Reading for the writer tells us “how to” write, whereas an editor or a workshop tells us “how not to” write. Reading beyond what we “like to read” is important because good writing transcends genres. Writers have to read differently – with a teachable heart looking for things we can apply to our own writing.
“Writers learn their craft, above all, from the work of other writers. From
Reading Like a Writer
reading. They learn it from immersing themselves in books.” Maria Arana instructs writers in The Writer’s Life. (Arana) Francine Prose in her book, Reading like a Writer suggests, “A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you. But that class, as helpful as it was, was not where I learned to write. Like most- maybe all- writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.” (Prose) Reading widely and inclusively exposes the writer to good diction and sentences that transcend genres. A well-written passage can be isolated in all styles of writing; the well-read writer will have many teachers.
Writing is done one word at a time, one sentence at a time, line upon line, building point of view and a story. Reading as a writer requires an analytical eye being conscious of word choice, sentence formation, the voice and the message of the author. Paragraphs are still a mystery and to write a good one is better caught than taught. The catching requires reading many good writers. Paragraphs are personal and as varied as the “voice” of the writer.
We learned to read word by word and somewhere along the way we are taught to read faster by scanning phrases. Reading passages, word by word, causes the writer to soak and steep in the rich beautiful descriptions and elegant prose of writers like Pat Conroy. In The Prince of Tides, Conroy employs economy of words: “The only word for goodness is goodness, and it is not enough.” (Conroy, The Prince of Tides) We can learn by reading writers as they put each word they write “on trial for its life.” (Prose)
In Hemingway’s Paris memoirs, The Moveable Feast, we discover that he was influenced by many writers. He spent time reading other authors and commented on them in his memoir. Whether intentional or not, Ernest Hemingway left a wealth of advice to writers. He tells us to stop writing when we know what comes next. He shows us how he does not think about the story when he is not working. The most profound and most profoundly unexplained precept we learn from Hemingway is this: “Write the truest sentence you know.” (Hemingway 20)
We learn from him by reading his words – line upon line that writing is a joy. Hemingway’s knows how to write a good sentence. His simple unadorned sentences display his ability to observe the world and simmering it down to one central truth. Hemingway suggests that when we focus on the “one truth thing” that we are on our way to writing what is good. Cutting out the superfluous and unnecessary is the key to a successful sentence.
Hemingway was also quoted as saying, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” (Hemingway) Sentences describing what a character says can make them real. Two of my favorite characters in literature are Ruby in Cold Mountain and Idgy in Fried Green Tomatoes. It is their resilience that inspires and entertains the reader; it is the descriptive sentences that bring them to life. In my work, Ichabod, I wanted to bring to life another strong Southern woman I call Emma Leigh. She is like Ruby in Cold Mountain who speaks in simple phrases like, “Well, all ite then.” I began collecting sentences from my close friend raised on very old southern phrases to give Emma Leigh in Ichabod a persona expressed from her sentences. A sampling of those phrases are: “I slipped and became unpeeled!” and “I eit just a snidbit.” The sentences of dialogue show that Emma Leigh is Southern but not stupid. Good sentences will create real people for your readers, not characters.
Francine Prose’s discussion of paragraphs was obtuse. At some points she gives us guidance with guidelines and then yank them away. Prose gives us room to breath and grow as writers by suggesting that paragraphs are as individual as our writing voice. The non-claustrophobic style of Francine Prose frees the writers; She does not micro-manage our writing process.