Friday, May 13, 2011

`We Learn to Write by Reading'

A teacher patiently explained to me that writing is a form of meditation, a way for students to “access their true selves” and “unleash their creativity.” I must have appeared obdurate, so he reiterated: “We’re all writers but we’ve been trained to believe we can’t be artists, that only special people can be writers or musicians.” He was just getting started:

“Kids who want to write get inhibited when they read books. They have to look inside themselves. That’s where it all comes from.”

This stuff was too good to trust to memory so I wrote it down in the staff bathroom, on the back of a sheet instructing us to watch out for a father who had threatened a kid on school grounds last week. More than four-hundred fifty students attend the school where I work, and I haven’t yet met one who enjoys writing or betrays any gift for it (necessarily related qualities, in my experience). On the day the teacher shared his philosophy of writing with me, Bill Vallicelli, The Maverick Philosopher, posted a refutation of such soft-headedness. The author is one I know only by name, Leo Strauss, and the source is his Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952):

“It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written. (Quoted from Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza's Ethics, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. ii.)”

One occasionally reads something so pithily self-evident it opens a little window in the mind and sunlight illuminates a formerly dim corridor. Who can imagine writing without reference, however subconscious, to the best we have read? Every decision we make when crafting a sentence was learned from someone, whether Mom or Henry James, and tested against our sensibilities. In eight sentences, Strauss eight times uses some form of “careful.” By definition, one takes care when reading and writing with seriousness. “We learn to write by reading”: the thought is hardly new. More than three-hundred years before Strauss, Ben Jonson writes in Timber, or Discoveries (1640):

“For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style.”


George said...

Twenty-odd years ago, one co-worker asked another about some software package that might help her son write better. I was on the fringes of the conversation, but suggested that one really needed to read a good deal. Well, she said, her son didn't care to do that. I said something like Well, good luck.

Margaret said...

The same is true for painting - learning to paint and draw by looking. Maybe it's true for all the arts (but then one wonders how the cave artists were so darn good - I just saw Cave of Dreams). . And LOVE is key - loving with every fiber, as you engage in and observe detail - no detail too small...sigh (when it happens)

Andrew said...

"One occasionally reads something so pithily self-evident it opens a little window in the mind and sunlight illuminates a formerly dim corridor."

-- This is a fine turn of phrase, and very true.