Defying the brutal indifference (or how to write about writing).

Many years ago, while my father was still alive, I found this book on his shelf.


My father was a writer. Made a career of it. Made good money.

He also discouraged me from entering his field.

“Son,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t go into advertising.”

My father was not a reader. Not a book reader, that is. I never once saw him read a book. And though I bought him a few as gifts when I was a kid – before I realized he didn’t want them – my feelings were hurt when he would hoist the package, feel it out, and grumble the word book.

“It is a book. Open it.”

“What am I supposed to do with a book?”

“You read it.”

“Why would I want to read a book?”

“You read all the time. Newspapers, magazines. I thought you might like a book.”

A pause. He peered at me over the rim of his glasses. Then tilted his head back and studied the book through his lenses. “Hmmm.”

That’s not really how it would go. But it’s close.

Though he had shelves full of books, the only ones that meant anything to him were the ones about trains. They looked good on the coffee table. The man did love his trains. Named his cat after one – Phoebe Snow. It was a black cat, not white like snow. Made no sense. Anyhoo…

When I found Writing Fiction on his bookshelf, I was only reading, not yet writing. But I thought I would like to write one day. I thought, I ought to read that book. But it was old. Smelled like cigars. Had old yellow pages. Turned me off, that. I preferred books fresh out of the bookstore, smelling new, with pristine covers. I would read them without breaking the spine or folding a page. When I was done, you couldn’t tell the thing had been read.

And when I began to read about writing, I started with these:


Noticing a theme?

When my father died eight years ago (my god, eight years), I purged most of his books. He hadn’t read any of them as far as I knew, and most were not anything anyone would want to read anyway. I did keep a few that had some character, though. Here’s a few:


They look better in the guest room than in these photos.


England of Song and Story, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

And of course I kept the book on writing. Packed it up and moved it with my others to Ohio, where it sat on my shelf for four years, unread. Packed it up again and moved it back to Texas, where, for some reason, it never made it to the shelf. Not sure why I finally chose now to give it a go. Maybe because I’ve been writing so much fiction lately. But also, I think, without really knowing it, now was the right time. Sometimes – and this is rare – but sometimes a book finds you. At the right time. Asks you to read it.

Once I began, I could not stop. And that I do know why.

The writing.

The writing about writing. Writing like this:

There is something repugnant about doing either mental or physical work for the sake of staying busy. It probably represents an evasion of tasks one is afraid to tackle. And the most valuable part of writing lies in challenging one’s secret fears and testing to the utmost one’s resources of spirit. It takes courage to write well.

Not many writers write about writing like that anymore. Look at this:

Among the things I know, I am most certain of this – that an apprentice finds in his reading the standards he must meet as a writer. He must always compare his work with the publications of more experienced writers.

He’s talking about the good ones. The masters. Giants like these:

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and James Joyce’s Ulysses are novels that might reward months or years of concentrated effort. But I suppose it is better (just a little better) to have dipped into one or the other during an afternoon’s bus ride than never to have opened them at all.

And unlike today, when writing about writing often reads like cheerleading, we have this:

Becoming a good writer is not easy. No process of training can guarantee it. Those who disparage any kind of instruction in fiction writing have a point when they say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. In my experience, though…few sow’s ears want to become a silk purse. Most people who want to write have some correct intuition of fineness in themselves, and a correct intuition that learning the disciplines of the craft is a good way to expose and measure that fineness.

And finally this. Don’t skip this. Not reading this might be the biggest mistake you make today:


My god, man. That’s how you write about writing.

Thanks for the book, Dad.






47 thoughts on “Defying the brutal indifference (or how to write about writing).

  1. Pingback: Defying the brutal indifference (or how to write about writing). | KENYONA R. COPELAND

  2. Man, you have writing in your blood! You’re steeped in the stuff

    Love this extract –

    ‘Those who disparage any kind of instruction in fiction writing have a point when they say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. In my experience, though…few sow’s ears want to become a silk purse.’

    Fantastic. The prose swathes the majesterial with wit – it has a grandeur to it.
    Had to Google RVCassill – he was a busy man


    • I G(g?)oogled him too and saw that he wrote a whole mess of novels, one of which was called An Affair To Remember. But I guess it’s not the one that the movies are based on, as far as I can tell. I’d not heard of him outside of the book on writing (which was fantastic). I would be interested to read his fiction. Some people are better teachers than doers, and some people who are great at doing can’t teach. I wonder if he is one or the other, or both. I very much respect that at no point in the book did he refer to his own writing. I’ve read a lot of books on writing, and I was always turned off by anyone who referred me to himself, or herself, by way of example. “Here’s how ya do it right, folks. I wrote this scene this way because…” Yet no one’s ever heard of this self-brander. It’s a bit off-putting, but it’s also not uncommon.

      I do think he writes with authority, and grandeur, as you say. I think he’s right on. It’s a fantastic book for people who are serious about this stuff. Highly recommended.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I saw An Affair to Remember too – but as you say, it doesn’t seem to be him.
        Some definitely can do but not teach and vice versa. I’ve had personal experience of both. It seems those who can ‘do’ don’t appreciate the specific skills you need to communicate ideas and techniques effectively. It can make for a dreadful learning experience.
        It seems this author could do both – he certainly kept getting published, so he must have sold a fair few books. Shame it’s not still in print


      • Yeah, some of it is, you know, a bit stodgy in that Wallace Stegner sort of way, but digging around the crustiness, there’s some spot on “heart” of truth there—especially important to listen to and hear in this self-conscious era of “branding,” “monetizing,” etc. The idea of having a holy duty is so far flung now, and sounds so fatuous, that it is close to but not quite embarrassing even to plunk the letters down about. But the “spirit of movement,” as Dante wrote of “praxis” in an entirely different context, is the life mission of a writer who is really a writer daring, because I think there really is no other choice, stepping along the narrow path leading to perhaps nothing as also perhaps everything before his or feet to be possibly unfolded.


        • Yeah, I guess it could be perceived as a bit stodgy or crusty, but I didn’t get that from it. But I’m a little old school about many things. I don’t think everyone has the right to “brand” themselves as a writer, for example. That’s a title that’s earned, maybe even bestowed. I know mine is the minority opinion, but as I said, I’m old school about these things. His approach is appropriately academic, and says “I am the instructor, you are the learner.” Not a common approach these days, when each of us is encouraged to do what feels right for us there are no rules we are each the center of our own universe and awesome. We need tougher coaches, methinks. Others will disagree.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I don’t think you protest too much at all. The idea of things bestowed upon another very much appeals to me. Even worse, I feel, than the benign narcissism of “being a writer” is the truly pernicious effect of Big Name “writers” who are not really that at all, but, alas, in the America Global Marketplace, perceive themselves—inescapably— to be. The notion of a coach, a guide, an instructor rather than mere elbows akimbo rag tag rhyming and labeling it (and it being labeled) brilliant and so forth, is right up my alley.I believe Bach was permitted to play only scales and exercises or some such until he was eight, and would creep downstairs and play a progression of chords that would force his father to get up out of bed and finish it off in the right tonic. And, might I add, one of the very best instructors of all is reading. There is no substitute for deep reading done twenty, thirty years ago now which today I refer to, and do not “reference.” I was, after all, graduated from college; I did not graduate from it. It was an honor bestowed upon me for work that I had done well, not something by which I put a crown on my own head and advanced me to the name of Emperor of Myself.


  3. I like the way people look when you talk about reading about writing, and when your medium is “nonsense”,many cannot tell if you are serious. Your Dad was a lot like my late Ma.


  4. Thank you for this post. Very fitting for me today. I started my blog just a few hours ago, which is a very big step for me in actually attempting to finish something and putting myself out there. I’m a real coward when it comes to writing. I have a lot to learn and I used to think I could not write anything unless it was perfect. Which basically meant I wrote nothing.
    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your posts. Quite a few things I can learn from you, so I’ll probably be keeping an eye on you.
    Enjoy the rest of your evening and I hope to read more from you soon!


    • Well I can relate to the perfectionism, it can certainly intimidate you. I think you just have to be as perfect as you can be at this time. Be the best writer you can be right now. Every time you write. And each time you’ll get a little bit better.

      As for blogging, the first few times I hit “publish” were pretty scary. And the next few were disappointing as no one seemed to be reading. Just keep reading other people and commenting and being active in the community and you will grow an audience. I don’t like saying grow because that sounds business-y. Personal brand-y. It doesn’t have to be that way. It can be more, “If you build it, they will come.” And should be.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Let that light you up, sounds like it already has. Whatever it takes to bat back the fear and be yourself, easier said than done – do it. Thanks dad, that’s good. Thanks for sharing with us – don’t stop!


    • Well, if there are those who are interested in me being myself, I’m afraid I will have to disappoint, as I myself am not terribly interested in being myself. Or at least in talking about myself, that is. I’d rather talk about other things. Or write about them, anyway. This post here is probably as close as it gets to me talking about myself. But everything I write is me talking about something that is important to me, even if it’s funneled or disguised or fictionalized in some way. The writing, all of it, not one piece here or another there, but all of it together, for better or worse, is me. I think that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. He gets me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sir, this was a great post. Fear is an entity which kept me from starting my blog. However recently, I stood up, pushed back my trepidation and began. This post just solidified that it was time to give it a try.


    • Thank you And good for you! I responded to a similar comment by saying that the first few times I clicked publish were scary. Then the next few were depressing because no one was reading. But you have to persist. If you write good and engaging stuff, and are active in the blogging community by reading, liking, and commenting, you will find an audience. You’re off to a good start – you’re site looks very cool.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, I appreciate the reply and your advice about getting involved is valuable. You are a great blogger and I love following your site.


        • Thanks. I didn’t see any option to ‘follow’ your site other than email, i.e., via WordPress. Not sure why that is or if I’m just missing something, but if that is in fact the case, it could work against you. In my experience, very few people follow via email.

          Liked by 1 person

          • My site is self hosted. I have all the WordPress features but since I own the site that may be an issue. I agree follow is the way to go.


  7. that last excerpt is spot on. it’s really what separates the rocks from the diamonds. bookmarking as a reminder when i find myself staring at the face of a blank page. thank you for sharing this!


  8. Pingback: On Writing, Washing Machines, and 1962 | waltbox

  9. I found a version of this book somehow, can’t wait to read it. I always thought that the only thing one needs to write whatever genre is to keep on writing. To write is the rule to writing, I think.
    I like the story about your father – he seems like a character on his own. Have you ever written something about him, or about someone who you built using him as a base?


    • Very cool, I’d love to hear what you think about the book after reading it. Please do let me know!

      Glad you liked the story about my dad. Yes, he certainly was a character, and somehow, despite all his grumblings and grievances, those who knew him adored him. But he was also a very sensitive and in many ways wounded fella, and I’ve taken some of those characteristics of his and drawn what amounts to a caricature in a couple of the stories on this blog – the Thanksgiving one and the Christmas one. They are both ridiculous and over the top, but at the same time touch upon a truthiness that captures a certain – as the French say – “I don’t know what.”

      Thanks for reading, and the thought-provoking comment. Merry Christmas!


  10. Pingback: Living on the Page | waltbox

  11. Pingback: Once upon A TIME | waltbox

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