The best way to learn to write is by the close reading of great literature.
I wish I could get Francine Prose to tell me about every book I read. She is so astute and insightful about the craft of writing, and equally tuned into the joys that reading has to offer the lover of language. You might think that the Superfast Reader would be averse to a technique asking her to slow down and smell the sentences, but nothing could be further from the truth. I may be a fast reader, but I am a careful reader.
Close reading involves reading for more than just theme, plot, and character psychology. She takes passages from literature and holds a microscope up to them, revealing depths of richness intentionally created by the author. Close reading not only enhances the reading experience, but provides the writer with an arsenal of techniques to better his or her own writing.
My favorite portion of her wonderful book describes a season in her life when a writing job required that she take a long bus ride twice a week. While on the bus, she read Chekhov’s short stories, each one contradicting a hard and fast rule she’d instilled in her students. By the end of the class, all she could say to the budding writers was, “Read Chekhov.” Her humility is genuine, made all the more lovely because she does know so very much about how to read and how to write. Much of what she’s requiring is that readers turn off autopilot and actively participate with the words. I know I’ve been guilty of letting the words go straight to my subconscious–one of the pitfalls of being a book junkie–but the authors that I love the most are the ones who make me stop and savor their prose. I feel like I’m always looking for the writer who can rein me in and make me like it.
Reading Like a Writer instilled in me the desire to reread those books she mentions that I’ve read already, and a hunger to read the books she’s mentioned that I haven’t. I bet she’s a hell of a teacher.