I’m reading a great book I plucked from my wife’s bedside stack: Reading like a Writer, subtitled “A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those who Want to Write Them,” by Francine Prose. (That’s her married name: she was born Francine Cinquain, but found that too restrictive.) (I kill me.)
Prose is a writer and writing teacher, and she starts the book with the big question: Can writing be taught? Well, no: “A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.”
That sounds about right. More than 22 years ago I went to Clarion, a long-running SF and fantasy workshop, where I learned how severely Samuel R Delaney and Kate Wilhelm could edit, made good friends, and walked away with one lifetime critique partner who recently gave me, well, critical feedback on the book I’m finishing up now. But if anyone came to Clarion not knowing how to write, or where they were going to get their ideas, they weren’t going to learn it there.
Prose goes on to say that she learned to write the way all of us did: by reading. Her first chapter is called “Close Reading” where she talks about reading great work, but reading it slowly and carefully. The next three chapters are on words, sentences, and paragraphs, where she pulls selections from Alice Munro, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, and Raymond Chandler, plus a long excerpt from Rex Stout, where the great detective Nero Wolfe solves a mystery by explaining paragraphing.
This is not a review of Prose’s book — I’m not even finished with it yet. But the book is energizing me, and I need that right now. I’m at kind of tipping point: the current novel is in rewrites, the comic book is humming along, and I’m daydreaming about the next novel, the next short story, and the next comic book. In short, I need inspiration, I need ideas, and I need to become a better writer.
I’m at a tipping point in another way. For several years I had a part-time day job, writing computer code in the morning and fiction in the afternoons. It was great. The day job meant we were covering the mortgage, but I was finally putting in enough hours into fiction that I was finishing stories and novels. Life was in balance. But for the past 18 months I’ve been working full time at the day job, and trying to get the same amount of writing done by disappearing from home on nights and weekends. It’s been a stressful time, and not just for me — this schedule took a toll on the whole family.
This is not news to anyone in this business. 90% of writers — probably more — have a day job. I’m sorry about whining. But that’s what blogs are for, yes?
Well, this week I went back to working half time at the day job. I feel like I’ve been given a surprise parole, a last-minute reprieve from the governor, a replacement liver from an accident-prone decathalete. Suddenly I’ve got a new lease on life, with very generous terms. And I don’t want to waste it. It’s time to get to work.
And part of that work is reading. That includes fiction that inspires me to do better, and non-fiction that gives me ideas for my own work. During those 18 months, I hardly got any reading done. There just wasn’t time with that novel deadline looming. And consequently, I’m ready to start new projects, but the well feels dry.So, I have time at night to read again, and I’m using Francine Prose to point the way to great writers I haven’t read yet, and to think harder about my own sentences.
And hey, I may even have time to update this blog more often. Look for that review of Reading Like a Writer when I finish it.