university easily got distinctions. The answer was simple. I can write, but how do you make writing something resourceful?

An idea came to my mind and I started my administrative services business recently, and I offered my services to various businesses and individuals. Before I knew it people were asking me to help them write company reports, including CEO statements, speeches and other administrative jargon.

Words Are Powerful

At this point, something in me clicked. That’s my talent and my passion, and I had been doing it gladly without getting anything out of it. But now, I actually get incentives. But even if they were removed, I’d still be writing anyway. This is it! Looking back, I see where it stemmed from. It started with reading books as that curious, information-craving young girl to that lost young lady who used words as a way of decoding and escaping from her world.

If there is any advice I would offer anyone, it’s to find joy in reading in this technological generation. Even the gadgets should be channels to use to read, search for knowledge and connect with the world using words. Words shaped who I am today. And at the age of 27, I may be a late bloomer, but I certainly have blossomed and no longer will you find me questioning who I am.

Both reading and writing have proved to be more than just words. They provide therapy, entertainment, knowledge, information and can even paint a picture without using drawings or photographs.

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Ashley Kabajani is a wife, mother, sister and businesswoman from Namibia. When she’s not writing about business, she enjoys writing about topics that drive and inspire her and encourage others.

Photo: Some rights reserved by matryosha.

Spotlight on Productivity: Is it Feasible to Write Daily?

writing daily

This essay was written by Gugu Nyoni.

Almost every nascent writer would frown at the thought of sitting on their desk and getting creative and productive with their writing potential daily. This is largely because many budding writers are saddled with a hectic daily schedule prior to shifting to full time writing, making the thought of writing daily a remote possibility.

Before we get to the core principles that can place you on the track of productivity by ensuring you can churn out valuable content daily, we need to explore reasons why writers need to keep writing daily.

1. Your previous work gets malodorous (fetid).

Just the like in the economy of physiology wherein lack of exercise results in significant loss of energy and diminished optimality in body function, slacking off on your writing thrust will kill your momentum. On the other end, putting your head on the writing craft every single day will galvanize your writing acumen.

Writing acumen, skill and craft are not attributes that can be simply acquired theoretically in a library. Writing is born of a coterie of traits acquired naturally and gradually as you keep writing and reading. Prolific writers know that if you get into the rhythm of writing daily your mind will be writing in the background, in the forefront and even in your slumber.

2. You may lose track of your plot.

Fiction writers will concur that if you get distracted from your writing course it will not be easy picking up the loose ends and carrying the story forward. Anything that prevents you from getting quality time to cogitate and develop your writ in line with your outlined plot and story line is a distraction. A lot of time, thought and intellectual investment goes into quality writing.

If it is a novel, the characters need to toe the line of your plot, what they say and do should articulate your engendered meanings. The scenes, scenarios and chapters of your writ should cohere and flow. This cannot be easily achieved without working hard to keep your head in the craft every single day. How many times have you looked back at some of your unfinished work and thought to yourself, “only if I had completed this piece right then”?

3. Your sales will drop.

If you are making a living off writing, then you need to keep writing to promote your work. Distractions can steal important time and efforts required to get your work to the hands of your target readers. Those plying the cyber space with their written work know that competition in this terrain is just a click away. Once you cease to keep posting to promote your work and up your sales, you will soon slide from your position in the market. Keep writing and posting to create and sustain a profitable buzz about your work and never slack off.

4. You will lose traction with your fan base and followers.

Once you step into the limelight of the writing space, you inevitably garner followers and fans that find your work valuable and subsequently keep tabs on you. This becomes your platform that you should never abandon – more so if you have sponsors and peers succoring your writing career.

In the modern web age, you need to continually make yourself visible to your followers by participating actively in social networks, forums, chats as well as in person. If you neglect these seemingly trivial tasks to just that time of the year or month when you have ample time to do it you will inevitably kill your drive and the value and impact of your platform will diminish.

5. Your followers and your market will forget you.

The writing industry is volatile and as rapid as any other thriving industry. As the cliché goes, out of sight, out of mind.  You need to know that new books, blogs and various materials are published daily; meaning that without active daily participation in this industry, you simple do not exist.

But how possible is it to get into the habit and rhythm of writing daily? Writers normally have cluttered schedules, hence this question is not without a valid provenance.

One of the most important principles of ensuring you write daily is to start off with dedicating about 20 minutes to writing each day.

Find meaningful writing tasks that you can handle within this time slot without shacking up your daily schedule heavily yet. While on this; explore your normal daily schedules and identify activities you could eliminate or cut down on to ensure that your writing endeavor gets a good slot every day. Many successful writers had to give up something in place of writing. You will ultimately give up your 9-to-5 day job anywhere if your attempts pen out positively and you need more time for your writing career.

Let everyone around your living sphere know that you are taking your writing endeavor seriously so that they can leave you to it. This will also get you accountable to yourself for the time you have set aside to achieve something with your writing passion and potential.

If you have explored all these insights and principles and still find yourself stuck with your normal routine it could be that you have finalized your choices at the back of your head and writing has not yet taken top priority in your life. That is fine, but if you are keen to shift into a meaningful writing career, there is nowhere things can change and remain the same. Something has to go and gradually you will grow a promising writing career.

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Gugu Nyoni  is a writer, web programmer, pianist and dREAMAXESS blogaholic!

Photo: Some rights reserved by Charlie Barker

Andropause for Thought: Writing to Relieve a Mid-Life Crisis

andropause mid-life crisis writing

This essay was written by Christian Green.

Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.

You see, I’m trying to be a successful writer, but keeping the news to myself during this precarious early phase, so I won’t look too foolish should I fall flat on my face.  Sure, there have been plenty of acceptances. In fact, for two months now I’ve been making a living as a full time freelance writer, having been laid off from my manufacturing job last March.

The Beginning of a Crisis

I’m bursting with pride and an almost overwhelming need to tell the world all about it, but this urge is currently offset by a superstitious dread that such a display of hubris could make the whole delicate structure collapse.

There I was, five years ago, easing into a comfortable middle-age, yet feeling restless and vaguely dissatisfied. There was a nagging suspicion that I was not doing what I should be doing.

The disconcerting realization gradually dawned that what I was experiencing was the legendary male mid-life crisis. The phenomenon for which some wag coined the term, ‘the andropause’.

I proceeded with caution. I’d heard of men reaching this difficult age. Suddenly realizing that the clock is ticking, many panic and start to indulge in reckless or simply embarrassing behavior as they vainly try to recapture a long-lost youth to prove they are still virile and dynamic. Such attempts often seem to consist of chasing after girls young enough to be their daughters, or dressing in wildly inappropriate teen fashions, or acquiring a Honda Fireblade and hurtling off to become another road traffic accident statistic.

Fortunately, my crisis didn’t seem to be advising me unwisely. To my great relief I concluded that I was being nudged in a more responsible and creative direction. The direction that led to my unfulfilled ambition to be a writer. Since childhood I’ve enjoyed writing. Over the years my efforts had appeared in various amateur publications but, held back by a lack of confidence, I’d never tried to climb higher. As the years passed my vague longings had been placed firmly in the background by life and all its attendant responsibilities and distractions.

The Beginning of a New Career

Then, a few years ago, I wrote and submitted an article to a semi-pro journal devoted to my favorite writer. The piece was published and I was paid. It felt good, and something long dormant awoke, yawned and stretched in the dusty recesses of my mind.

I realized I wanted to build upon this unexpected success but didn’t know how. I felt gauche and naïve, lacking any clear idea of how to develop and present my work. With impeccable timing it was then that I happened across a flyer listing a new course at a local college: Professional Writing. It seemed that a benevolent fate was giving me a little shove in the right direction. The prospectus intrigued me and I signed up.

I’d realized that my restlessness wasn’t necessarily about a yearning to write. I was doing that already for my own amusement. No, it was about wanting to be a writer.

To produce work good enough to be accepted and published and to get paid for it. I didn’t want to write for the trunk, hoping for posthumous recognition as a genius. I wished to succeed while still breathing. I wanted the satisfaction of learning a skill, to enjoy applying that skill, and to make money out of it; a secondary income which might, if I was sufficiently hard-working and fortunate, become a primary income. A heady prospect indeed.

I plunged right in, and found to my delight that the course suited me well. It was completely practical, offering an unpretentious nuts-and-bolts approach to getting published. The aspiring writer was given the tools to do the job; how he chose to apply those tools was then solely up to him. Before the course ended I began to place my work.

I found that writing for publication rather than for myself reinforced some general life lessons; patience, reliability, self-discipline, organization, analytical thinking, objectivity.

I learned that, although effective communication is obviously important, the second most vital aspect of writing is marketing; presenting a professional plumage, and displaying to attract an editor. I also discovered, the painful way, why it’s not good practice to pester editors, even when I’m haunted by visions of my submissions yellowing in some dusty in-tray.

I learned to sever any emotional ties to a piece of work after submitting it. After all, you may have carefully raised and tended your flock, but once they’ve been packed off to the butcher their fate is out of your hands and all you can do is get on with raising the next litter.

I toughened up and gained the nerve to offer my work in the marketplace. The results were encouraging. Of the first sixteen unsolicited articles submitted, fifteen were accepted. On the back of these efforts I began to receive commissions. Often the wait for a response is long and frustrating, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m capable of producing work to the required standard. That’s a real confidence booster.

Each acceptance is like an injection of rocket fuel; I can’t wait to get to the next project. It’s addictive.

Looking back over the last few years, I can see that I’ve developed in both capability and outlook. I find that I’m seeing the world in a different way, paying more attention, noting details I might once have overlooked.

The Beginning of a New Future

So I’m forging something useful out of my mid-life crisis. It’s pushed me into attempting something fresh and challenging which can actually earn me a living. Fulfilling and profitable, it’s a useful crisis, a handy andropause. It’s given me a second wind at a time when it’s all too easy to flag.

Soon, when my still shaky business is on firmer ground, when I’ve picked up a few more clients, I’ll feel able to blow my trumpet about what I’m doing, heedless of any superstitious fears about jinxing the outcome. I’m too thrilled to keep it to myself much longer. It’s the excitement of possibilities. The broadening of horizons. The feeling that I’m only just beginning to see what I’m capable of.

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Christian Green is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of U.K. magazines and online.  He lives with his wife in picturesque Lincolnshire, England. Check out his website.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Isaac Torrontera