Wednesday, August 10, 2011

More, Reading Like a Writer

Francine Prose says she, like most writers, maybe all, learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.  This should be very encouraging for all of us who want to become better writers - we must read  books - especially literature,  and write, write, write. 

Referring again  to Prose’s  book, Reading Like a Writer A Guide For People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want to Write Them (Monday’s blog,  The Right Word),  she writes,  “In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and re-read the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style , of diction, and of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring  a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And 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”: cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.”

Now, there’s the challenge,  isn’t it?   To put  every word on trial for its life. Then,  like a high court   judge making a ruling , the writer  alone must  decide which phrase  or punctuation mark is sent to the scrap pile, and which one gets a reprieve.     And while pondering the judgment to be made , should it go,  or should it stay — must ask the questions Prose  presents, “ Is this the best word I can find ? Is my  meaning clear? Can a word or phrase be cut  from this without sacrificing  anything essential ?  - perhaps the most important question is : Is this grammatical?” 

While Prose  recommends  writers have  a grammar manual, and  favors  Strunk and White’s  The Elements  of Style , she also points out, “ One essential and telling difference  between learning from a style manual and learning from literature is that  any how -to- book will, almost by definition, tell you how not to write.  In that way, manuals of style are a little like writing workshops, and have the same disadvantage—a pedagogy that involves warnings about what might be broken and directions on how to fix it—as opposed to learning from literature, which teaches by positive model.”

The example Prose directs us to is Virginia Woolf :  “We can thank our lucky stars that no one told Virginia Woolf that a sentence as long as the one with which she begins “On Being Ill” might turn out to be hopelessly clumsy or unclear. The marvel , of course, is not how long the sentence is-  181 words!- but how perfectly comprehensible, graceful, witty, intelligent,   and pleasurable we find it to  read.  It’s not the sentence’s gigantism but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down its component parts. “

I read  (and re-read) Woolf’s sentence for the first  time  today,   and can understand why  Prose  describes the reading of it as she does:  “Pausing  to breathe at each comma, we find ourselves amid a series of  dependent clauses that break over us like waves, clauses that increase in length, complexity, and intensity as the aspects of illness that we are invited to consider grow more elaborate and imaginative, whisking us from undiscovered countries to deserts to flowered lawns and down into the abyss from which we are lifted by the voice of the dentist whom we mistake for God welcoming us into heaven. Until at last it all comes together in a single word, this: when we think of this.”

For those of you who have never read Woolf’s introductory sentence to her twenty - five page essay "On Being Ill" —what Prose calls ‘one of the most complex and virtuosic sentences in all of literature’, I  include it now for you to  read, and  consider the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another, and how it captivates and holds our attention, drawing us further into the topic she writes of.

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient  and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above  our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-in-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth– rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping  from  the floor of  Heaven to welcome us– when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced  to think of it , it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

** Note: For more information about Virginia Woolf, and her writing visit


elizabethbrinton said...

Virginia Woolf had a profound effect on my life- both as a woman and as a writer. In college, I participated in a graduate level seminar and spent a happy winter reading all of her books. Later in life, I read her diaries; they became among my favorites. Why daily life fascinates me so much, I cannot say, except that I identified so much with her struggles. She never let her husband, Leonard, read her books until they were done. This is advice I continue to follow. Thank you for reminding me of one of my greatest heroines.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Virginia Woolf, and her influence on you. I never read any of Woolf's books in my younger days, but making up for it now with To the Lighthouse and Flush. Also Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell, and I look forward to reading her diaries