Reading: Writing

I’m a pretty lame convalescent.  I like the idea of lying in bed, it’s just that I couldn’t get the angle right for reclining and reading at the same time.  I figured it was more important to read than to recline, so I opted for just sitting around and getting better with a book in my lap.  With judicious applications of tea and pain killers, not to mention the many kind wishes from all of you, I’m on the mend, although still more tired than I’d thought I’d be.

The book I chose to accompany me for the last day or so is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.  Hardly a felicitous beginning, that title.  You’d think a woman who’s written a novel called Women and Children First could think of something better. 

Still, I forgave her the title because I did like the book, which says one simple thing about writing and then goes on to illustrate that simple point with a lot of elegant examples.  Her point?  One important route to good writing is to read closely the work of great writers. 

I agree with her, and that’s why I liked this book so much.  After all, books about writing, like books about parenting, give the most pleasure sometimes when they just say what you already believe instinctively, but can’t put into words with authority or good enough examples.  These are ideal books for convalescence, a time when you don’t want to be challenged or irritated, but soothed and agreed with by a witty companion. 

Occasionally, Prose is a little worrying, though.  For example, when she taught at the University of Utah she assigned a class of Morman undergraduates Heinrich von Kleist’s novella The Marquise of O—, which opens like this:

“In M—, a large town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O—, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-bred children, published the following notice in the newspapers:  that, without her knowing how, she was in the family way; that she would like the father of the child she was going to bear to report himself; and that her mind was made up, out of consideration for her people, to marry him.”

A little mischevious, a little condescending, Prose nevertheless rightly guessed her students would like this novella which “isn’t all that long, and which has a grabby, switchbacking plot that pulls you in, right away. . . .”  Still, mischevious or not, a person who loves good writing and knows a lot, and ultimately wants you to learn to be a good writer, is a fine companion on a sick day, especially because you can put them down and drink your tea and look out the window for a while, and they’ll wait quietly until you’re ready to begin again. 

The book is organized loosely around the elements of fiction — Words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details and gesture.  For every element of good writing, there are several interesting examples of how great writers use these tools.  There’s also an entire chapter on what we can learn from Chekhov, which is alone worth the price of the book because what Chekhov has to teach is that for every hard and fast rule you’ve been taught, there’s a way in which that rule need not be observed.  That’s a good thing to keep in mind as you make choices about your story.

In addition to demonstrating a pleasurable way of reading, the book also makes you think about a few things.  The biggest one is the basic question of how or whether writing can be taught.  The answer is, like most answers, sort of

If you enroll in a formal writing program, whether it’s an MFA program or the sort of extension classes I’ve taken, you’ll get some of the tools you need to be a good writer.  First, you’ll surely write.  Simply by writing, you will become a better writer.  Second, you’ll get some valuable basic information about the nuts and bolts of writing.  If you want to write fiction, it’s helpful to know how a plot typically functions, how to write dialogue, what point of view looks like and how it works. Third, you’ll make some friends, and this may well turn out to be the most valuable thing to come out of your time on campus. 

You can also learn these things on your own, particularly if you are the sort of person who likes to find things out on your own.  And the way you do this, as Prose suggests, is  by reading.  (This is something you can obviously do if you’re enrolled in an MFA program too.)    But you are likely to only make this a success if you’re already writing and struggling with writing problems like how to get someone in and out of a room, or how to show the passage of time, or how a first person narrative can tell events the first person doesn’t see.   If you only have a vague idea about how good writing works and you haven’t started writing yet, all the reading in the world probably isn’t going to move you very far in the direction of good writing. 

Both routes — the formal education and the reading for writing — have their pitfalls.  MFA programs can discourage people who are writing in a style or genre that’s not in favor at that particular school.  They can turn out cookie cutter writing, failing to push writers to develop a unique voice.  And they can isolate writers from life, by substituting the experience of the workshop for the experience of working for a living.  Too much time writing for an audience of writers can make you forget you’re writing for an audience of readers. 

The self-educated writer will encounter a different set of problems:  there’s not writing, because no one expects you to.  There’s going into free fall around a writing problem that could have been solved with a few smart words from someone who’s been there before.  Isolation and lack of community mean no one’s reading your writing and telling you what works for them.  If you don’t ever hear yourself read out loud you can miss the valuable experience of editing by ear. 

I’ve gone both the formal and informal route, and I must say that turning great writing inside out to see how it’s put together, as Prose suggests, has been one of the most wonderful and rewarding things I’ve done in learning to be a good writer.  I began writing seriously at around the same time I found myself running out of steam as a reader.  I’d spent almost twenty-five years as a pretty serious reader — an English major, a graduate student in English, a voracious reader of British and American fiction and poetry and drama.  I didn’t have children until I was thirty-five, so I had a lot of time to read.  At some point I realized I’d read almost everything that would ever show up on a syllabus for most classes on most periods of British and Ameican literature.  Around that time, I was coming out of bookstores empty handed a lot.  I read some contemporary fiction, but I didn’t like a lot of what I read enough to want to spend good money or time reading any more of it.  But then two things happened:  First, I learned that re-reading, particularly after quite some time, is as enjoyable as the first reading ever was.  Second, I learned that reading as a writer means you read a work of fiction or poetry so entirely differently that you might as well be reading something for the first time. 

In the end, what Prose gave me was something reassuring (which is just how you want to feel on the day you’re taking a lot of tylenol with codeine):  I have ahead of me another lifetime of reading:  reading as a writer.  In fact, if I slow down, as Prose so wisely suggests, it might take me a lot longer to get through English literature than it did the first time.  Not to mention all that great French, Spanish, German, and Russian literature I haven’t gotten to.  And then, if you just look at the globe you can see that there’s China, Japan, the middle east, Africa, Australia… There are many more books out there to be read and quite a few to be written. 

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24 thoughts on “Reading: Writing

  1. I’d never heard of Francine Prose before I got hold of her book about artist’s muses (which I really loved by the way). Now I’ve heard several good reports of this book on creative writing. I think blogging is a lot like a big laid-back creative writing class – I’ve certainly learnt more about my own prose style doing this than anything I’ve ever done in my life before, and I’ve learnt more about writing from reading other people’s posts (yours in particular, dear BL). I’m so glad you are feeling a bit better but I worry for you – do take it easy and make sure everyone spoils you rotten.

  2. Litlove, I’d like to read that book about muses — it sounds very good. You are right about blogging being a laid back creative writing class: One great thing about blogging regularly is that you get to practice a different kind of voice, one that exorcises some of the bad habits you (me, I mean) pick up from the other writing you do. Good legal writing is clear and almost invisible in its style. It’s never whimsical, offhand, amused, or particularly emotional. Blogwriting can do all those things, thank goodness, and it’s fun to be able to go in that direction every once in a while.

    Thanks for the good wishes — I am indeed taking it easier today than I’d planned and am having a nice cup of tea and will be moving into the living room in a moment to read some Three Musketeers. xxoo, Lily

    Susan, Thank you.  I saw the other day that you’re doing a short course on applying to mfa programs, which sounds like it’ll be interesting and fun.  I’d think that anyone who’s serious enough about doing an mfa that they’d first take a course in how to go about finding the right one is well on their way to being a fine writer. 

  3. This is all so interesting — I have only just started writing for real a couple of months ago, and I already feel a different reader.
    Any books on how to write in a foreign language ?

  4. Good wishes and take it easy vibes from me too. You have been in my thoughts over the last couple of days.

    What you write here is very interesting and relevant to me. While I realise there is still a lot I haven’t read I’m in a very similar position to you in terms of having been a voracious and also a reasonably systematic reader for years and years.

    I find I now read books in different ways- genre fiction is soothing and relaxing, serious science fiction I read as the literature of ideas and well crafted, informative non fiction is probably what I get most out of. Rereading classics every now and again never goes amiss but contemporary literary fiction in general does very little for me.

  5. HI Mandarine — Not being able to read in any language other than English, I don’t know. But I’d like to think there are some great French classics on writing well. Or you can go with Prose’s approach and read your favorite writers with an eye and ear to how they accomplish what they do.

    Ms. Make Tea — Thank you — it’s lovelier than I can say to know that you’ve been sending those good vibes. I’m very interested in the evolution of one’s reading. Also, I’m looking forward to hearing how you go about writing that nonfiction piece you’ve alluded to.

  6. The thing I like best about your blog BL (and Litlove’s does the same for different reasons) is that I never leave without feeling challeneged in some way.

    Either your personal spirit shines through and makes me feel slightly ashamed for not having such fortitude, or your thoughts make me feel slightly ashamed for not giving my blogging/writing more thought!

    All in all you make me think on a level that is slightly deeper than the everyday and that is so brilliant and necessary.

    Thanks for challenging me once again (though this time you have hit both chords at once) and I am really glad you are doing okay!
    Eoin

  7. Greetings! I really enjoyed your post, and your insight on Prose’s book. Looks like I’ll need to pick that one up soon, and give it a read.

    Sending healing thoughts your way,
    JLB

  8. Eoin, baby, (as we say around here), you’re not supposed to be feeling slightly ashamed, you’re supposed to be feeling like you’ve just had a nice glass of beer, or a piece of chocolate cake, or a lovely cup of tea. But I know what you mean — when I read people I like, I always want to take a little bit of what they’ve done and reproduce it somehow in my own stuff. That’s Prose’s point — there’s nothing wrong with reading with an eye to what you can … well .. steal. If anything I’ve said is helpful to you, I am absolutely delighted and terribly flattered. I’ve stolen so many fine ideas and links from you, it would be nice to be able to return the favor. In fact, I’ve taken to signing off like you. Lifting her cup of tea and wishing you good blogging, Lily

    Hey Ms. Jade: Thank you ! I’m glad you stopped by. Best, Lily

  9. Glad you are doing well! This is a very useful post on Prose’s book! I’m grateful that you’ve distilled so much of her wisdom. I am learning more and more how different “reading like a writer” is from the usual reading I do. Even though I sometimes teach literature (now and then), I still don’t always pay close enough attention to isses of form and structure than I’d like.

  10. I’m so glad you’re over the surgery and are (hopefully) feeling OK. I had been wondering how you were doing.

    I hadn’t heard of Prose before either. I am going to check her out. Thanks for this recommendation, I think I actually read like a nutcase, I’d like to know how I can read to improve my writing.

  11. I am happy to hear that you’re convalescing (did I spell that right?). I think the Prose book (what a great name for a writer, btw) sounds quite interesting. I was not a big fan of her novel Blue Angel, but you have certainly made me want to read this, as I always enjoy hearing what writers say about writing.

  12. You’re convalescing in such a productive way! I think I would have probably just slumped on the couch with the Narnia books– or the first couple seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    I’m quite sure I should read Prose’s book, although I’m not as sure that I will. I’m not a terribly disciplined reader– there are books that contain information I should have, information I need– but they don’t feel like the kind of books I want to read. I’d rather their instruction were in the form of a little chip that I could shove into my brain. But since that technology doesn’t yet exist–or does it?–I’ll try to read this book. I’ll put it on a list! The only time I read as a writer is when the writer I’m reading makes mistakes– then I find myself chiding him or her all the way through. When someone does it right, I’m too blissfully or agonizingly engaged to notice the ways in which they do it right. But I’m sure I should– notice, that is.

  13. The only good thing about surgery: a perfect excuse to do nothing but read and drink tea! Hope you contintue to mend well. Remember to listen to your body (great advice I, personally, never take, but I expect everyone else to).

    I haven’t taken a formal writing class since high school, and I’m not always the most-disciplined self-educated writer. One of the best pieces of advice a friend of mine gave me last year was not just to read great writing but also to find something I loved, a piece I wished I’d written, and just copy it over word-for-word a couple of times. I’ve found that blogging has been terrific for my writing. The discipline for me is great. If I go 3 or 4 days without posting, I feel I’m letting down those who enjoy visiting my blog, so it keeps me writing.

    Finally, I haven’t read Prose, but will now add her to my TBR list. Another wonderful little book on writing is IF YOU WANT TO WRITE by Brenda Ueland. And one of my best stories about discovering a book is attached to this one. I should write about that one day.

  14. Hello again,

    I was reading your post about avatars (I wish there were a way to just turn them off!), and I remembered that I have a few images from June of my neighbors’ lillies. I created a small avatar from one of the better pictures, and uploaded it into my profile. If you like it, it’s yours. Just send me an email, and I’ll send it to you. I’m currently looking for a tree image for my own avatar, so once I find one I like I’ll be letting go of the lilies, and it’ll be yours exclusively. 🙂 I have two others (orange and magenta), but I like this one best.

    Cheers,
    Jade

  15. This is a wonderful post, and one that really has helped me sort out some of the issues I’ve been struggling with this week. I taught one of Prose’s essays when I was a TA, the one entitled Going Native – it’s really interesting to listen to student reactions from it.

    My favorite writing book is The Writer’s Life by Annie Dillard. I also like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamotte. I’ve lately taken a break from learning to write books, since I do think there’s a fine line between instruction and growing overwhelmed, but this seems like one I should turn to when I’m ready!

    So glad you are recovering. Take care of yourself. Allow yourself to be tired (although I do realize the last itme I told you that you had an infection, so what do I know?) – but listen to your body. It knows what it’s saying.
    Take much, much care.
    Courtney

  16. I also love Dillard’s The Writer’s Life, and Carolyn See’s Living a Literary Life is wonderful.

    Bloglily, I’m thinking I need to read this Prose book before starting my preMFA class. And thanks for the plug!

    Hope you are having another good reading day today.

  17. Here I am, tagged at the end. If you are on Tylenol with Codeine, my goodness — your sharp mind doesn’t seem dulled a whit.

    I have to rethink the Prose book in light of your comments. I read a harsh review of it recently, and was taken to task over writers who lament over whether or not writing can be taught and how their book might (or might not) assist in the endeavor. The nugget I took away is exactly what you hit upon: Reading as a way to learn to write.

    Enough said…wrap up in a snuggly shawl, as autumn is closing in here in the Bay Area, sip tea and maybe put on some Chopin.

  18. I hope that you’re feeling better! There’s something wonderful about reading about reading and writing. Comforting, almost. And tea does go well with it 🙂

    I love the way that reading with the thought of writing just opens up new dimensions in the books I thought I knew. On the other hand, it’s a bit daunting, as it makes me aware of just how much went into the writing of them!

  19. A great post. I liked and agreed with how you laid out the differences between MFA and no MFA–I have some students now who are going through the agonizing process of applying for the 2nd time, and I think I’ll pass your post on, as a way of getting perspective.
    And thanks for the book recommendation.

  20. Dear Lucette, and AC, LitKit, Susan and Courtney, Jade, Emily and Kristin, BikeProf and Dorothy and Helen (and you lovely people who read and don’t comment: I know who you are!), Thank you for these many incredibly intelligent and kind comments. You’re inspiring and lovely — I’ve been a bit woozy from all the codeine, but now that I don’t have to do that anymore I feel a little more awake! Best to all of you, Lily

  21. Pingback: In my shopping basket… « Smithereens

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