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Posts Tagged ‘Reading Like a Writer’

I tried an experiment in one of my writing classes this past week. We’re talking about the power of words and learning to, as Francine Prose writes in her book Reading Like a Writer, “put every word on trial for its life.”

We looked at the words used (and not used) in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.” (They were amazed to realize that the word “Nazi” is nowhere in the story, even though that’s what it’s about and they knew that’s what it’s about, even without that word and many others one might expect.) We studied the descriptions of place and people in Guy de Maupassant’s, “The Piece of String.” We watched how Flannery O’Connor chose words and led us along in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Then I read them some quotes from one of my recent favorite books, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Here are some of the beautiful, lyrical lines:

When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if torn from a package.

All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall.

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.book thief

That was when a great shiver arrived. It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

<a scene of the Nazis burning books> The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.

The cold was climbing out of the ground.

Snow was shivering outside.

The window opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges.

Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.

I love how Zusak uses words, putting them together in surprising ways to make descriptions that are exact and yet so unusual and unexpected. It’s that very unexpectedness that delights me.

So we did an exercise in class. I gave students four small pieces of paper. On each paper they were to write a word — two papers would have adjectives, two papers would have nouns. Any adjective, any noun. I gathered the papers into two piles, shuffled them, and then each student chose one adjective and one noun and had to find a way to use them together in a sentence.

We got “chilling sun” and “soft children” and “shiny dream.” And the students wrote amazing new sentences, allowing these unusual pairs to work together.

In a weekly journal post, one of my students wrote, “I liked the adjective and noun game. Combinations like chilling sun made me think about the ways I described things throughout the week. Instead of relying on easy, conventional descriptions, I searched for different, more unusual word pairings that still made sense.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

What are some of the most lyrical, surprising, and unexpected sentences you’re read — and where did you read them?

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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?

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