Reading About Writing

Near the start of the year, delivering late Christmas presents to a friend’s children, I unearthed Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page, subtitled “Great Writers Talk About Style and Voice in Writing.”

Everybody who writes is engaged in the remarkable enterprise of making consciousness manifest — catching the slipperiest of substance, a thought, and nailing it to a page. It is amazing, when you think about it, that people should even try to do such a thing; that they would occasionally succeed nearly miraculous. And, indeed, there is something spiritual about the act of writing. When it’s done in a slovenly manner or in bad faith, it seems somehow sacrilegious. When it’s done well, we should stand back and regard it with a kind of reverence.

Yagoda  gathers — from previously published books or essays on the craft, or from personal interviews — what writers mean/think/feel when they talk about style. How writers define style. And, more importantly for this reader — a lot of the writers quoted in this book are writers I have read and admired for a long time.

Now, I avoid ‘how-to’ books on writing like the plague, not least because I am certain that there are far better sources for insight: what I’ve learned from teachers [writers, all of them], what I pick up from peers [writers, most of them] — and what I get from the books I read [not to mention, har, what horrors I face when I sit down and confront my own pages]. Occasionally, I’ll seek out books-on-writing by writers I respect. Charles Baxter is one.

And I’ve realized — in my long snake-eating-its-own-tail tradition of reading books about literature — that I read them not so much because I want to be taught something, but more so standing in wonder at how a writer’s mind works. If I walk away with a snippet or two about my craft, good. But if it all boils down to the wonderment and, well, the whole Yes, I have been thinking the same thing! aspect — I felt this with Jonathan Franzen, that nutter — if it stops there, I am happy.

[Allow me to assume that these writers, when they talk about how they approach literature, don’t do so with the primary agenda of teaching -- with the exception of, perhaps, Harold Bloom -- I always feel that they, very simply, want to share. Stephen King, James Wood, Siri Hustvedt, and many others. They may take on the occasional role of writing teacher, but it’s because people look up to them as writers, not so much educators. But they’ll always be writers who want to share shiz with all of us.]

It’s always a giddy thing, taking a peek into a writer’s head, feeling yourself enriched by whatever it is he lets you see.

* * *

Quoted in the book, my man Raymond Carver, who struggled with his alcoholism, once said, “If your life is in shambles and chaos, there’s the desire to exercise some kind of control. And I think maybe I was doing that in the prose of the stories which I tried to make so precise and exact. It was some arena, some place on the map where I could exercise complete and total control.” [Note to self: Reread all the Carver books in your shelves, and then savor the biography written by Carol Slenicka.] [Note to Mr. Carver: “Sir, I often stand back and regard you words -- that tender sharpness of yours, not unlike the sting of lemon and the calmness moments after -- with a kind of reverence.” How are you?]

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One comment

  1. I’m not a writer at all, but I’m still fascinated by writers writing about writing (Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and The Paris Review Interviews series, for example). Probably I want to know more about authors in their own words, because I find it gives me more insight into their work, how they are able to craft stories that I love. I also love reading about reading/books (Fadiman and Manguel particularly!). I wonder if the two are related?

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