Sunday, 8 February 2015

Aspiring Writers & Absent Teachers

Miss Auras by John Lavery
"Whenever I'm asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories, and listen closely to the stories you're being told."
                                                              -- John Green

What makes a writer great? There are many answers to this question but I want to focus on one characteristic shared by all notable writers, across the ages.

They were/are readers.

That might not be a shocking revelation if you’re already a writer who reads, but what might be surprising is the number of aspiring writers who claim an aversion to reading — and not on artistic ground, but because they truly ‘hate’ to read.

As a voracious reader, this notion is alien to me. I have always thought of reading and writing as a duo that work together like a pair of shoes, or yin and yang; without one, the other is less meaningful. Of course, not all readers need be writers but, it would seem to me, all writers need to be readers.

Many successful authors – I’m yet to find one who doesn't admit to the habit – have discussed the importance of reading for writers. Stephen King, of course, in his oft quoted On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft notes:

'I am always chilled and astonished by would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they "don't have time to read." This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn't have time to buy any rope or pitons.'

I wholeheartedly agree, but I want to go further and suggest that, for writers, it’s not only imperative that we read, but that we learn from our reading.  

A few years ago, I read Mortimer. J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic work, How to Read A Book. Aside from learning about conscious reading, one idea that stuck with me was the notion of the absent teacher. Successful writers, past and present, are our absent teachers and, if we pay attention to what they do in their work, we find that they have a lot more to share with us than just a story.

Lessons in Technique and What is Possible:

'In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.' -- Ray Bradbury

Technique is probably the clearest lesson we can take from our reading. How often have you come across a sentence or a passage in a story that has taken your breath away?  Did you stop to look at the construction of that passage?  Did you try to see how the writer created that moment of magic?

I recently read Randolph Stow’s, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. This superb book is filled with glorious descriptions, vivid characterisation and a sense of place that is magnificent. Early in the novel, which is told from the perspective of six-year-old, Rob Coram, whose cousin, Rick, is leaving to fight in the war in the South Pacific, there is the following passage:

In the morning Rick’s footfalls on the floorboards woke him. He lay in bed and watched Rick, who was coming back from the shower in his pyjama pants and starting to dress.
            He was standing in his white underclothes, opening a drawer. Then he was putting on a khaki shirt with coloured things on the sleeves.
            The boy sat up in bed. Rick was pulling on khaki trousers and buttoning them. He was sitting down on his bed and pulling on khaki socks.
            ‘Those are your soldier’s clothes,’ the boy said, with dread.
            ‘Yup,’ said Rick. ‘Do they make me look brave?’
            The boy stared. The boots were red-brown and gleaming.
            ‘Are you going Rick?’ he said, very still.
            ‘I’m afraid so, kid,’ Rick said.
            ‘Where are you going?’
            ‘Well, I couldn't say. The big boys don’t tell me their secrets.’
            ‘Is it in Australia?’
            ‘I don’t know. It’s a secret.’
            He was standing up now, in his big boots. He was leaning to look in the mirror, combing his hair.
            ‘I wish—’ the boy said, ‘I wish—’
            ‘Hey, fella,’ Rick said, turning, ‘don’t so that. I don’t like to see a man cry like that, with real tears. If a man’s got to cry he’d do better to bawl his head off.’
            ‘I’m not crying,’ said the boy, with a stiff mouth.
            ‘And I’ll be back,’ Rick said, ‘I’ll be back, and all you’ll be able to see will be two eyes peering through gongs and fruit salad.’
            ‘I wish you didn't have to,’ said the boy.
            ‘Well, I do.’
            ‘I wish it wasn't today.’
            ‘But you knew I was going. That’s why you came, to say goodbye.’
            He leaned on the chest of drawers, looking at the boy. The boy was rising, standing on his bed, so that he was almost as tall as Rick.
            ‘I want to say goodbye now,’ he said. ‘Here.’
            ‘Well. Goodbye,’ said Rick; the slow smile showing the glint of gold.
            ‘Goodbye,’ said the boy. And they stared at each other.
            ‘Oh, kid,’ Rick said. ‘Baby, it’s alright.’
            ‘I know,’ whispered the boy. ‘I know.’ For the first and last time he kissed Rick, crying soundlessly. 

There are some clever things happening in this scene: the transformation of Rick from ‘everyday man’ into a solider; the ‘growing-up’ of Rob as he moves from lying on the bed to standing face to face with Rick; the emotional distance created by referring to Rob as ‘the boy’, but the real killer moment, the magic, comes with one word – ‘Baby’. When I read that word, tears welled in my eyes because it contains all of the heartbreak, fear, longing, and love that the rest of the passage holds at bay. This is the lesson that Stow offered me as a writer: how to pack an emotional punch.

Other writers have offered different lessons: from Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Love in the Time of Cholera), I learnt the lure of the sublime; from Robert McCammon I learnt the power of tension; from Robert Coover (The Babysitter), Italo Calvino (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller) and David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), I learnt the possibilities of structure; from Anthony Burgess I learnt the limits (or not) of language; from Margret Atwood (Alias Grace), I learnt the need for research and the art of weaving story. Of course, having observed these lessons, it was then up to me to apply them in my own work, adapting, discarding or creating as needed, and the only way to do that is by writing.

Lessons in Style:

Another lessons we can take from our reading relates to style or, to put it another way, your voice as a writer. Are you literary? Or popularist? Or do you sit across these categories? Are you a conversationalist like Stephen King, or a minimalist like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy? Of the hundreds of styles out there, where does your writing fall? What is your style? And if you don’t think you have one (yet), what style would you most like to emulate? Reading, across genres and eras, can answer this question.

Occasionally, I'll come across writers who argue that they won't read for fear of copying another writers style and, thereby, tarnishing their own. A valid point? Not really. My question is always: How do you know you're not copying another writer's style already without reading? 

Lessons in Originality:

Being original is tough. To illustrate the point, a quote from Ecclesiastes 1:4-11:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Yet originality is possible, after a fashion, because we each approach a story from a unique perspective – our own. Nevertheless, we still need to keep abreast of what other writers are producing so that we can put an original spin on the story we want to tell. The Harry Potter series is a good example of this point; there is little that is original in the concepts underpinning these books – a boarding school, an orphan cum hero, a bully, good vs evil, sport/competition, friendship, love etc. all done before – but it’s J.K. Rowling’s ‘spin’ on these concepts that re-envisioned them and made them relevant to whole new generations of readers. Reading widely gives us a feel for what’s been done and how we can approach a story from a fresh and innovative direction.

For these reasons, I would encourage aspiring writers to read – fiction and non-fiction; across genres (yes, even the ones you don’t like); across eras (those books aren't called ‘classic’ for nothing) and, importantly, across quality because even ‘bad’ fiction writers have something to teach us.

How important is reading to you, and what writers have been your absent teachers? Share your thoughts below...

Happy Writing (and Reading!)