Why writing about writing is stupid

E-mail is great. It’s like this worldwide network of virtual mailboxes where you can send and receive electronic letters from your very own little box—right in the palm of your hand. Actually, it’s exactly that.

In my magic little box I can sign up to be on the mailing lists of all kinds of different publications, for free. Heck, I even get sent thousands of letters a month from places I wouldn’t even have thought about for absolutely no charge. Add two inches, guaranteed! I’m a pretty lucky guy.

I get little electronic “howdy-s” from my boss at work. I get sparsely punctuated and over capitalized hand-typed messages from my mom. I even receive a weekly e-newsletter from the Professional Disc Golf Association, and it’s probably the best 4 minutes of my week.

Of all the mailing lists I’ve willingly submitted to, the strangest e-mails I get are from websites that are wholly dedicated to writing about writing. They’re vigorously set on talking the heck out of a subject without ever doing it—hell bent on a journey that will never reach its destination.

I’ve been receiving these e-mails about writing for months. By this point I’ve read a couple hundred articles. I always thought that these were my ticket to writing success.

After all, the best way to learn is to study. Except reading about writing about writing is one of the worst things you can do to learn how to write. (And now I’m writing about reading about writing about writing. Which, I suppose is one step better than what I was doing 15 minutes ago which was lying in my bed thinking about writing about reading about writing about writing.)

Hell—at the very least, just slash all of those steps except for the last one. Just write.

The proverbial writer’s…ball

Writing about writing is sort of like taking a basketball to the gym and then continually shooting baskets at your gym bag. You’re going through the motions. You’re just continually aiming for the wrong goal. Writing is supposed to be something, not just conversational chat about it.

Don’t get me wrong. These sites have been very inspirational. Inspiring and encouraging in the way your grandmother encourages you by liking every single one of your Facebook posts, no matter if they come at the hands of a less than lucid Friday night or a neatly cropped caffeine-infused selfie session.

Or think of it like going to flight school, taking a seat in the cockpit and instead of telling you how to turn the plane on, the instructors repeatedly bombard you with placards of motivational statements. You can do it! You’re a pilot! You just need to do pilot things!

You need something a lot more than just encouragement to put type on a page. Just because you write doesn’t mean you’re going to be any good. Just because you’ve developed a unique voice doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to listen to.

Picasso wasn’t good just because he painted and was different. Picasso was good because he knew what he was doing. It helped immensely that it was original and exciting. But it was first incredibly high quality work accomplished through years of study and practice.

The write way (ah—see what I did there?)

Here’s a better idea than reading writing about writing: read a ton of actual books. Pick a subject and read everything you can get your hands on. Read every day. You can even read your e-mail as long as you avoid ones about writing about writing.

You need to study the art and craft of writing, not have your ego stroked. When looking for instruction on how to write, find material that chooses real pieces of writing and analyzes it. If you need to dabble in writing about writing, say for a school project or something, write about the craft.

Don’t just publish article after article that says, “I’m writing about writing. I’m writing about writing. I’m writing about writing—see? Look! I’m writing! And if it’s this easy, you can do it too! Hurray for winners!”

A mouthful on writing

I read this stuff. I consumed it like regularly spaced meals. It left me with the feeling that I knew how to write, but when it came to sitting in front of the blank page I realized I had no substantial energy to even know where to get started.

I had dozens of little phrases telling me how to motivate myself to do my best work, but I had no idea what that work was to be. I had gorged myself on the shiny plastic fruit sitting in the middle of the writer’s desk and never developed physically as a writer.

If you want to develop as a writer, focus on your passion, your cause, your reason for writing. Create a subject matter that you truly care about and focus all your efforts there. Then find help with the craft of writing.

Just steer clear of the stuff on writing about writing. Which means if you’ve made it this far, you might just want to mark this article for the trash too.

Happy learning and writing. Now get to work.

3 comments

  1. “Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”

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  2. Do you have this quote somewhere on your site Max? I had to look it up to find out it’s by Faulkner.

    I had another paragraph in one of the drafts for this post that I ended up taking out on the idea of “influence.” I’ve heard it said by the occasional outlying artist that they try to consume as little of other people’s work as possible so as to avoid influence. (Including not reading any books.) This is absurd. You cannot avoid influence. Every single input through any of the five senses is an influence. You cannot not follow a theory.

    I realize in saying this to Faulkner that it’s sort of like looking at the mountains here in Kyrgyzstan and saying to God, “Eh, I could do better.” Well, I’ll press on anyway.

    If you know how to form letters, you’re following someone’s influence and “theory.” There are theories of writing because human beings tend to function in similar ways to each other. It’s not strict following of a theory that makes an artist great, but the ability to connect those theories to what strikes at our hearts as people. I think that artists become great because they’ve arrived at a truth about us, the universe or the relationship between them.

    And I think the last sentence in this quotation is unrelated to the previous part. Wanting to “beat” someone else with your art almost implies that you are trying to follow them in some way. How can you say you’re in a race with someone right after saying you should strike out on a completely different path? The fact that there’s a competition here means that there’s something being compared. If the artist truly stuck out on a new path all by himself, it wouldn’t be possible to compare his work to others.

    If an artist is going to take art to previously unreached levels, then he is going to need to have an understanding of the past in order to create a better (or different, if you want to look at it that way) future. Einstein still needed to follow “theories” such as addition and subtraction in order to make his discoveries. In writing, the line isn’t as sharp between truth and falsehood as it is in math. But I believe that line still exists.

    You need to be able to have an understanding of what else is out there before you can become a truly great artist. Arriving at greatness in any other way is an accident, or in today’s language, “viral.”

    Exploring the world, learning from others who came before you, consuming, studying, meditating, processing, reworking, retooling, trying to understand—these are not just the pursuits of surgeons and bricklayers. They are also the noble pursuit of writers and artists of all stripes.

    Being locked in this endless pursuit doesn’t mean the writer can’t achieve something no other artist has, or that he isn’t able to form his own theories or arrive at truth along his own machete hacked path. But how can you even know you’re setting out in a new direction if you have no idea that paths people have taken in the past?

    I’m not sure where to start with the assertion “people learn only by error.” If that were true I’d think survival of the fittest would have eugenically turned the human race into something much stronger and smarter by now. Or much dumber. I’m not sure.

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    1. No, that quote isn’t on my site. I think I read it somewhere, but I have no idea. As for your thoughts, I have thoughts:

      I think there’s a difference between following a theory and pursuing it. Nowadays, so many theories abound that you’re probably right: you cannot not follow a theory. But I think it’s usually an accident. Only Literature Theory PhD candidates have read all that junk. Plenty of these same candidates make (meager) careers of putting others’ writing to still others’ theory as if the writing and the theory were made to fit. That doesn’t mean they were.

      Only the worst writing is made/written to fit a theory. If you cannot not follow a theory, you can at least do your best not to fall into meta-literary, pretentious distraction of pursuing a theory through writing. That’s like writing a song for the sake of harmonic structures. You do it to get your MFA, but it’s not art. It’s intellectual masturbation.

      The technique by which you “get the writing down” is not the same as the theory which underlies it, but (in this case) I think it should be handled with the same suspicion. Pursuing a technique is like practicing scales: it’s necessary and important but not art. Also it’s annoying. The best art is the most honest art and prescribing to someone else’s technique for writing (and exercising is as if it were your own, as if you, too, happen to understand and think and communicate exactly as some-famous-else did before you) is dishonest. And, really, it’s annoying. Check out all the pithy articles on BuzzFeed and tell me that’s not annoying.

      But influence is yet again altogether something else. And unavoidable. We are amalgamating animals. If you’re not reading books (in order to purify your vision or whatever BS), you do not prevent your (apparently highly sensitive) imaginative-palate from observing and absorbing the voices of others. They’re still coming at you, in every word you hear and everything else, too. Not reading is stupid. Additionally, if you’re working with main strength to avoid an influence, then it’s effecting your behavior and consequently effecting your art. Which means it’s still a damn influence. So I completely agree with you there.

      I think that wanting to “beat” another writer is just one way of handling that uneatable influence. If you’re writing and trying to say something, and you happen to carry some of the American artist’s peremptory individualism, you likely don’t want to speak from under the shadow of your influences. You want your own jam. You want to beat back the pressure and stand apart. Maybe for certain mentalities (ie Faulkner’s) it becomes a matter of competition. Sure, that’s a shitty theory, but it’s not a bad attitude if it gets the writing done.

      Everything else you said about understanding what came before and amalgamation as the “noble pursuit of writers” is righteous. I agree. As for learning, I know that I usually learn by my mistakes, but I’m still not really sure how anyone else gets it done.

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