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A Writer’s Challenge: Reading Like a Writer by Gretchen Haertsch

February 23, 2012

In 2006, Francine Prose wrote a nonfiction work that was destined to become a New York Times bestseller:  Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.  I bought the book a few years ago but, as too often happens, never found time to read it.  Lately, though, I’ve become reacquainted with many of the volumes in my personal library.  That’s because my husband and I are in the process of moving a downstairs office to the upstairs.  That means reexamining every bookshelf in the house, as well as just about every book, in an attempt to bring some order to the chaos. What a way to get reacquainted with some old friends and remind myself of some potential gems relegated to the shelf for too long.  And that’s exactly what I’ve found in Prose’s volume – a gem and a new friend.

As a teacher and writer myself, what could be a better goal than “reading like a writer” and learning enough from the process to influence my own writing in a positive way.  It’s the very advice I give my students and something I try to do myself but not necessarily as well as I might.  So I’ve decided to take Prose’s challenge and share the journey with you.  Since this blog is concerned with writing the novel and also reading good books, Reading Like a Writer would seem the perfect companion.   I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Prose (and what a name for a writer!) provides eleven enticing chapters with mostly one-word titles:  Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, etc.  Titles, perhaps, that only a writer could love. I’m reminded here of another New York Times bestseller, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, and its chapter on “The Dash” which I couldn’t wait to devour.  English majors have nothing on computer geeks for dorkiness.

Starting out directly with the question “can writing be taught?” Prose provides a satisfying answer:  workshop classes help by providing an audience that, coupled with a good teacher, can lead us to improvement and build community.  I breathed a sigh of relief since all writing teachers wonder about this.  But then Prose says something that I also agree with: 

“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?”

Who indeed?  And thus the premise for Prose’s book.  The old-fashioned assignment of copying a master’s words has a funny way of working to improve our own.   Prose believes that a very close reading of a great work can be the most instructive way to improve our writing.  That’s why she suggests that a close-reading course be “a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop.”  Getting into the habit of reading the right books with a sort of fierce attentiveness can help us over the rough patches in our own writing projects.  Of course, choosing proper models is important and Prose doesn’t let us down there either.  Who can resist her appendix-like chapter entitled “Books To Be Read Immediately”?  I’m ready to meet my masters.  How about you?Image

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 10:16 AM

    This sounds like a great book – can’t wait to read it. Reading the greats is definitely as important, if not more important, than having a formal academic background in writing. Let us know how this exercise affects your writing!

  2. February 29, 2012 4:39 PM

    Loved this book! I even wrote Ms. Prose a fan note, and included it on my “gifts for writers” list. One of the biggest challenges for writers is learning to read in such a way that we learn from what we read, and Prose gives great ideas and insight. I also loved Jane Smiley’s “One Hundred Ways to Read a Novel” for similar reasons, though reading it is a longer project!

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