There’s Writing—and Then There’s Writing about Writing

Barbara ProbstI remember how amazed I was to discover that the author of Charlotte’s Web and the author of The Elements of Style (the 1959 update) were one and the same. E.B. White, an icon of the literary world, was clearly skilled at two kinds of writing: he could write, and he could write about writing. There are others who do that, too. Anne Lamott, Stephen King. And, of course, a lot of us here on Writer Unboxed.

Not to compare myself to these literary giants— yet the notion of having one foot in each river intrigues me.

Although I’ve written for nearly my whole life, I’ve tended to alternate, rather than doing both at the same time. I wrote not-too-bad poetry and short stories in my early twenties, then a truly terrible quasi-autobiographical novel. After that, I spent a long time writing nonfiction—a book for parents on raising an out-of-the-box child, an academic tome on clinical assessment, and more articles for scholarly journals than I care to remember. When I’d had enough, I returned to my first love, fiction, and now have two novels in print with a third slated for Fall 2022.

Soon after returning to fiction, however, I added a second aspect to my writing life: essays on the craft of writing. Since my first guest blog was posted three years ago, I’ve published nearly fifty essays on a wide range of writing-related topics. I like both kinds of writing, which seem to engage different parts of myself—a creative side that loves the nonlinear, intuitive, and mysterious nature of the story-making process; and an analytical side that the scholar-researcher in me craves and enjoys.

I’m not the only person who does two kinds of writing, so I began to wonder what other people’s experience was like.

I was fortunate to be able to speak with five amazing women who, in different ways, have been successful at both fiction and nonfiction: Beth Kephart, Ellen Notbohm, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Kathryn Craft, and Tiffany Yates Martin. Together, they have published women’s and young adult fiction, nonfiction books on topics from autism to editing to gender issues in academia, and hundreds of essays on a whole of subjects. I asked them how they approached both kinds of writing and what role each played in their lives

Externally, how do you structure or manage your time to accommodate these two kinds of writing? 

I was curious to know if people toggled back-and-forth between two kinds of writing—for example, by dividing up the day—or immersed themselves in one at a time, for as long as it needed.

The responses varied, depending on the kinds of writing people did as well as (probably) by temperament and personal style. People who also worked as developmental editors, with clients awaiting their report by a specified date, seemed to be more deliberate in how they structured their time: mornings for their own writing (whether fiction or content creation), afternoons for whatever project they were editing or had taken on for a publisher or client. Kathryn Craft actually works in two different parts of her house, a loft office in the morning, a comfy chair by a downstairs window in the afternoon. For Tiffany Yates Martin, who publishes fiction under a pseudonym: “They’re two different sides of my brain and it helps me to separate them that way—plus it creates that routine that lets the Muse know what time to show up for work every day!”

Others weren’t so structured. For Beth Kephart, “there is no daily writing practice for me. Weeks can go by between words written on the page, since much of the time I’m teaching or reading the work of others. But when I’m obsessed with a new idea, with both the time and desire, I go all at it.”  So too, Ellen Notbohm says: “my writing has to come as an organic part of my life, my day.” After all, she points out: “I don’t eat the same thing or the same amount of food every day.”

The proportion of time devoted to different kinds of writing can vary, depending on both inspiration and the type of writing that’s being undertaken. An idea for an essay might arise that can—and perhaps must—be written out in a single long sitting, while a book needs to be tackled in small, perhaps irregular, doses. For that reason, Katie Rose Guest Pryal likes to balance writing essays, which can be completed quickly and provide a more immediate gratification, and books, which are the epitome of “delayed gratification.” I’m like that too. At this point in my life, fiction takes the form of novels, which are long projects, while nonfiction takes the form of essays, which are short projects. Others, like Tiffany, write entire books that are about the writing process.

And sometimes everything gets upended because an idea that’s been simmering in the background starts to clamor for attention and has to be allowed to move into center stage.

Tiffany describes it this way: “I tend to follow my inclinations, so even though I’m eyeballs-deep in editing right now, there’s a story that’s been percolating on the back burner pretty regularly lately, which tells me it may need to be worked on soon. This is how most of my writing develops—one project kind of brewing quietly in the background for a while and fleshing itself out while I’m working on another, and when I’m ready to write the next one a lot of the groundwork has come together already.”

Others also spoke of that sense of urgency that needs to be heeded. For Beth, literary essays “shouldn’t be written unless they are born of a great urgency. And urgency has its own timetable. We can’t force it.”

Ellen notes that the urgency has to be accompanied by patience. At this point in her writing career, she understands “how to let the creative well fill at its own pace and how to wait until meaningful stuff is ready to come forward.”

Those complementary forces, urgency and patience, resonate with me as well. My own experience is that writing a craft blog or report (like this one) is useful when I need a break from the intensity of a novel.

Internally, what does each kind of writing require, and gives back?

For Kathryn, the different kinds of writing “feed different parts of me,” in mutually-nourishing ways, and can’t be separated. Just as her experience as a novelist enables her to write essays about the craft of fiction, her non-fiction writing—craft blogs and developmental evaluations of clients’ work—re-ignites her fiction. “Formulating what I’ve learned and want to say, to give to others, helps to re-energize and jazz me for my own writing. It also challenges me to stretch and figure out what I think and know.” Kathryn “thinks on the page,” like Joan Didion, who is famous for declaring: “I write to find out what I’m thinking” (New York Times, 1976).

Katie further notes that all “writing about writing” is not the same. She differentiates between the “writing about writing” that she does to share with the public and the “writing about writing” that she does for herself only, to help her own writing process. “When I’m stuck with a writing project, I will write about how I’m stuck, in a meta fashion. I write quite literally, ‘I am stuck because…’ I will sometimes ask myself questions about my writing project, and then I will answer those questions. This writing-about-my-writing strategy has never failed to help me find my way through whatever problem I’m facing.”

No matter what kind of writing it is, for Beth, “I give my entire heart and head to everything I write. And everything I write yields something to me. Some satisfaction, in the wake of the exhaustion that every good new piece requires.”

For Ellen, too, whether fiction or nonfiction, “I write to connect with myself and with others. My writing requires total honesty with myself, and that means that I don’t aspire to publish everything I write. Whatever I write that day, I obviously needed to. Sometimes it’s ugly, and that can be useful too. Sometimes I just need to get the stink out. If those pages go directly into the shredder, they served their purpose and probably cleared the way for writing that I can and will share.”

Different kinds of writing, of different duration, yet a similar sense of immersion. That resonated with me too.

Some concluding thoughts …

When I began to work on this piece, I felt pretty certain that nonfiction writing takes place in my intellectual brain—up in the cerebral cortex, where I think—while fiction writing happens lower down, in a more subconscious and intuitive part of myself.  But I’m starting to think that’s not true, and that both kinds of writing require both parts of myself. It’s not by chance, after all, that Tiffany Yates Martin calls her handbook for writers Intuitive Editing.

Perhaps it’s more a matter of emphasis, or the stage in the process when the complementary mind enters. When I write fiction, the planning and polishing phases seem to rely on a more intellectual capacity, while the depiction of character, relationships and emotional growth need that flash of subconscious insight. When I write nonfiction—this piece, for example—my intellectual brain organizes the material, but the leap of understanding comes from somewhere else.

Or maybe that’s just my way. You might see it differently …

What about you?  Do you “writing about writing,” even if no one sees it but you? What is the role of “writing about writing” for you?

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About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.