Francine prose has written, apparently, the latest craft book classic. Reading Like a Writer is getting great reviews, and though I’ve read only chapter one, the commentary seems right on. Prose expresses doubts in her opening pages about the possibility of teaching “creative writing” at all. She speculates that such musings put her in danger of fraud charges from all the students to whom she has purported to do that very thing. My first blog explored this subject a little, and Prose’s book has set me thinking on it again, especially since she traces the development of her own skills not to MFA programs, but to that hoary bogeyman of all inspiration and creativity–English teachers.
Being an old English teacher myself, it comforts me mightily that someone from that vast audience I’ve harassed over the years might have taken some inspiration from all the lectures and assignments. But what comforts me even more is the notion that writing skill is develops not so much from devotion to cant and terminology (“action/voice/character-driven,” “the occasion for telling,” etc.) as from attention to fundamentals of syntax and tone and diction combined with careful and joyful reading, reading, reading. Successful writers don’t seek out the cubbyholes containing general principles of great books, drawing them out and dumping into their own work. Instead, they find individual examples that will best instruct one’s own work. Prose quotes general principles such as avoiding dubbing characters with similar names, then tracks down examples where great authors have violated that very rule to great effect. It’s not that rules don’t matter, it’s that their application and interpretation matters more. It’s like trying to interpret oracles. We need to become Tiresias if Thebes is to prosper.
Want more? Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton is another example of a book which, though very different from Prose’s, can help guide you along the same path. To paraphrase that little prayer–grant me the power to use the ideas I can, to let go of the ones I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.