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.