Do You Value Independent Arts Journalism & Would You Like To Help Us Produce More? Find Out More

What we don’t write about when we write about writing

It was likely not Frank Zappa who said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” For this, fans of the late absurdist might be grateful. It’s a statement empty of use to all but those musicians who simply prefer not to be written about. Serious writing about music has as much in common with “dancing about architecture” as it does to, I don’t know, burping about seagulls. Someone writes their assessment of music, others may or may not be moved to extend the language of that particular criticism. Good-o. I have never seen where the problem lay in writing about any matter at all.

With an exception. Writing about the process of writing almost always deserves to be shot. This not only brings out the worst in a class that misrepresents the dreary way some of us earn a living as an “empowering” or a “cathartic” “vocation” –tell that to the two-thousand commissioned words I assembled last month on the topic of activated waste—but it’s the worst sort of post-modern slap. I don’t wish to learn the mystery of how my favourite books were written any more than I care to see “brave without makeup!” pictures of my favourite models. Leave the magician’s cloth in place, thanks, and let beauty arrive to me as beauty alone.

Purely instructional writing about writing, on the other hand, can be of great value—even, perhaps especially, when writing for a client in the sewage industry. I return to Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing at least ten times annually, taking care to remove “the parts readers tend to skip” in my longform passion writing project of that year.


Genre writing may not be your bag, but advice from genre authors is nearly always the best and most practical ticket. There is no writers’ event I have ever attended one jot as hands-on as the Romance Writers of Australia annual conference. If you care to nourish the idea of your unrealised genius, there are dozens of inspirational classes and festivals who’ll gladly charge you for that extended moment of vanity. If you care to learn how to publish, or how to trade babysitting services for writing time, talk to the gals who write about tragic heiresses and sexy Jackeroos.

I recall reading Ray Bradbury’s strict advice “Write a thousand words a day and in three years you’ll be a writer” decades ago, and then following it for kicks. I am now, upon advice from the Australian Taxation Office, a writer.

“I am a writer” is a useful thing to utter, but not as an affirmation. Only as a matter of fact. Of course, if you find some pleasure in declaring yourself a writer before you have written a single word, this is not a summary offence. It is, however, deluded. Saying, “I am a writer” is actively unhelpful if you do not write or do not intend, at some point, to publish. It’s a little like saying, “I am a plumber” with no plans to ever touch a pipe. (Sorry. Sewers are on my mind.) Or, perhaps, it’s more like dancing about architecture.

Whatever the case, “writer” is not an identity and it is not a vocation. It is a word that signifies a trade, albeit one far less profitable than plumbing. And even if it is the case that you will be paid little, perhaps nothing, for your labour, it will always be the case that you work. You are a writer.

A plumber’s apprentice emits a thousand curses at a wrench. A Bradbury emits a thousand words of daily pain. Writing, for most of us, is painful labour. You’re in pain? Good. You are a writer.

I remember the late, very good feature writer David Rakoff characterised the experience of writing as akin to “pulling teeth out of my dick”. I have no dick, despite occasional contrary claims, but I do have sympathy with this description.

And here, I would hold forth on techniques to overcome the agony, on tricks to remain a good tradie even on those bad days where you have overused adverbs—surprisingly easily done. But, I committed a while back to refrain from publishing on the matter of our private teeth-pulling, as I am not half as funny as Rakoff was and would just come across as a tosser who declares, but does not convey, that she is a writer.

Helen Razer will not write about matters of a writer’s spiritual pain, but she will certainly talk about them this Saturday in a Melbourne workshop tailored especially to the memoirist. Click here for bookings and details.

6 responses to “What we don’t write about when we write about writing


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Newsletter Signup