Reading to write: A guide through the practices of the great authors
Reading books about writing just might be the best way to avoid writing. (And so many aspiring writers, we hear, will do anything to avoid the daunting act of writing.)
The last few decades have seen a proliferation of instructional aids that aim to teach what some consider unteachable — how to create a literary work of art. Offering lessons on the craft of writing, these books suggest methods for generating ideas, ways to make your characters more compelling and tips on makingyourdialoguemorelife-like.
But are they anything other than a waste of time that allows the reader to feel less guilty for merely thinking about writing rather than actually writing?
After all, none of the greats read books with titles like “The Weekend Novelist”or“CareersforYourCharacters.” Texts like that weren’t around when Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were writing their masterpieces. So howdidtheydoit?Throughtrialand error, for one. Austen’s juvenilia, for example,chartsthedevelopmentof a writer who told stories from the time she was a child.
It’s hard to envision one of these geniuses in a present-day creative writing program. Just imagine, Francine Prose writes, “Kafka en- during the seminar in which his classmatesinformhimthat,frankly, theyjustdon’tbelievethepartabout the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.”
Miss Prose makes this wry point in her latest book, “Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who LoveBooksandforThoseWhoWant to Write Them.” She said much the same thing in her 2000 novel “Blue Angel,”whichwas,amongotherdelightful things, a wicked skewering of writing workshops. So it might come as a surprise to learn that this author of 14 books of fiction and provocative studies like “The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired” has been teaching literature and writing for over 20 years and is now the author of an instructional book.
“Reading like a Writer” is different from the rest of the pack, however. It recognizes that other thing talented authors did to learn their craft in the days before creative writing became a cottage industry: read.
“They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and SamuelJohnson,”MissProsewrites. We didn’t need her to tell us this, of course. But her wise book serves as aninspirationalreminderwhileproviding some helpful tools for becoming not just readers but close readers.
Using examples from a wide variety of classic and contemporary authors, Miss Prose shows how careful reading of good writing can illuminate the problems every writer faces. Chapters move from “Words,” “Sentences” and “Paragraphs” through “Narration” and “Character.”
In an analysis of the first paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, Miss Prose shows how a single word can be loaded with meaning: “And that one word, (as opposed to or or
reveals the grandmother’s sense of her own faded gentility, of having come down in the world, a semi-deluded self-image that, like
connections relatives family
the illusions of many other O’Connor characters, will contribute to the character’s downfall.”
(You might notice here that Miss Prose sometimes gives away plot pointsoftheworksunderdiscussion. It’s never egregious, however.)
Even those of us who read as much as we can sometimes forget to slow down and savor every word. Miss Prose explains how much more we can get out of our reading if we do. “Reading like a Writer” will most appeal to writers; but voracious readers will find their habits changing after reading it, too.
Where Miss Prose is most insightful is in the later chapters, on subjects like “Dialogue,” “Details” and “Gesture.” Here her years of reading and writing result in some astute lessons. “[M]ost conversations involve a sort of sophisticated multitasking,” she writes. “One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.”
Even more important can be dialogue that’s not really heard. “In life, it’s rare that we truly are able to listenandfindsomeonewhowilllisten to us,” she notes. “And yet it’s unusualtofindthemorecommonphenomenon — inattention — appearing on the page.”
Anywriterwhowantshisworkto stand out will find much to glean from these pages.
Of course, for every maxim, there’s an eminent writer who has broken it. In the penultimate chapter, “Learning from Chekhov,” Miss Prose relates a year of teaching in which she was reading the short stories of the Russian master in her sparetime.Everytimeshegaveher students some advice — don’t shift point of view multiple times in a shortstory,don’tendyourstorywith an unexpected, seemingly unmotivated action — it seemed she immediately read a story in which Chekhov taught her the opposite.
The coincidences seem a little unlikely, but the point remains: There’s something inexplicable, finally, about the mysterious process of creating art. “By now I had learned my lesson,” she relates. “I began telling my class to read Chekhov instead of listening to me.”
Miss Prose has plenty of wisdom toimpart.Butshe’sright:Noonecan teach you how to write better than those who have done it best. She offers a “Books to Be Read Immediately” list at the end, many of which she’s discussed in her text.
Kelly Jane Torrance is an arts and entertainment writer at The Washington Times and fiction editor of Doublethink magazine.