I’ve been thinking about writing again, a good thing I suppose, if I mean by thinking, I plan to start writing again. I do mean this, even if writing, at least for today or this week, means writing blog entries. (I take the writing I do for these entries as seriously as any other writing I do.)
Yesterday, though, I was thinking about writing only abstractly (as a writer thinking about writing, but not doing any actual writing), after I had dipped into Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. That morning I had finished reading The Great Gatsby for the third or fourth time in my life — a part of my 100 novels reading project — and Prose had written briefly about Gatsby in her chapter “Words,” so I wanted to see what she had said specifically about Fitzgerald’s word choice and language, because with this recent reading I had been even more attentive to Fitzgerald’s language than I had on previous readings. Prose adores Fitzgerald’s language: “Every word helps render a particular moment in, or out of, time, and to capture the convergence of beauty, youth, confidence, money, and privilege.”
She cites a long passage, the first meeting between Nick Carraway, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. It’s a sensual passage, one of many sensual passages in the novel, and Prose applauds Fitzgerald’s vivid words — gleaming, rippling, ballooned, whip, snap, etc. — and how such vividness gives sense to the passage, how every word, as any writer knows, counts. The premise of Reading Like a Writer, the germ of the book, is the question Prose sets out to answer in the beginning “Can creative writing be taught?”. A novelist and teacher, Prose understands the difficulty of answering that question.
As a professional writer who’s also taught, I’ve learned how difficult teaching writing is, even at the level of freshman composition. Barring the difficulties of grammar, punctuation and spelling that many undergrads bring with them to class, one of the hardest tasks was getting my students to actually associate writing with reading, of figuring out from their assigned reading how other writers wrote, of getting past the idea writing is sui generis, all inspiration, the expression of Self on paper (or computer screen).
Prose answers her question, or at the very least gives a partial answer, of whether creative writing can be taught: Learning to write begins with reading, with learning and picking up the subtleties of language, of structure, of words, of sentences, of paragraphs as other writers use them.
Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?
Last month, when I read Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which explores the effects of grief, I was absorbed by her narrative. Not only did I recognize her experience of grief as similar to my own, I realized what made the memoir so absorbing was Didion’s language. In my reading, I kept picking up, for instance, her powerful use of parallelism; she’s mastered parallel construction to the point of making the device a metaphor of the recognition of patterns and shapes and structures of life (I don’t have the book with me to cite, it was a library checkout). Not only does she use parallelism frequently and effectively in sentences and paragraphs, but also repeats images and phrases, and creates patterns that are incantatory, meditative, that produce meaning, even belief in the same way repetition creates meaning and belief when the faithful recite liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer.
Her use of parallel construction is the kind of thing you try to get students to see when teaching writing and reading. It’s the kind of thing writers learn to see, learn to absorb as they read. It’s the kind of thing I’m thinking about when I’m thinking about writing. And it’s the kind of thing I need to stop thinking about and do, as I begin to return to writing more. My break has been too long.