Sunday, December 1, 2013

Writers Writing about Writing

Have you noticed how often writers write about writing? I don’t just mean blog posts or diaries and autobiographies, but also creative writing: stories, poetry and novels that deal with or touch upon the craft of writing. Because we do, you know, spend a lot of time writing about writing and, yes, the fact that I’m a writer writing about writers writing about writing is not lost on me.

So why do we do it – write about writing, that is?

The reasons why writers’ diaries and autobiographies focus on writing is a bit of a no-brainer. These are the scribblings of real life and a writer’s life revolves around writing. Diaries and autobiographies can provide a fascinating glimpse into the aspects of a writer’s life which are usually hidden behind the words we write. For new or would-be writers, such works can also provide valuable insight into the processes of writing and seeking publication. Back in the day, I gleaned much of what I then knew about the volume of submissions (and rejections) necessary to achieving publication from the diaries and published correspondence of the poet Sylvia Plath.

I suspect our current fascination with blog posts about writing stems from the same source. If you like the work of a particular writer, you are likely to enjoy reading about the “hidden” aspects of their life and craft. If you are a budding writer yourself you may be able to pick up tips from writerly blog sites. Even if you are a seasoned pro, it’s always interesting to compare your own experiences with how other writers handle things.

Blogs, diaries and autobiographies are (in theory at least) non-fiction. So what entices writers to explore the art of writing in creative works such as novels, poetry and short stories?

Guidance for new writers always includes the advice, “Write about what you know”. Writers know about writing. Is that why it crops up time and time again in our written creations, or are there other, deeper reasons for our sustained fascination with our own craft?

There are stacks of books, poems, scripts and stories which reference writing, both classic and modern pieces. A random selection includes George Eliot’s Middlemarch, The Shining and Misery, both by Stephen King,  John Irving’s The World According to Garp, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller (though that is as much about reading as writing), Murakami’s mammoth 1Q84, the scripts of Castle and Murder She Wrote, Ted Hughes’ iconic poem The Thought-Fox and my own novel A Darker Moon. I will also confess to having written assorted short stories and poems which touch upon the craft of writing, so I guess I’m as good a writer as any to comment on the attraction of writing about writing.

Ted Hughes saw writing poetry as a shamanistic process, atavistic and spiritual; something in the blood and deep within the human sub-conscious. The Christian Bible recognises the creative power of the word and its ability to carve order out of chaos – go check out the opening lines of The Gospel according to St. John.  Whilst not all writers would describe writing in such spiritual terms, there is for many of us something awesome (in the oldest sense of the word) in creating something from nothing: drawing out words and stories, people and emotions from a blank page or screen; extracting a meaningful narrative from the randomness of existence. Why wouldn’t we want to write about something so intrinsically amazing?

An example, if I may? The perceived atavistic and metaphysical power of the written word is an underlying part of my dark fiction novel, A Darker Moon. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that I made my anti-hero Abe a writer. It is also the reason why the act of writing features prominently within the book.

For most writers, the act itself is a solitary and introspective process. If you want to depict a character who is solitary and introspective, and especially if you want him or her to explore their inner landscape lucidly and eloquently, making him or her a writer is an obvious move. Abe from A Darker Moon is a man in search of himself and writing is one way in which he goes about seeking the truth. It is also the way he shares his truth with the reader. Truth, though, can be subjective and for the purposes of the novel, which is told via the less than reliable narration of Abe,  it was important that the story progressed through what was both said and unsaid, written and unwritten. Narrative takes place through both the written word and the lacuna. For my story, it took a writer to communicate both words and the spaces between them.

Creative writing is all about communication: stories, ideas and emotions. We humans are communicating animals and the complex languages we have developed (and which inform and shape our thought processes) set us apart from other living creatures. At a neuroscience level, our use of language helps to make us who we are. It is in our DNA. Another reason, surely, for our timeless fascination with writing.

The written word is a connection between writer and reader and between all of us as human beings. It enables us to communicate across vast distances, times and cultures. As a writer, I consider myself honoured to be able to use  this extension of the human psyche to earn my crust. With something so powerful and intrinsic to my existence at my fingertips, why wouldn’t I want to write about it?

J.S.Watts is a British writer of poetry and fiction. She has published three books: “Cats and Other Myths”, a poetry collection, "Songs of Steelyard Sue", a multi-award nominated poetry pamphlet, (both published by Lapwing Publications) and “A Darker Moon” a dark-fiction novel (published by Vagabondage Press). Further details at:  and on Facebook:


J.S.Watts said...

A big thank you to The Writer's Vineyard for welcoming me as a guest blogger today.

Liz Fountain said...

Welcome, J.S.! Writing as an act and craft has been an important theme in several of my works, too, including the manuscript I'm revising now, due for publication in June. This particular story idea started as a question - what would happen if someone had the power to write stories that came true, but in ways she couldn't control? I think that question came, in a way, from experiencing many of the qualities of writing you discuss. I'm putting A Darker Moon on my TBR list!

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Guilty as charged.

I do a lot of writer blogging. When I learn something new, I like to share it or to analyze it for my own edification.

Today we read; tomorrow we write, Hooks and Titles.