by Francine Prose, HarperCollins, August 22, 2006, 0060777044
Francie Prose dissects writing through by parts: Words, Sentences,
Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, and Gesture. She
devotes a whole chapter to Chekhov, which I found so interesting that
The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories, which is also available from
Prose has taught writing for many years, and also has written many
books. She presents what could be very dry material, extremely well.
It does read like a textbook so it took me several months to finish
it. There's a lot of material here, and it's extremely interesting to
I've always thought of writing and programming to be very similar, and
this book demonstrates to me that they are. What I also learned is
that I could never be a writer. I don't care about how I write for it
to matter. My goal in writing is to convey what I think in a way that
Programming and writing are different at the detailed, technical
level. Programmers are fortunate to have pretty simply rules for what
will produce good code at the micro-level. They also have the ability
to write a test, which allows them to massage their creations (again
at the micro-level) to increase the quality of their designs. Writers
do not have such a luxury. It's hard enough to solve the problem at
the macro-level (plot, themes, and so on). Authors have no way to get
feedback without asking somebody.
I don't think I could work that way. Changing what I do based upon
another person's opinion is tough for me. I want concrete feedback
based on data gathered by tests -- even when they are usability
surveys. You can't do this with a book, except perhaps textbooks,
which don't have to have a plot. Great authors have to learn to be
great very quickly. Great programmers can learn how to be great
coders over decades. Perhaps that's too harsh but that's the way it
seems to me.
Fiction is also quite foreign to me. I'm too concrete. I like
reading fiction, but I mostly read non-fiction, like this book, and
even the fiction I read is often on the lighter side. Prose
demonstrates what it takes to make credible fiction using texts that,
for the most part, I've never read before. This, too, was
fascinating. She also picked her authors from the past so that she
could show what makes writing timelessness.
I recommend this book even for non-writers. I often underestimate
what it takes to write anything. Prose reminded me that writing well
is extremely hardwork.
[p4] What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by
practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure,
and from the books we admire. And so the book that follows represents
an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the
passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.
[p10] AFTER my novels began to be published, I started to teach,
taking a succession of jobs as a visiting writer at a series of
colleges and universities. Usually, I would teach one creative writing
workshop each semester, together with a literature class entitled
something like "The Modern Short Story" -- a course designed for
undergraduates who weren't planning to major in literature or go on to
graduate school and so would not be damaged by my inability to teach
literary theory. Alternately, I would conduct a reading seminar for
MFA students who wanted to be writers rather than scholars, which
meant that it was all right for us to fritter away our time talking
about books rather than politics or ideas.
[p61] Finally, before we leave the subject of sentences, let's return once
more to Hemingway, and to the passage from his memoir of his youth in
Paris, A Moveable Feast, in which he describes his working method and
which subsequent generations of writers have taken as a form of
implicit literary advice:
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going
... I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do
not worry. You have always written before and you will write nom All
you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence
that you knom" So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go
on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true
sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I
started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or
presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or
ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple
declarative sentence I had written.
For years, I've heard this passage about the one true sentence cited
as a sort of credo. And I've nodded my head, not wanting to admit that
I honestly had no idea what in the world Hemingway was talking
about. What is a "true" sentence in this context-that is, the context
of fiction? What makes Hemingway's advice so hard to follow is that he
never quite explains what "true" means.
[p62] Perhaps it's wisest to assume that Hemingway, like countless
others, was simply confusing truth with beauty. Possibly what he
really meant was a beautiful sentence -- a concept that, as we have
seen, is almost as hard to define as the one true sentence.
[p64] I asked a friend, a poet who also writes essays and memoirs, if
he had any thoughts about the paragraph. He said he thought of the
paragraph as a form, like a poetic form, perhaps a bit like a
stanza. Then he added something that I myself have noticed. He said
that when he was writing an essay, there came a point at which he knew
what his first few paragraphs would be. That was the point at which
the essay organized itself in his mind and fell, as if with a series
of clicks, more or less into place.
But how, precisely, can we tell when these clicks are supposed to
occur? Once again, it seems easier to learn by example than by
abstraction, by reading Babel's fiction to see how his ideas about
electrical storms and rhythm operate in practice.
He touches Sheilah's hand. The children have their aunt now, and he
and Sheilah have each other. Everything works out, somehow or
other. Let Agnes have the start of the day. Let Agnes think it was
invented for her. Who wants to be alone in the universei' No, begin at
the beginning: Peter lost Agnes. Agnes says to herself somewhere,
Peter is lost.
This is hardly what one would calling choosing a point of view and
sticking to it, which is yet more proof that any set of "rules" offers
only the loosest of guidelines. Even so, regardless of how blithely
and confidently it breaks the rules and expands the third-person form,
the Gallant story is in the "third person." That is, it employs
third-person pronouns -- he did this, she said that -- rather than
the "I" form.
[p250] All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature
is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and
beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and
original works that have been written without the slightest regard for
how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer's mother might
have thought when she read them.
Often, when I teach, I like to draw up a reading list composed
entirely of masterpieces that, for one reason or another, might have
been thoroughly trashed by the more conventional newspaper review or
the writing workshop. Much of the work I've mentioned so far in this
book might run afoul of some of today's amateur or professional
critics. And actually, many things that we ourselves consider
indispensable for a work of fiction may turn out, the more we read, to
be superfluous. If the culture sets up a series of rules that the
writer is instructed to observe, reading will show you how these rules
have been ignored in the past, and the happy outcome. So let me
repeat, once more: literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us
realize that there are none.
[p264] It does seem like quite a price to pay for the freedom to sit
in your room and think about metaphors and paragraph breaks. But
Babel's crime and his punishment had something to do with the fact
that art implies a kind of freedom, the freedom of choice, of
possibility, of the individual imagination. Which is why dictators-and
big corporations-tend not to like art and [p265] artists, except those
of a highly predictable and malleable sort. If art demanded Babel's
life, we can certainly handle whatever inconvenience or effort it
seems to require from us.
Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, "If Tolstoy lived across the street,
I wouldn't go meet him." And you know what he means. The work is the
work, what exists on the page is what matters, and we need not have
tea with the writer in order to understand and love the writing. But
whether or not we can understand and love Tolstoy's work without
meeting him, there is much that is heartening about his life. To read
his biography is to watch a writer destroying the printer's plates of
Anna Karenina because he wanted to make some last-minute revisions,
and one who had started out imagining the novel as something more in
the manner of a sermon against an adulterous woman. The less admirable
parts of his biography -- the long, nightmarish marriage, the selfish
ideologue he became, the cruel (to his family) way he chose to
die-also have a strangely liberating aspect: how orderly and
thoughtful our own lives seem, by comparison.
[p268] Recently, a friend told me that her fears and concerns about
the current state of the world were making it hard for her to write. I
e-mailed her a copy of Herbert's poem and suggested it might help her
problem, perhaps just a little.
A few hours later, she called back. "But that is the problem," she
said. "He's talking about a rose. But how do you know if you've
created a rose -- or just a weed?"
She's right. That is the problem. So one final reason for reading is
to confront this problem of roses versus weeds in the company of
geniuses, and with the pleasure of looking at the roses that have
actually been produced, against all odds. If we want to write, it
makes sense to read -- and to read like a writer. If we wanted to grow
roses, we would want to visit rose gardens and try to see them the way
that a rose gardener would.