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Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? Instead I answer by recalling my own most valuable experience, not as a teacher, but as a student in one of the few fiction workshops I have ever taken. This was in the s, during my brief career as a graduate student in medieval English literature, when I was allowed the indulgence of taking one fiction class.

Its generous teacher showed me, among other things, how to line-edit my work. Meanwhile, my classmates were providing me with my first real audience. In that prehistory, before mass photocopying enabled students to distribute manuscripts in advance, we read our work aloud. That year I was beginning what would become my first novel.

And what made an important difference to me was the attention I felt in the room as the others listened. I was very encouraged by their eagerness to hear more. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can encourage you and form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.

Like most—maybe all—writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from reading books. 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?

Though writers have learned from the masters in a formal, methodical way—Harry Crews has described taking apart a Graham Greene novel to see how many chapters it contained, how much time it covered, how Greene handled pacing, tone, and point of view—the truth is that this sort of education more often involves a kind of osmosis. 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. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time.

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. When I was a high school junior, our English teacher assigned a term paper on the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear.

We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision, then draw some conclusion on which we would base our final essay. The exercise seemed to us dull, mechanical.

We felt we were way beyond it. All of us knew that blindness played a starring role in both dramas. Still, we liked our English teacher, and we wanted to please him. Once we started looking for eyes, we found them everywhere, glinting at us, winking from every page.

Long before the blinding of Oedipus or Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations.

Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent—all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness. Tracing those patterns and making those connections was fun. Like cracking a code that the playwright had embedded in the text, a riddle that existed just for me to decipher.

I felt as if I were engaged in some intimate communication with the writer, as if the ghosts of Sophocles and Shakespeare had been waiting patiently all those centuries for a bookish sixteen-year-old to come along and find them. I believed that I was learning to read in a whole new way. But this was only partly true. Because in fact I was merely relearning to read in an old way that I had learned, but forgotten.

We all begin as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, in which we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting.

Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting, because that is how the books we are reading were written in the first place. The more we read, the faster we can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been combined into words that have meaning.

The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book. At first, the thrill of our own brand-new expertise is all we ask or expect from Dick and Jane. But soon we begin to ask what else those marks on the page can give us. We begin to want information, entertainment, invention, even truth and beauty. We concentrate, we skim, we skip words, put down the book and daydream, start over, and reread.

We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding. Especially if I could return to my own bed in time to turn off the lights, I liked trading my familiar world for the London of the four children whose nanny parachuted into their lives on her umbrella and who turned the most routine shopping trip into a magical outing. I would have gladly followed the white rabbit down into the rabbit hole and had tea with the Mad Hatter.

I loved novels in which children stepped through portals—a garden, a wardrobe—into an alternate universe. Perhaps my taste in reading had something to do with the limitations I was discovering, day by day: the brick walls of time and space, science and probability, to say nothing of whatever messages I was picking up from the culture.

Each word of these novels was a yellow brick in the road to Oz. Some chapters I read and reread so as to repeat the dependable, out-of-body sensation of being somewhere else. I read addictively, constantly. On one family vacation my father pleaded with me to close my book long enough to look at the Grand Canyon.

I borrowed stacks of books from the public library: novels, biographies, history, anything that looked even remotely engaging. Along with pre-adolescence came a more pressing desire for escape. I read more widely, more indiscriminately, and mostly with an interest in how far a book could take me from my life and how long it could keep me there. Gone With the Wind. Pearl Buck. Edna Ferber. Fat James Michener best-sellers with a dash of history sprinkled in to cool down the steamy love scenes between the Hawaiian girls and the missionaries, the geishas and the GIs.

I also appreciated these books for the often misleading nuggets of information they provided about sex in that innocent era, the s.

I turned the pages of these page-turners as fast as I could. Reading was like eating alone, with that same element of bingeing. I was fortunate to have good teachers, and friends who were also readers.

The books I read became more challenging, better written, more substantial. Steinbeck, Camus. I must have been vaguely aware of the power of language, but only dimly, and only as it applied to whatever effect the book was having on me. Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering a handwriting that you know was once yours, but that now seems only dimly familiar, can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.

Focusing on language proved to be a practical skill, useful the way sight-reading with ease can come in handy for a musician. My high school English teacher had only recently graduated from a college where his own English professors taught what was called New Criticism, a school of thought that favored reading what was on the page with only passing reference to the biography of the writer or the period in which the text was written.

Luckily for me, that approach to literature was still in fashion when I graduated and went on to college. At my university the faculty included a well-known professor and critic whose belief in close reading trickled down and influenced the entire humanities program. In French class we spent an hour each Friday afternoon working our way from The Song of Roland to Sartre, paragraph by paragraph, focusing on small sections for what was called the explication de texte.

By then I knew enough to regret having to read those books that way. And I promised myself that I would revisit them as soon as I could give them the time and attention they deserved.

Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I had trouble understanding what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.

I left graduate school and became a writer. I wrote my first novel in India, in Bombay, where I read as omnivorously as I had as a child, rereading classics that I borrowed from the old-fashioned, musty, beautiful university library that seemed to have acquired almost nothing written after Afraid of running out of books, I decided to slow myself down by reading Proust in French.

Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a masterpiece can make you want to write one. A work of art can start you thinking about some aesthetic or philosophical problem; it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction.

But the relationship between reading and writing is rarely so clear-cut, and in fact my first novel could hardly have been less Proustian. More often the connection has to do with whatever mysterious promptings make you want to write. I often think of learning to write by reading as something like the way I first began to read. I never knew exactly when I crossed the line from pretending to actually being able, but that was how it happened. Not long ago a friend told me that her students complained that reading masterpieces made them feel stupid.

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies.

The only remedy I have found is to read the work of a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

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Reading Like a Writer PDF Summary

Start growing! Boost your life and career with the best book summaries. Reading Like a Writer. Reading Like a Writer is yet another manual for reading, not unlike Mortimer J. Francine Prose is an American novelist, essayist, and critic. After all, children read slowly, mouthing almost every word they encounter upon a page.


Reading Like a Writer : A Guide for People Who Loves Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

In such a bulging field, it is remarkable that there is any gap in the market, but an acerbic American novelist with the improbably suitable name of Francine Prose has found it and filled it. Reading Like a Writer is a clarion call for aspiring writers to do that most simple, time-consuming but enjoyable thing: their homework. Doctors go to medical school, barristers train at the bar: novelists may or may not choose a creative writing course but reading is the one training tool they can't do without. It's a case Prose makes with such vigour as to make this an essential book for any writer, new or experienced, who purports to take his or herself remotely seriously. Like most authors, Prose has been an avid reader since childhood: "On one family vacation, my father pleaded with me to close my book long enough to look at the Grand Canyon. The point about learning from great writers is well made but if there is fault in this excellent book, it is in Prose's anxiety to defend The Canon. Prose's defensiveness on this point is probably explained by her experience of teaching on American campuses, where the battle lines are much more sharply drawn than here.


Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose – review

Now, like many of my colleagues, I find myself wondering just how much success I and my students can reasonably expect. Useful teaching texts are few. Another difficulty faced by writing teachers is, paradoxically, the lack of interest many students show in reading. And those who do read often lack the training to observe subtle writerly clues.


Brush Up Your Chekhov

Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? Instead I answer by recalling my own most valuable experience, not as a teacher, but as a student in one of the few fiction workshops I have ever taken. This was in the s, during my brief career as a graduate student in medieval English literature, when I was allowed the indulgence of taking one fiction class.

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