Reading as a Writer

Dickens_Great_Expectations_in_Half_Leather_Binding I just returned from a trip to England during which I read, for probably the fourth or fifth time since my childhood, a book I have always loved: Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Part of my goal for this read was to physically experience the book’s setting. To trace Pip’s steps through the dirty London streets and walk along the Thames where he rows his boat to check on Magwitch. To shop in Covent Garden where Herbert Pocket goes to get the best fruit to welcome his new roommate. To visit the Temple courts where Jagger lives and works. To see with my own eyes Newgate prison—which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m sorry to say, although there is a sign marking where it once stood.

My bigger goal, though, was to read a book I had long loved in a completely new way: as a writer reads. Reading as a writer is a kind of dissection, really—not just of the work, to figure out how it works, but of my own psyche as a reader. What is it that has always enthralled me about this book? I ask myself. Why have I returned to it again and again in the course of a lifetime? I examine the story, the details, the transitions, the very sentences of Dickens’ masterpiece, looking for applicable clues about how to make my own writing successful.

There’s no better writing teacher to be found, no better course of instruction or writing program, than a book you loved as a child and continue to love in adulthood. For me, that’s Great Expectations and Robinson Crusoe, The Good Earth, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the dark fairytales of Helena Nyblom. And works of nonfiction like Helen Keller’s autobiography and Jade Snow Wong’s account of growing up the fifth daughter of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and a hagiography I wore out as a child called Little Pictorial Lives of Saints. There are more, each one a teacher with the rare pedagogical skill of educating not by presenting something new but by confirming and demonstrating old truths.

Reading as a writer, I learned from Dickens that even the most honorable characters are most engaging and memorable in their failures and absurdity. I knew this. We all know this. It’s why Peter and Thomas are my favorites of Jesus’ followers. And it’s why Esau is so impossible to hate. (I don’t know how God manages it!) Through their faults, they become more believable, more real. Jesus himself, though without fault, becomes 100% human in moments when he seems least likeable, such as when he balks at healing the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman who argues that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15.27 NRSV).

Great_Expectations_(1917)_1Each character in Great Expectations is a surprise. Miss Havisham experiences remorse. Estella confesses genuine emotions to Pip. Jaggers ends up being as much a father to fatherless Pip as he is a heartless professional. Pip moves from fear and repulsion toward Magwitch to concern and compassion. Through such surprises, Dickens helps me find the life-giving contradictions and winsome growth opportunities in my own characters.

Dickens also taught me how to keep my reader focused through blunt meta references to “the last chapter” that I would never have recommended to my own students. He was writing serially, after all, so his readers would have needed more help remembering what had gone on in the previous issue than the contemporary reader of the assembled chapters would need. Still, it’s a helpful technique. And referencing one’s previous remarks and chapters is certainly freeing.

Students in my writing courses often complain about my “reading as a writer” assignments. I’m always wanting them to apply what they learn from their favorite writers—or from one of my favorites—to their own writing, and I’m never pleased with their flowery, laudatory assessments of their favorite books’ writerly techniques.

“You’re reading like a literary critic!” I rant. “You’re reading like a teenager in love. I want you to read like a writer!”

It is the hardest way to read, I think, but surely, once you’ve read a book the first time through, the most useful. Once my students get how to do it, they thank me.

“Don’t thank me,” I tell them. “Thank the author!”

In case you’re wondering, reading as a writer won’t wreck the book for you. To the contrary: Discovering what made you love a book gives you a new appreciation for it—so much so that, if you’re anything like me, you’re eager to read the book again soon.

Inspired

As a teacher of writing and a writer myself, I’ve long been in the habit of examining others’ writing for what it has to say about the creative process. Nonfiction, my primary genre, lends itself most naturally to such scrutiny, since the solipsistic Scarecrow--Daniel Schwenwriters who tend to write in this genre love to write about what they’re up to. The writing of memoirists and essayists thus provides valuable glimpses into the process. In nonfiction workshop, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is my go-to handbook.

As I blogged last month, I’ve been listening to the Bible on my iPhone while I run. Since I run in five to ten mile chunks, I’ve heard whole books at a time and am making my way quickly, if haphazardly, through the text, following not the order of the Bible’s original organizers but spurious impulse (or, as I like to think, the Holy Spirit). Listening to scripture aloud, I’ve become newly appreciative of the almost constant reverberations between biblical accounts. The echoes of one story in another, of one biblical author’s phrasing in the voices of others, of the words of Hosea and Isaiah in the mouths of John and Paul and Jesus. The Bible is a masterpiece of intertextuality, a tapestry of voices in sentences that mesh and thicken from one chapter to the next.

I don’t know whether it’s because of the biblical writers I’ve happened to choose thus far or because of my new way of “reading” the Bible—that is, hearing the words aloud rather than reading them from a page—or just my old habit of paying special attention when writers mention writing, but I’ve noticed that the biblical writers talk a lot about writing. As such, the Bible offers considerable insight for me and fellow writers about our line of work.

Forgive my foray down a path we Christians like to avoid in considering the Bible—namely, the exact nature of divine inspiration that led to its composition in the first place—but one biblical writer after the next, from Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah to John, describes the initial inspirational moment pretty much exactly as I’ve experienced it myself. An urgent voice—sometimes identified as God’s, sometimes an angel’s, sometimes unspecified—commands, “Write this down!” For these ancient writers, writing was not a choice—not a career goal or the desire to influence or educate others or even a matter of passion—so much as a dutiful response to that voice. An idea rises like a vision in the mind and the voice says, simply, “Write.”

“A writer,” I tell those who say they want to be writers, “is someone who writes.”

The most common writerly methods in scripture, which several biblical writers go out of their way to explicate, are the same ones I recommend to my students: in the words of Luke, “after investigating everything carefully from the start, to write an orderly account” so that readers “may know the truth” (Luke 1:3-4 NRSV). Careful investigation and organization are what convince.

Regardless of genre—whether they are writing poetry, chronicles, stories, or philosophical treatises—the biblical writers take pains, as Paul assures the recipients of one of his letters, to “write you nothing other than what you can read and also understand” (2 Corinthians 1:13). Nothing show-offy, though the words of scripture are often as artistic as they are true. No erudition for erudition’s sake.

And though their accounts and rhetorical goals are diverse, the biblical writers share, it seems to me, one essential writerly skill: they tell what they actually see and hear and smell and taste and feel. Unlike my students, who would rather explain their thoughts, the biblical writers are, to a person, concrete. Here’s Jeremiah (whose repetitive ranting could be boring, were it not so vivid) showing, not merely telling, how ridiculous it is to worship idols:

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
nor is it in them to do good.

(Jeremiah 10.5 NRSV)

Wow. Like scarecrows in a cucumber field. I wish I had written that!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy students typically define creative writing as writing that doesn’t have to follow any rules. Grammar rules, especially, are irrelevant. When I talk about sentence-level problems in their writing, they roll their eyes. In poetry workshop, many abandon the sentence altogether, writing instead in fragments. Creativity, in their view, constitutes the opposite of order.

The biblical writers, by contrast, seem to model their creativity on that of God himself. The creation, as described in Genesis, is a work of separation and sorting, of repeating and omitting, of drafting and considering before declaring anything “good.” Again and again, the biblical writers are selective in what they opt to tell. They keep only the best episodes of a given narrative—key conflicts, the rising action—and leaving the rest mysteriously, sometimes frustratingly, elliptical, in this way to engaging the reader’s own imagination and mental processing. There’s never a pat moral to the story. As hard as we Bible-readers try, we can never read the Bible as a straightforward primer or even a narrative account of holy living, cleansed of all confusing or upsetting or unholy details. Rather, it portrays real life—convincing in its familiarity—and real characters, the holiest of whom, as we ourselves, struggle and fail and fail again.

For writing instruction, I’m learning, the Bible is unsurpassable. Even better than Hemingway.