Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose

“Can creative writing be taught?” That's the question Francine Prose starts with in her recent book, Reading Like a Writer.

The question, which is so often a taunt--a menace to the hundreds (thousands?) of creative writing programs across the nation--often looms in my mind. I suspect the answer is no. Talent can at best be refined and nurtured, but the true creative numen, that which startles, is revered or reviled, is ineffable, such a force unto itself that it can’t be explained or constructed by a classroom curriculum or any sort of regimen.

Still, some of us, the stubborn or the dumb, persist, hoping that we can teach ourselves something.

Prose’s recommendation is that we read more carefully, diagramming stories as we take pleasure in reading them, for only those who notice the techniques of the masters can possibly carry them off.

Reading Like a Writer is a solid book, if not particularly enlightening. I read it to attune my awareness more keenly to the finer narrative details, to shake myself up a bit, and the book delivered on that level. One would think that I’d pause more with age, carefully consider each book I read, but I find that as my hours for free reading get squeezed by what can only be called adulthood, I read with greater haste and sloppiness, deceiving myself that I can keep up the volume of reading I used to take for granted.

So now I remind myself to slow down, pay attention to the details. Here are a couple snippets I enjoyed from Prose’s book, and will try to teach myself:

On paragraphs
"The breaking up into paragraphs and the punctuation have to be done properly but only for the effect on the reader. A set of dead rules is no good. A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect." --Isaac Babel

Prose comments that paragraphs can be understood "as a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended--in some cases, very extended--breath. Inhale at the beginning of the paragraph, exhale at the end. Inhale again at the start of the next."

On dialogue:
"When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are not saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we are saying. As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once."

Like good actors, who don't just act their part, but react to the actors and scene around them, Prose says, "a good writer understands that characters not only speak differently depending on whom they are speaking to, but also listen differently depending on who is speaking."

For more, read the New York Times fine review of the book.