Writers writing about writing has always fascinated me. One of my favourite units when I taught creative writing to high school kids was one called “Writers on Writing.” Students read, researched, and wrote about a writer they loved. In particular what the writer had to say about writing and the creative process. It was a great way to get the students thinking and talking about writing from the perspective of working writers. Not to mention the finished products were really interesting to read. For instance, I never knew that, when Robert Frost was walking in the countryside and he didn’t have a piece of paper to hand, he wrote ideas on the sole of his shoe. Hopefully, he then ran home and wrote the poem. Ha.
I amassed quite a collection of my own books about writing over the years, writers writing about themselves, about their writing, or the writing of others. I encouraged kids to read the memoirs of writers. I told them how I adored Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. How reading it for the first time made me want to move to Paris and sit in a café sipping white wine, smoking those skinny cigarettes, and scribbling in a grubby notebook.
I used to pull writing activities from the books that writers wrote about writing. One semester we tried to “write one true sentence” à la Hemingway. This activity morphed into something a bit bigger which became probably the most successful writing assignment I ever designed. I used it semester after semester. I mined Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing for inspiration. Her suggestion to write “I remember” on a page and then write for ten minutes became the best journal starter ever.
In one chapter of Writing Down the Bones Goldberg suggests writing about colour. I’d ask the students to turn to a fresh page in their journal, to write the name of a colour at the top of the page, then to leave the room and wander around the school or outside for ten minutes looking for their colour. While they were gone I’d write on the board some questions: Where did you find your colour? What does it smell like? Sound like? What texture does it have? What emotion does it evoke? … stuff like that to give them some direction if they needed it. When they came back, they had to sit quietly writing about their colour for fifteen minutes, as Goldberg suggests. Then we’d read our responses aloud.
It always amazed me how much the kids had to say about pink, or yellow, or blue. Or orange. One day a boy bounded back into the room after his ten minute wander, and almost shouted at me, “I had no idea there was so much orange out there. Orange is everywhere!” A girl wrote in her journal that the car windshields in the parking lot were all blue that day. And she’d never noticed that before. After we’d read our jottings, we’d discuss how we never really observe what we think we already know. How to be able to write about things we first had to learn to look at things. That was the coolest part for me, as a teacher.
I’ve been thinking about writers writing about writing this week, because I just learned that one of my favourite writers, Jo Baker, has a new book out. The Body Lies is described as a literary mystery. I gather from Sarah Moss’s review in The Guardian, that Baker’s latest book is part mystery story/thriller (who is that dead body at the beginning and who killed her?), part meta-fiction (fiction about the writing of fiction), and part “campus satire,” as Moss puts it.
The narrator of the novel, a successful writer herself, takes a position teaching creative writing at a northern university, and moves with her young son to a remote cottage in the countryside. The victim of a violent attack outside her London home, the narrator hopes that her escape to the country will ease her fears of living in the city. But the teaching is stressful, the students work sometimes disquieting, and the demands of raising her son and navigating a new profession are huge.
Moss describes the students in the narrator’s class as: “a lawyer writing generic misogynist crime fiction, possibly related to that dead body, with disturbing relish; a young woman mining her own not very interesting past; and a troubled posh boy upsetting everyone by writing rather brilliantly about the workshop.” You can read Moss’s review yourself here, if you like. Apparently, the dead body crops up every now and then throughout the story. And Baker includes, as part of the narrative, snippets of the students’ work. And we get all this in Jo Baker’s exquisite prose.
I mean, I ask you… a writer, whose work I love, writing about a writer teaching writing, and a dead body… who can resist that? Not I, my friends. I ordered The Body Lies for my Kindle and plan to while away countless hours of literary mystery enjoyment with a glass of wine in hand and my feet up on the balcony of our little condo in L’Anse-Saint-Jean next week.
If you’ve not read Jo Baker, you are in for a treat. I highly recommend Longbourne, which I’ve written about before on the blog. It’s the story of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants at Longbourne. I also loved A Country Road, A Tree, which is the story of Samuel Beckett’s life during world War II in France and his experiences in the French Resistance. I thought it was one of the best books I read in 2016.
There are tons of other novels out there in which writers write about writers, some of them are even mysteries. Three of my favourites are Carol Shields’ book Swann about the murder of poet Mary Swann, her hard-scrabble life, and how the literary world feeds off of her life and her work after she is dead. It’s a wonderful book, in my opinion. And Shields is one of Canada’s best loved writers. Then there’s Robert Barnard’s Death of a Mystery Writer. About the death of a well-loved, and totally loathsome mystery writer. It’s classic snarky Barnard. But maybe you might prefer P.D. James’ Unnatural Causes. About the death of a mystery writer as investigated by Adam Dalgliesh, James’ poet-detective.
You know, sometimes I miss teaching writing to teenagers. All that youthful enthusiasm. The willingness of the students to try anything. To play weird brainstorming games, to wear funny hats and write from the perspective of the person in the hat. Stuff like that. I know that some of their desire to play was due to the fact that my course was not like a “regular” English class with novel study and Shakespeare. I didn’t assign Math problems for homework, or make them memorize the first twenty elements of the periodic table. So in a way, I had a bit of a free ride. My class was an elective; students took my course if they wanted to write. And those who didn’t really want to write, but only signed up because they didn’t want to read Shakespeare, soon learned that writing could be hard work.
But as much as I loved playing with the kids, teaching was hard work too. Especially the marking. So I’m happy to look back on that part of my life with great fondness, but no real regret. Now I get to write what I want, when I want, about whatever pleases me. And lately I’m thinking I’ll take the advice I used to give to my students and get back to journal writing. Especially on these 5:30 (or earlier) mornings when I can’t sleep and decide I may as well get up and make a cup of tea. After all, that 9:00 A.M. bell holds no power over me any more. I can go back to bed if I want.
Now, it’s your turn my friends. Your homework is to tell us, in as many words as you choose, if you also enjoy writers writing about writing.
You can find all the books I’ve reviewed at Amazon. I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon. If you buy the book by clicking on my link, I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you. Longbourne, A Country Road, A Tree, and The Body Lies by Jo Baker. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Swann by Carol Shields. Death of a Mystery Writer by Robert Barnard. Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.
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