The Writer’s Craft–Learning from the Best

That’s it–The Writer’s Craft. That’s the name of a required class in our Professional Writing department at Taylor University–a required class that I will be teaching for the first time this fall. I’m so excited to teach this class because we’re going to read great writing, unpack it, understand what makes it great, and learn what we can use to improve our own writing.

ProseThe class has traditionally used Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

I love this book because it gives examples of great writing in areas of words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. All of this is studied by way of what she calls “close reading,” taking the time to annotate a chosen text and study it carefully.

So I’m excited to bring to the students stories from John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor and John Updike and Tim O’Brien and Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce and Anton Chekov, among others. I can’t wait to have my students do close reading of amazing writing, discuss it, learn from it, be inspired by it, use it.

I’m just a little thrilled to teach this class.

It is important that writers read “textbooks” about writing–and those textbooks are the great works that have stood the test of time. Prose (don’t you just love that the author’s name is “Prose”?) writes that these great works are “textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction” (3). What is it about this piece of writing that makes it great? that has stood the test of time? that makes it classic? She continues, “A masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly” (11).

We’re not going to look at the big picture–the why of the writing. Instead, we’re going to focus on the mechanics, the how. What words does the writer use? How are those words making this piece sing? What about sentence structure? Paragraphing? How is this dialogue telling us the story without telling us the story? (For the last one we’ll read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”)

In his wonderful little book Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon talks about making sure we artists surround ourselves with other great artists (I talked about this book more in this post). He advises us to be collectors, collecting the things we love.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. My mom used to say to me, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It used to drive me nuts. But now I know what she meant. Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by. (13-14)

Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff. I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk.

The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work. (17)

So we’ve got our readings, our lesson plans, our pens, and our desire to collect and learn from the greats.

Can’t wait!

What great writers or particular pieces of writing have inspired you?

Who Inspires You?

Who is in your tribe? I know I’ve been thinking about that this past week and considering who I want to travel with in this literary life.

This week I read (and highly recommend to you) Austin Kleon‘s book, Steal Like an Artist (Workman Publishing, 2012). It’s a fast read, a little book with lots of fun visuals that packs an important punch when it comes to our discussion of literary citizenship.
One of his points is that there’s nothing new under the sun, so all of us are really getting our ideas from other people–“stealing” them as it were. “The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect the things that they really love. . . . Your job is to collect good ideas” (13-14).

Where do you collect good ideas? Your tribe and the conversations you have and the books you share and the literary magazines you read and the bloggers you follow–those are places to start. And Austin Kleon advises that you look to history as well. What classic books do you absolutely love? Which ones are on your shelves because . . . well, just because they do something for you? They speak in a way that no one speaks anymore. Find that one author and study everything you can about him or her–lifestyle, writing habits, opinions about writing and publishing, and of course, writing style. Then find others who had an influence on that writer and study them. Build your own “creative lineage,” as Kleon calls it. Add them to your tribe. They won’t mind. In fact, as Kleon notes, you can apprentice with them totally for free. “They left their lesson plans in their work” (17).

Then, what current writers are doing it for you? Who would you be a groupie for if authors had groupies? Who would you wait in line to meet? Who is writing in a way that causes you to just sit back and say, “Wow”?

What literary magazines do you subscribe to? Whose blogs do you follow? What online journals do you consistently read? Whose writing amazes you?

As citizens of the literary world, we should be studying and learning from those writers who inspire us.

Build your creative lineage, as Austin Kleon says. Collect good ideas. Surround yourself with the people (present and past) who bring out the best in you, who challenge you, who give you great ideas. (And you’re not really “stealing,” but you’ll have to read Austin’s book to understand what he means.)

Be inspired. And chances are, you’re inspiring someone else, though you may not even realize it.

Discover the people who do it for you. Share their books. Talk about them. Buy them. Give them away. Blog about them.

Just tryin’ to practice what I preach.