Friday, December 15, 2006

Reading Like a Writer

I suspected that I was going to like Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer based on the title alone. I’m a firm believer in reading as a means to improve writing, and I’ve said here before that my primary motivation for beginning this blog was to compel myself to read more rigorously, to take the time necessary to puzzle over what does and doesn’t work in the books that I read.

I’m only a chapter into Prose’s book and it’s already amply living up to my expectations. Here’s a passage that I identify with completely on what it means to her to read like a writer :

         In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. As I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.
         I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made.

I also read with interest what Prose had to say about fearing the influence of other writers:

I’ve ... heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it had meant that I couldn’t read during the years it might take to complete a novel.

I do worry about the influences that I expose myself to while I’m at the initial drafting stage of a piece of fiction. I don’t avoid reading fiction altogether. Like Prose, I’m not sure I could continue to write if it required that sacrifice. But I generally take care not to read anything that’s too closely linked in any respect to the piece I’m working on.

Against the backdrop of that sort of anxiety of influence, it was instructive to read Prose on how particular works of fiction have helped her surmount obstacles in her own work:

         Occasionally, while I was teaching a reading course and simultaneously working on a novel, and when I had reached an impasse in my own work, I began to notice that whatever story I taught that week somehow helped me get past the obstacle that had been in my way. Once, for example, I was struggling with a party scene and happened to be teaching James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which taught me something about how to orchestrate the voices of the party guests into a chorus from which the principal players step forward, in turn, to take their solos.
         On another occasion, I was writing a story that I knew was going to end in horrific violence, and I was having trouble getting it to sound natural and inevitable rather than forced and melodramatic. Fortunately, I was teaching the stories of Isaac Babel, whose work so often explores the nature, the causes, and the aftermath of violence. What I noticed, close-reading along with my students, was that frequently in Babel’s fiction, a moment of violence is directly preceded by a passage of intense lyricism. It’s characteristic of Babel to offer the reader a lovely glimpse of the crescent moon just before all hell breaks loose. I tried it—first the poetry, then the horror—and suddenly everything came together, the pacing seemed right, and the incident I had been struggling with appeared, at least to me, to be plausible and convincing.

The above passage got me thinking about the stories and novels that have had a direct impact on my work. There are numerous writers that I can cite whose work regularly inspires me, but also a handful of specific works that, on reflection, I can point to as concrete influences on specific stories of mine. Here are three of them:

Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog”;
Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”; and,
Ali Smith’s “The Book Club.”

The interesting thing about this list is that I’m not sure that anyone else could read these stories and then read my stories and connect the dots. It’s subtle. Sometimes it’s the tone, sometimes it’s the structure, sometimes something in the content of a story sparks something unexpected for me in the manner of free association. But I can look back and remember what I learned from each of those stories that I was able to incorporate into stories of my own. This leads me to think that I ought to worry less about influence and to strive to be as receptive as possible to good writing wherever and whenever I find it.

All of this food for thought in just the first chapter of Prose’s Reading Like a Writer... I’m looking forward to the rest.


Claire Cameron said...

There is a great podcast with her on Bat Segundo.

teabird17 said...

I've been eyeing that book in Borders - now I'm sure I want it! Thanks for the review - I really enjoy reading your blog.


LK said...

As always, admirably put, Kate. You make me want to run out and buy that book!

Pauline said...

Well, I ran and I bought it... I look forward to reading it during the holidays!

Stefanie said...

I'm going to have to get this book! Sounds wonderfull even if I never write a novel or a story.

verbivore said...

I completely agree with you on reading as a means to improve writing...I've even noticed that if, for some reason or another, I slow down in my fiction reading, I often get stuck or fall behind in my own fiction writing. There's nothing like admiration or careful criticism of something I've read to get me back to the page to re-work a scene that I've been struggling with
And now I'm definitely going to run out and get my hands on this book. Thanks for the insightful review and I enjoy reading your blog!

Kirsten said...

Glad to hear you are liking this so far. I have a copy sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me.

bloglily said...

I read this earlier in the year and found it consistently engaging and smart. I think she's very right about how one of the best things you can do as a writer is read widely and with an eye for how another writer approaches the elements of fiction. I'm so glad you're enjoying it.

Bybee said...

oh this sounds great. It's going onto my wish list!

David Hodges said...

That was brilliant. Your concrete examples of how to learn from the best were closely observed and very convincingly told. You do understand you've just obligated yourself to finish the book you've started and which I will title for you: "Writing Like a Reader."

I think you're safe not to worry about showing your influences. Those examples you cite would never be spotted, even if they're obvious to you. (You're much more likely to be told you're the spitting image of your father than the mother you know you favor.)