Saturday, October 3, 2015

#AmWriting, #AmReading


“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”

                                                               --Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft



This is a different kind of post—one that is much more rooted in my teaching than in random occurrences from my everyday life. For that reason, it might not be for everybody. But, if you’re at all interested in reading, writing, and the connections between the two, then step right in.

Every semester, my creative writing class is packed to the rafters (well, acoustic ceiling tiles) with students eager to become better storytellers. They come for a variety of reasons. Some are there to fulfill a requirement (which it does). Some are there because they think the class sounds fun (which it is). Some are there because they love [INSERT LATEST FANTASY SERIES HERE] and are writing their own fantasy series (which, sadly, I don’t allow in workshop…yes, I know, I’m a monster). And some are there because creative writing creatively is a part of their lives, they want it to continue to be so, and they’d like to know how to do it better.

To all of these students, I say there’s no real secret to becoming a better writer. Really, you only need to conscientiously and regularly do three things:
  1. Write
  2. Share your work
  3. Read
Let me quickly break down the first two before I get to the third, which is the real subject of this blog post.

Number One. “Write” actually encompasses two things—drafting and revising. Of these, the first is necessary, painful, and usually not very good (“shitty first drafts,” to use Anne Lamott’s priceless phrase). The second—revising—is where it all happens. I like to remind students that “revision” means “to see again”; in other words, they shouldn’t confuse revision with proofreading. The latter is like sprucing up a room with some spackle and paint, while the former is gutting and rebuilding a functionless room with sledgehammer, reciprocating saw, and a dust mask. That spackle and paint will come much, much later.

Number Two. It’s  important for writers to get over the understandably high levels of anxiety that go along with sharing their writing. Even more important is that they share that work with the right kind of readers—readers who are smart, honest, and aware of the aforementioned difference between proofreading and revision. Such readers are more rare and valuable than a Dodo bird that shits gold, so if you’re lucky enough to find any, hang onto them with both hands, both feet, and a prehensile tail if you’ve got one.

Number Three. As the most prolific and successful writer this or any planet has ever known says (see my cold opening), reading is vital. Yet there’s a little more to it than that. Someone could be an avid reader and still not be able to write a compelling opening paragraph, let alone the rest of the story that needs to follow it. Reading is important, but more important is rereading (every bit as important as rewriting) and how we read.

Settle in, because this may take a while.

Let’s start by considering the opening paragraph of  one of my very favorite short stories—Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain”:

“Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked. A big  black wolflike animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow, making for Gold’s daughter. He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming. Gold plunged down the hill, shouting as he went. Snow and wind deadened his voice. Anna’s sled was almost at the bottom of the slope. Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts, and he knew she couldn’t hear him or see the dog racing toward her. He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gum boots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backward off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there” (199).*

In our first read of this, we probably READ LIKE A FAN

Well, maybe “fan” isn’t the best word. The point is that when we read in this mode, we read to be entertained, to consume. Most often, that thing we consume is the plot because a) we expect things to happen and b) we like to know what those things are. If a piece of writing is compelling, we don’t always notice or appreciate what makes it compelling; instead, we let ourselves be carried away, having gladly accepted the writer’s invitation into what John Gardner refers to as the “fictive dream.” There’s nothing wrong with this kind of reading; in fact, it’s this exact kind of reading that makes us love reading. And, perhaps, want to be writers.

In a first rereading of this paragraph (and with the benefit of having read the rest of the story), we might start to READ LIKE AN ENGLISH MAJOR

I use this term a little facetiously, but what I’m getting at is that when we read like this, we read beyond the page. We find deeper meanings and patterns and connections. Since this is a rereading, we now know that “The Chain” can be seen as a tragic tale of seemingly justifiable revenge gone awry, and as we look back at the story’s opening, we notice a few things. First, of course, is that chain. In the story’s opening paragraph, it’s a literal object, but upon further examination we can now appreciate it as metaphor (or symbol—a word I loathe but seem unable to escape). It’s not just a metal chain, it’s the chain of events that poor Gold will set in motion and watch spin out of control. It’s also a symbol (damn it!) of restraint, and its inability to restrain the dog in this opening will be echoed later by Gold’s inability to restrain himself. The wolf, too, can be seen as something larger. Our base animal aggression, maybe? Finally, there’s the business about Gold’s daughter’s coat. In the ensuing story, Gold’s pursuit of what he feels is right leads to trouble, and this drama is foreshadowed and encapsulated neatly in the detail of the coat. He does something to protect her (“Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts”), but now that “protection” renders her deaf to her father’s insistent shouts and blind to the dog’s imminent attack. Later, in doing what he thinks is right, Gold will open the door to all kinds of wrong.

But it’s the third way of reading that I’m most interested in, and that way is to READ LIKE A WRITER.

I tell my students to imagine a beautiful watch. Some people might use this watch only to tell time. Some people might also admire its shape and fine lines. Still others—some few others, I would say—want to take that watch apart and see how it works. That’s reading like a writer.

Let’s take the first line of the story:

“Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked.”

It’s a sharp, concise line that's elegantly symmetrical as well--eleven one-syllable words bracketed by two two-syllable words. The line also packs a punch, to be sure, but what’s most intriguing from a writer’s perspective is how Wolff packs that punch and how much he accomplishes in such a small space. The first words establish character and point of view, the next few words establish a setting, and the final words introduce conflict.

About conflict, writer and teacher Janet Burroway says it best: “In literature, only trouble is interesting.” It’s an obvious lesson, but like most obvious lessons, it’s easy to forget. Too often, early drafts of stories wade through pages and pages before the writer even suggests that there’s trouble afoot. If there’s no trouble, nothing’s happening, and if nothing’s happening, few readers are going to stick around to watch the paint dry. Writers must promise conflict, and they must promise it early. Like first or second sentence early.

By the end of Wolff’s first sentence, we know there’s going to be trouble. Moreover, those details of character, setting, and conflict that he introduces are broad enough to give himself room to subsequently answer the questions that the reader inevitably asks—What’s the hill like? What kind of dog? Who’s being attacked? Finally, there’s the overall momentum of this first line; because Wolff drops the “weight” at the end—“the dog attacked”—the reader is compelled to read on:

“A big  black wolflike animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow, making for Gold’s daughter.”

Here we have a longer sentence that begins where the first one ends, developing “dog” into “big black wolflike animal” and “attacked” into “came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park.” We get an added bit of setting—the “deep snow” tells us it’s winter—and the conflict is delivered (and intensified) again as a weighty surprise at the end of the sentence, where Wolff reveals what’s at stake: “Gold’s daughter.” More of that momentum. Now we really want to keep going.

“He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming.”

Yes, we were wondering about that “attached to a chain,” which Wolff buries in the second sentence but focuses on now in the third. He returns to a short, clipped sentence to develop a staccato rhythm. Also, as with the previous two sentences, this one ends in a familiar place. Consider the pattern:

End of sentence one: “…the dog attacked.”
End of sentence two: “…making for Gold’s daughter.”
End of sentence three: “…the dog kept coming.”

With this repetition, Wolff keeps us focused on the image of a dog charging toward a helpless little girl.

Having firmly established that, Wolff now shifts his focus, moving Gold into action with a few details that further develop the space in which the action is unfolding:

“Gold plunged down the hill, shouting as he went. Snow and wind deadened his voice. Anna’s sled was almost at the bottom of the slope.”

Three short sentences. Direct and to the point. Also, Wolff moves us away from the dog; there are, after all, two other characters in this scene. Yet he chooses his words carefully so as to continue the tone of dread and danger initiated by the (for the moment) absent dog: “plunged,” “shouting,” “deadened,” and “bottom.”

The next sentence reads,

“Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts, and he knew she couldn’t hear him or see the dog racing toward her.”

Here, Wolff delivers a brief bit of backstory that ups the ante of the situation—his daughter can’t hear him as danger closes in. Wolff continues to intensify the initial conflict with this detail, and also by returning to the dog, who once again appears at the end of the sentence.

Then, this:

“He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gum boots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees.”

There’s a fluid transition from “dog racing” at the end of the previous sentence to “dog’s speed” near the beginning of the first one here. But by and large, the focus is on Gold. Specifically, as a counterpoint to the dog. Wolff does this overtly at the beginning, where “the dog’s speed” is set against “his own dreamy progress.”

Also, he focuses on details that at once reinforce the snowy setting and concretize Gold’s slowness: “weight of his gum boots,” “clinging trap of crust,” and “overcoat flapped.” These details represent a true economy of language as they serve more than one purpose (something writers should strive for in their revisions).

Finally, by shifting the focus to Gold temporarily, Wolff leaves us worrying about how close that dog is getting to his daughter.

Creative writing teachers like myself will often draw something on the board that looks like this:


We use this image to represent the classic structure of narrative: rising tension/development of conflict (the upward slope), a climax/crisis point (the peak), and the denouement/falling action (the short dropoff). Wolff, in this opening paragraph, delivers a miniature version of this structure—a smaller story within the larger one—and his next few lines reside squarely atop the point:

“He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backward off the sled, shaking her like a doll.”

A few things to notice here. From the beginning of this paragraph, Wolff has carefully choreographed his three characters—father, daughter, dog—and in the first sentence here all three converge in a fairly breathless fashion; it’s a long sentence (a compound-complex sentence for all you grammar nerds) that unfolds across a series of actions: Gold screams, the dog lunges, Anna flinches, and the dog catches her. Then, Wolff leaves us momentarily wondering what the dog is doing with Anna by focusing again on concrete details of slowness (“barely halfway down the hill” and “feet sliding”). In fact, Wolff stretches the scene out to an excruciating degree by continuing these kinds of details (“running in place,” “held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance”) at the beginning of the final sentence before returning to the attack and  delivering the action we’ve been dreading (shaking her like a doll”).

Finally, like Gold, we arrive at the end:

“Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there.”

Note how his arrival is anti-climactic, rendered so because Wolff uses the accursed passive voice (“he was there”). Consider the difference, for example, if he had ended the sentence with “…the distance vanished and he pounced on the animal.” This crisis isn't yet over, and just as one sentence of Wolff’s urges us to read on, so too does he design paragraphs that push us into the next one.

Action doesn’t just write itself; it needs to be carefully constructed and developed by an attentive writer with his or her finger on the pulse of the story. But something else, something even more subtle, is going on here. By starting at this particular moment, Wolff patches the reader into his main character’s perspective at a moment of crisis so that Gold’s fears and feelings of helplessness become ours as well. This identification and sympathy is absolutely crucial to the rest of the story because it prevents us from judging Gold’s later actions too harshly. The readers are, in fact, the only ones who can truly sympathize; as Wolff writes about the aftermath of the attack, “[Gold] had been alone in his anger for a week now and wanted some company. Though his wife claimed to be angry too, she hadn’t seen what he had seen” (201). But we have seen what Gold has seen. And we have felt it, too. Wolff’s skillful writing makes sure of this.

Obviously, reading like a writer can be a bit tedious if we subject a story’s every sentence to the microscope, and I offer this close reading merely as an example and model for a general principle—that there is much to be learned by looking at craft and much that we often miss. If you want to become a better writer, then you should develop the skill of reading from a writer’s perspective. If you find yourself caring for a particular character, go back and see if you can figure out how the writer made you care. If you find yourself thinking about a scene or conversation in a book, go back and examine how the writer choreographed that scene or phrased and presented the dialogue. Every good story is filled with lessons about how good stories are told, and for the writers among us, these are treasures well worth unearthing.


*All quotes taken from Wolff, Tobias. “The Chain.” Our Story Begins. New York: Vintage, 2009. 199-213.