Read Like a Writer, Not a Literature Professor
Musings by Lisa Torcasso Downing
A year ago, my department head assigned me to teach a sophomore literature class in addition to my regular freshman composition courses. While I didn’t like the idea of building another curriculum, I did look forward to teaching literature. I earnestly began reading the anthology I was provided, but when I tried to devise teaching strategies–historical, cultural, textual, rhetorical–my knees weakened because I realized that I am no longer capable of looking at literature through the eyes of a literature professor. I can’t pick up a book and search for the author’s intent, or worry about archetype and symbol, or celebrate the use of metaphor for metaphor’s sake. The gears in my brain have completely shifted off that track.
I figured if I proceeded teaching the lit course the way my inclinations drove me, I’d be ruined. I could almost hear the future complaints of my colleagues, leveled at those who would become my former students:
“I don’t care if your last English professor did explain exactly why some literature bores you and why some doesn’t. You still have to read Don Quixote–and like it!”
As it turned out, the gods saved me: The class didn’t attract enough students and was canceled. But the experience drove home to me the fact that creative writers are very different animals from literature professors.
I teach the Toulmin model of argument to my freshmen composition students, and many of them struggle to understand how his analysis of argument will help them write better college essays. I tell them that it may not help them write better–but that it should help them rewrite better essays because knowing the model will improve their ability to critique their own work. (How they groan!) I then speak the words some have waited all their academic years to hear:
The problem with academic-types is that they approach things backwards. They begin with a finished product–a piece of completed and published writing–and then figure out what in that text makes it successful. In other words, they read the text so that they know what it accomplishes–its feeling, flavor, motive, objective–and then they return to the text to hunt up all he rhetorical devices that are in line with that end result. Once this is done, they turn to the student–some of whom are novice writers–and hand over what amounts to a grocery list of things that make a book successful.
But we all know that a well-stocked pantry does not a delicious meal make. Any of us who have had the writing workshop experience know that that grocery list of literary devices does not, in and of itself, guarantee a successful or compelling piece of literature. Some symbols don’t work; some metaphors detract; some descriptive writing is tedious . . .
And this is where we find many early-stage writers, sitting around those workshop tables, wondering what magic is required to tranform all the proper ingredients into the “right” ingredients. In a recent post on the AML list, one such talented artist stated plainly that she doesn’t know how to write a novel. She asked for advice. More than one respondent suggested, among other things, that she read, read, read. Read everything. Read everyday.
I agree, but with a caveat: Read like a writer.
Unlike literary scholars who begin with a finished product, writers begin with a blank comptuer screen. They must figure out how to use words to build a story that effectively manipulates their audience. Because what a writer does is so vastly different from what a lit professor/critic does, it makes little sense to read the way they taught us: First, forward for familiarity with the text; and then backwards (or by moving back through the text) for interpretive meaning . . . which, of course, is derived through traditional literary analysis.
In other words, reading like a literature professor will not do much to improve a writer’s skill. A writer must read like a writer. The first step in that process is to forget about traditional literary analysis. I don’t care if you are writing lit fiction or not. Literary analysis is post-game commentary offered by literature aficianados who have nothing to do with the actual game play, or with the building of story.
Did you hear the one about the NFL quarterback who called an audible in the Super Bowl because he knew the talking heads in the press box would approve of the play? Or the one about the NBA coach who listened to reel after reel of post-game commentary about his team’s performance–and then developed his next game plan based on what he heard so that the commentators would praise him on television?
If your child dreams of playing short stop in the big leagues, would you recommend he learn baseball from the announcer?
These notions are ludicrous. They’re backwards. Likewise, it is silly for writers to expect to learn to play their game at the top level by aiming for positive analysis from the literati, or by striving to shove into their writing all the things the literati notice in “good” fiction. If creative writers want to achieve the cohesiveness that pleases their literature professors, they should stop thinking like those professors, stop approaching literature in the same manner and with the same mindset. Professors–critics–work backwards. Again, they begin with a finished product and from it, they develop insight.
The creative writer, on the other hand, works forward–from insight to finished product. So the writer must read as he or she writes: Read forward.
My space is limited, and I’ve only scratched the surface. I haven’t time right now to explore further the notion of reading like a writer, or what it means to read forward. However, I’ll return to this topic next month and flesh out my thinking about what these things mean. But in the interim, chew on this assertion:
Reading like a writer means that you approach literature with naivete.