Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reading Like A Writer

Currently Reading: Chalice by Robin McKinley
Currently Writing: Part Three, Three

(I am done with finals and have returned home, so here I am again, alive and well.)

I always enjoy sitting down with a good book on craft. I have a few favorites on my shelf that I have mentioned before and am constantly looking for the next great addition. Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose is not a craft book. It is an odd book. I think it stands out on its own in terms of books for writers. It is a book that can readily be enjoyed by someone who loves to read (and reads a lot, reads widely). But it is definitely the writer who gets the most out of it.

The best part of this book is how many little nuggets of truth - truth that had maybe crossed your mind before but you were never sure - are sprinkled throughout. For instance, I am almost positive that everyone who began to write did so because they were inspired by a book. Or books. I know the book(s) that inspired me. Maybe you can think back about which one(s) inspired you? Prose says, "...I discovered how reading a book can make you want to write one. A work of art can start you thinking about some aesthetic or philosophical problem; it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction." Do you not find this true?

Or how about, "To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. The only remedy I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own - a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art."

Or maybe, "After...I've quoted at length from great writers, so that I've had to copy out long passages of their work, I've noticed that my own work becomes, however briefly, just a little more fluent." Surely, some of you out there have your favorite books sitting at your side when you write because when you read them, your style takes on just a small bit of their shine.

The book is divided up into chapters from the smallest building blocks of writing to the biggest, like how to read: (1) words, (2) sentences, (3) paragraphs, (4) narration, (5) character, (6) dialogue, etc. And it quotes many, many classical works, from Tolstoy to Flannery O'Connor (probably my favorite short story writer). It is illuminating. There will be a passage from some famous work, and I'll read it, but then Francine Prose gives this two page dissection of what has been written, and I'm like, never in a million years would I have been able to come up with that on my own. Basically - I can't read. I'm illiterate. In the writing sense, anyway. It makes me want to pick up old books and reread them for new significance, things I missed before. That in itself, makes this book completely worth your time. 

I am pleasantly surprised. Honestly, I never thought I would enjoy it this much. Reading Like A Writer is like a bar of dark chocolate. It's so delicious and melting that you just want to take your time going through it, chapter by chapter, word by word, so you can absorb every nuance. Because Francine Prose's words ain't half-bad either. Her own writing, even in a "craft" book, reads so smoothly and is just as worth digesting as all of the story excerpts.

The most important thing, I think, is that we are all so pushed to get critiques, get criticism, get all of the bad stuff underlined and cut that sometimes we forget the other part of being a good writer. Here, as she says so succinctly, "...the workshop most often focuses on what a writer has done wrong...whereas reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly." 

The other thing I wanted to say is about why I added The Great Gatsby to my reading list over winter break. Confession time: In high school, even though I got an A in AP Lit and a 5 on the exam (full score; got 4 college credits for it too), I read less than 30% of what was assigned. The essay I had to write on the AP test was about A Streetcar Named Desire. I never even cracked open the book. To be sure, AP Lit taught me a wealth of things, namely, how to write glowing essays - how to be vague enough to hide that I hadn't read the text and specific enough to get me an emphatic A. If it lessens your disrespect for my slacking, I'll add that after the class was over, I went back and read ALMOST everything. The short stories, I read all of (Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad sucked just as much the second time around). Discovered Flannery O'Connor, in fact. But one of the books I never read was The Great Gatsby.

Now, I am not a huge reader of classics. When I do read them, I find them dry and too narrative, mostly. I can count the number of classics I like on one hand (Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary...). While I was reading Francine Prose's book, she mentions something about how classics are classics for a reason, because they endure, and they are always worth reading. Then, she quoted a passage from The Great Gatsby, and gee, if I wasn't blown away. It was so beautiful. I decided, at that point, I could not avoid that classic any longer. So yeah, I'm going to read it, even though I know the plot well enough via Sparknotes to whip out an essay right now. Maybe this time around, I'll get something better out of it, though.


  1. I LOVE that you got a 5 on your AP test using Sparknotes. That is awesome. You're a natural writer for sure.

    As a former English Lit major I spent a fair amount of time with Sparknotes (Seriously, they're genius. Still can't believe they're free!), but The Great Gatsby was one of the books I read over and over again. It's just so romantic in a really odd, co-dependent, way. Definitely one of my faves. Enjoy!

  2. If it helps some of my favorite classes are:
    Wuthering Heights, The Age of Innocence, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Peter Pan (which I guess isn't truly a classic, but is a sweet book).
    I have to read Great Gatsby this year (I'm in high school!) so I'm glad to know you'll be reading it too :)

  3. Haha, thanks LiLa. I don't know if the 5 is a sign that I am a natural writer or that I am a natural bullshitter.

    Thanks, Annabeth16Chase! I've read Pride and Prejudice (of course, the quintessential classic) and I started Sense and Sensibility. I enjoyed P&P, but not one of my favs. I thought S&S was boring from the get go, but I've heard good things about Emma and The Age of Innocence. I'll probably give those a try. Plus, I don't think I can avoid Wuthering Heights forever. ;-)

  4. :) Awesome!
    I've noticed something about classic literature. Nowdays, we think about the "hook" of a story....not so back then. It usually takes a while for the story to get going. But once it does, it's usually good! :)

  5. Icy, first of all it's great to be back and reading your blog again. This book definitely sounds worth looking into, so I might try to find a copy myself. And I know just what you mean about not reading for class, I still have a problem doing it. There's just something about making a book required that turns everyone against it...

    Secondly, I've given you an award, because you're kewl like that. :)

  6. Re: AP Test, hah! After my own heart. I'm a slow reader, so reading everything during school was kind of near impossible for me. Good thing I take excellent notes/listen during class discussion on books I have not really read. ;) And unlike you, I never went back and read the things I didn't, though I did mean to go back and finish Frankenstein since I liked what I'd read. I just never did. BSing can be a legitimate skill.

    (Also, I agree about Heart of Darkness, though I have no idea how you managed to get through it twice. Once was enough for me.)