Storyacious Practices: Reading Like a Writer

My first and most memorable experience of close-reading is from the fifth grade. During the first term of that year, we had, for English Lit, a collection of 10 of Tolstoy’s short stories. As usual, I had already devoured the entire slim volume within the first term week. I was frustrated that, as fifth-graders, we had been assigned what I considered a simple book of stories by some Russian I’d never heard of instead of a meaty novel by Eliot, one of the Brontës, Hardy or Dickens – the Victorians that the Senior students spoke so reverently of.

Then, we had our first class with the new teacher, Miss Singh. A slender, dark-skinned woman, with perfectly-starched pastel-colored sarees, long, black hair in a single thick plait down her back and the tiniest diamond nose stud I’d ever seen. As she rustled past our desks, the crisp, woody mountain fall air wafted by gently in her wake. Standing in front of her own desk, she introduced herself, Tolstoy and the story collection. Then, she spent the rest of the 15-ish minutes on the first 2 paragraphs of the first story What Men Live By – reading them out loud slowly and asking us a couple of general questions.

Even the buoyancy of her voice did not stop my heart from thudding to the cold stone floor. If this rate was her style, we were barely going to get through 2-3 stories before the term ended. When her bright gaze, sweeping the room, rested sharply on me a couple of times, I looked away so she wouldn’t read the disappointment and skepticism in my face.

The following week, she called on me to read the next 3 short paragraphs. This was when Simon, the shoemaker, called on his customers to collect his money, managed to secure only 20 kopeks from one as partial payment, tried unsuccessfully to buy the much-needed sheep-skins for winter coats on credit, spent the 20 kopeks on vodka instead to warm himself up, and finally headed back on the frosty road home, muttering to himself about how he didn’t care about sheep-skins even though his wife would be upset, how the customers had more to live on than he did, and so on.

Peevishly folding the book (something I rarely did), I read rapidly and self-consciously to a somewhat disinterested roomful of girls. Just as I was about to sink back down into oblivion, Miss Singh’s black eyes pinned me motionless in mid-air: “What do you think Tolstoy intended the reader to know about Simon in those 3 paragraphs?”

“That he’s upset with those customers who did not pay him for his work.” I responded quickly, hovering in a sit-stand position.

“And?” She prompted, as every other body in the room grew still with a curious anticipation, watching us, back and forth.

“And, he knows his wife will be upset with him as they won’t have money for food or warm coats.” I tossed back.

She leaned back in her chair, surveyed the quiet faces, then came back to me. “Why do you think he didn’t try harder to get the money from his customers if he needed it so much and knew his wife would be upset? Why do you think he spent the 20 kopeks instead of taking them home?”

“I…..” What did I know about these whys? It was a story and the author had made it so, I thought. I just cared about what happened next. I looked at the blackboard above her head glumly.

At this point, I think she took pity and fluttered her long-nailed fingers for me to sit down. Then, she started to explain how Tolstoy had used those introductory paragraphs to reveal the kind of man that Simon was. [As a side-note: This is one of Tolstoy’s most pointedly didactical stories. To Miss Singh’s credit, she steered away from the religious and moral aspects and focused our young minds on the beauty of a well-drawn character and a well-told beginning.]

Listening to her, it was as if a fist took hold of my insides. I re-read the 3 paragraphs. Just like that, the urge to move to what happened next was replaced with a desire to linger on the words, as if seeing them form before me for the first time. My ears began to thrum with the vibrating, tonal rhythms of the sentences that described Simon going from one fruitless task to the next. Like a blast of icy air, it struck me that, in those early paragraphs, Simon’s voice was only heard when he was talking to himself. Now, the staccato of his monologue during the walk back home, defeated and bent over his stick, sounded different – his barely-contained, helpless and cold fury pricked my eyes. I almost fell off my seat and interrupted her, gushing excitedly with these observations (rather less articulately than I am able to now, although the visceral reaction to the text was close to how I describe it here).

From then on, I found myself reading a lot slower, paying closer attention, as if trying to crack an author’s secret codes. If a story lacked the appropriate details to allow me to inhabit its entire world with all my senses, I’d give it up. That single day, some 30 years ago, while seemingly the same as every other regimented, mundane school-day, marked a transformation for me as a reader.

The following term, Miss Singh pointed me to a short story-writing competition in a national publication and encouraged me to send one in, thus starting me on my journey as a young writer as well. What still amazes me is that I never even questioned the idea that I could write one. I just did and, after some editing by her, won that competition. It was my first-ever published story called “Robots Who Wrote Poetry” (shades of H G Wells, who I was reading at the time). Despite this early win and my ongoing love for fiction, I doubt that I would have made any kind of writer at all had I not, thanks to her, started reading like one that year.

Today, the age-old debate about how writers should learn their craft continues. Many published authors have also opined about it through the centuries. Some have believed in the benefits of formal creative writing programs – e.g. a disciplined and supportive environment that hones natural talents. And, all of them, unequivocally, have exhorted the close reading of other authors’ works.

The published journals and notebooks of many authors (e.g. Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck, et al) show us how they would read other authors closely and widely to learn from them. Biographers and literary critics continue to show us how, by sheer osmosis, certain literary influences manifest themselves in an author’s works.

Here are some more testimonies, if you will, on how close reading can be one of the best ways of learning to be a creative writer:

Francine Prose in Reading Like A Writer:

Like most – maybe all – writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books. Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. 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?

…… It’s like watching someone dance and then, secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps. I often think of learning to write by reading as something like the way I first began to read. I had a few picture books I’d memorized and pretended I could read, as a sort of party trick that I did repeatedly for my parents, who were also pretending – in their case, to be amused. I never knew exactly when I crossed the line from pretending to actually being able, but that was how it happened.”

Haruki Murakami, in The Paris Review, on how his reading led him to writing:

I just went toward Western culture: jazz music and Dostoevsky and Kafka and Raymond Chandler. That was my own world, my fantasyland. I could go to St. Petersburg or West Hollywood if I wanted. That’s the power of the novel—you can go anywhere. Now it’s easy to go to the States—everyone can go anywhere in the world—but in the 1960s it was almost impossible. So I just read and listened to the music and I could go there. It was a kind of state of mind, like a dream.

…….When I was twenty-nine, I just started to write a novel out of the blue. I wanted to write something, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to write in Japanese—I’d read almost nothing of the works of Japanese writers—so I borrowed the style, structure, everything, from the books I had read—American books or Western books. As a result, I made my own original style. So it was a beginning.

Joyce Carol Oates in The Faith of A Writer:

To the writer of fiction, the reading of fiction is a dramatic experience. It’s often tense, provocative, disturbing, unpredictable. Why this title? Why this opening scene, this opening paragraph, this opening sentence? Why this particular language? And why this pacing? And why this detail or lack of detail? And this length, and this ending – why? Because, as fellow writers, we realize we’re not reading mere words, a “product”; we understand that we’re reading the end result of another writer’s effort, the sum total of his or her imaginative and editorial decisions, which may have been complex.

And, let’s end with the wonderful Wallace Stegner in On Teaching and Writing Fiction:

We learn any art, not from nature, but from the tradition, from those who have practiced it before. Hemingway said you can steal from anybody you’re better than. But you can steal – in the sense of being influenced by and, even improving upon – those who are better than you, too. People do it all the time.

You can hear Joyce in Dos Passos’ USA and Dos Passos’ USA in Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Writers teach other writers how to see and hear.

The possibility that illumination will come to your mind straight from personal experience is about as likely as that a boy will show slick basketball moves without having watched or played with older boys in some playground.

Imitation, of course, is a potential danger. There is commonly a stage in any writer’s life when the influence of some admired writer shows. But imitation wears out fast. No talent that amounts to anything is likely to be encumbered with it long. And the talent that doesn’t amount to anything can only be helped along for a certain distance, anyway.