As I’m away studying Shakespeare, over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reprising posts from my old blog…
I like to tell my students that reading and writing have a secret marriage, but that sounds sexier and simpler than the truth. Writers who concentrate on reading like an author can certainly shape their own writing. Others might too, if they have a knack for unconsciously absorbing the rhythms and deep order of another writer’s prose.
But no writer can make much progress without steady and deliberate practice.
In the first chapter of Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose describes the way she connects reading and writing:
It’s like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps. I often think of learning to write by reading as something like the way I first learned to read. I had a few picture books I’d memorized and pretended I could read, as a sort of party trick that I did repeatedly for my parents, who were also pretending, in their case, to be amused. I never knew exactly when I crossed the line from pretending to actually being able, but that was how it happened.
What is central to “how it happened”? Is it desire—saying “I’d like to write”—or make-believe—saying, “I’d like to be known as a writer”? The two impulses strike me as different. Desire rests on a sort of profound identification, as if the writing gene were already inside you waiting to be awakened, whereas pretense is craving an outcome, as if you’d made “published writer” one of three wishes.
Perhaps I’ve been unfair to her thinking. If someone does become a writer, Francine Prose knows, the two motives are ultimately indivisible. Neither, by itself, might be enough. Yet, though the moment she bridged pretense and desire may be impossible to isolate, it’s nonetheless critical…maybe the most critical part of the process.
And, with the writers I work with, that moment often arises during practice—during those hours and hours of making the one million choices every paragraph elicits. You can watch Fred Astaire movies until the end of your days and write a great essay about his distinctive moves. Unless you secretly try out those steps in your room, you will not dance as well…and certainly not better.
A few of the students I teach approach writing algebraically. They don’t read much, and limited exposure to the myriad and magical varieties of prose leads them to believe they need only learn a few equations to write well. You put “x” here and “y” there, and you have an effective “z.” Sometimes maybe, but that path is so narrow, and it seldom leads to new territory or resourceful expression.
I might advise those writers to read, to study the way other writers operate. However, to be honest, they rarely succeed. I have to give that counsel—I don’t know what else will help algebraic writers—but even when the student takes my advice to heart, the outcome is unreliable. As much as they might want to be better writers, they make the leap only when they learn to work and rework their own prose. A few of my most talented students can mimic unconsciously, but the algebraic writers—who have just as much ambition—must make a painstaking, self-conscious, and deliberate attempt at imitation. Their road is so much more challenging. For some, it’s too much.
Whereas, every year, I teach a student like Penelope (don’t worry, not her real name) who comes to me with considerable reading experience and poor skills…but does make progress. Penelope was always willing to work through drafts, to reconstruct any sentence multiple times, and if I said, “That paragraph is twice as long as necessary and that one is half as long as necessary,” she returned having attempted to change both. The paper she was working on may not have improved that much, but she always learned. Other students fixed their essays. She learned how to fix them.
By the time she graduates, Penelope will have two or three times more practice writing than her classmates. She will also make more progress, and along the way she will pass some gifted writers who don’t spend that sort of time composing.
Maybe Penelope’s effort turns my head —it’s hard not to root for her. Maybe the real secret IS the reading, the unconscious absorption of rhythm and deep order seeping back to the surface at last. Maybe she possesses a level of belief the algebraic writers can’t muster—convincing herself “I am a writer.” I don’t know. However, I can’t believe any of those maybes would matter without her hours of work.
Practice is the fundamental value of most education. No, you won’t need to do geometric proofs as an adult; however, you may be grateful later for a brain habituated to doing such complicated and painstaking work. Though Francine Prose says you can’t be a writer without being a reader, much of her book addresses how to practice what you discover.
One of the most depressing aspects of being an aspiring writer is being able to see what great authors are doing without being able to do it yourself. What turns a wannabe writer into the real thing? Whether you start out wanting to be a writer or wanting to be known as one, ultimately words may be no different from the other instruments artists wield. You have to learn how to use them. Studying others (and with others) can help, but only if you practice, practice, practice—practice even to the point of finding your own way, a way others might imitate. You may not know when, but at some point you will stop pretending and really be a writer.
As Francine Prose asserts, writers must read…but they also must practice steps over and over.