Read­ing to write: A guide through the prac­tices of the great au­thors

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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