Until recently I did not really understand how to read and see what great writing was. I either was infected with the habits of a student, determined to find the meaning in every pieces of fiction or read things on such a visceral level that the story flowed into me more than being consciously read. This was also how I would approach my own writing. First I would write from the soul feeling as if I was channeling someone else's tale. Then as I rewrote I first attack the grammar and then try to match and place the meanings I wanted to get across, a messy and ineffectual process. I would be happy when I would create a good sentence but I saw it as a random and special occurrence rather than a goal.
Last week I read Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. She starts the book focusing on words and works outwards through sentences and paragraphs and onto gestures, narration and further. Prose's main point is that great writers really do work to create great sentences, leave out whatever is unneeded and focus on the whole of what is presented. And, that readers today, especially in academia focus too much on meaning and not enough on the art of the writing. This does not mean that we should not search for meaning in the stories, only that it can be found through thorough reading not through a hunting.
Inspired by this and Molly, I picked up my copy of Fidelity by Wendell Berry. Choosing a story that I had not made notes in I read it for the words and feelings. I was left silent at the end.
This morning I picked up the same book and read another story, again for the words and feelings and was actually left with tears in my eyes by the end. Now I am beginning to understand what it means to write; and how much more than storytelling it is.
Afterwards, to amuse myself, I looked through one of the stories that I had marked up (thankfully in pencil) for an independent course on the importance of place I had taken a few years ago. First, I realized that I had no memory of the story. Then, seeing what I had underlined, it was obvious that my reading had been cursory, only reading for story line and 'relevant' phrases. Even in terms of the course I was taking this was unsuccessful, since much of the importance of place is found deeper not just in the sentences that mentioned place. There was so much more to the story than what I had seen during that first reading.
I realize now that so much of my distaste of certain books, most read for classes, was not because of the books themselves. Rather it was the method that we were trained to read them. My high school English courses resembled biology more than art. I remember specifically an entire quarter of ninth grade that was dedicated to Jane Eyre. This included two weeks spent on one chapter where we were given the task of dissecting and sourcing every single paragraph for meaning. At the end of the two weeks we took a test which we could bring notes to. My partner and I had ten typed pages of references and translations (and we were not 'smart' kids).
For what reason? I am sure at fifteen all I gained from the class was a distaste for anything written before 1950. This lasted until only a few years ago.
For those of you invested in your children's learning, especially at home, I suggest you read Prose's book. In someways it is a great form of parental deschooling. For that matter anyone who reads for pleasure should read it to see a new facet of any short story or novel. I think this is a book that I will pick up every few years as a reminder.
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