11 April 2018
Reading for Writers
Miguel de Cervantes once wrote that he was so fond of reading he would pick up even the scraps of paper he found in the street to read them if anything was written on them. This is well-known. What is less known is that Don Quixote, his immortal novel (DQI, 1605, DQII, 1615) is a masterpiece, not only of writing, but also of reading.
From the initial sortie, a prose transcription of an earlier short play, to the Scrutiny of the Library, Cervantes demonstrates right from the start his awareness of current trends in poetry, theatre and prose. In addition, he shows (especially DQI, chapter 47) his acquaintance with contemporary literary theory, as E. C. Riley has so ably established in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel.
Cervantes begins with the traditional Renaissance novel (DQI, 1605) in which he experiments with plays and poetry turned into prose, oral and written histories, pseudo-autobiographical episodes, the picaresque novel, the pastoral novel, the Italianate Novel, the picaresque novel (briefly), his own versions of the realistic Spanish short story, and then, after a ten year gap during which he receives all kinds of reader feedback, he invents (DQII, 1615), the self-referring modern novel. DQII refers back to DQI as if it were true history. Don Quixote on his ravels meets with people who recognize him, for they have read his story and know all about him. The fictitious character establishes himself as an almost flesh-and-blood living person.
What can we, as writers, learn from this? Above all, we must learn to read copiously, not just once in a while, but all the time. Not only must we read, but we must learn how to read. Yes, we can read for knowledge and information; yes, we can read for pleasure and enjoyment; yes, we can read to lose ourselves and wash away the cares of the world. However, as writers we must learn to read in a different fashion. We must read in search of the narrative structures that inspire other good writers. We must read in search of the iterative thematic imagery that binds a text with meaningful, repeated images. We must read in search of the poetry that sates the soul’s constant thirst for beauty. We must read in search of the dialog that cuts to the bone and reveals the hidden character of the protagonists. We must read in search of the layering that allows us to give extra meaning at all levels of the narrative. We must read in search of the secret that allows us to trim all unnecessary material in order that our stories may be spare and sparse with not an extra word or thought.
Reading: I have just finished taking an eight-week online course with the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. In the course of those eight weeks, I read the following books.
- 3 short stories a week, recommended by the instructor, the wonderful novelist Kerry Lee Powell, to illustrate each week’s lesson. [24 stories]
- 14 first drafts, one from each of the magnificent students in the course (I had the honor of being the fifteenth student). [38 stories]
- 14 revised stories. [52 stories]
- 14 first drafts of a second story. The course asked for two stories to be written by each participant over the duration of the course. [66 stories]
- 14 revised drafts of this second story. [80 stories]
- My own voluntary reading included Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about love (17 stories), Cathedral (12 stories), and my own short story collection, Bistro (35 very short stories). Recognizing the errors, weaknesses, and inaccuracies in my own collection reduced me to tears. [144 stories]
I have spent eight wonderful weeks exploring creativity and the art of short story writing. Am I a better writer for all that work? Undoubtedly. I can see and think much more clearly and I am beginning to gain a better understanding of how short narratives work. I am a better writer, but I am not yet a good one. There is still a long way to go.
I am retired. A long, cold, icy New Brunswick winter has kept me in the house, close to the fire. I have been gifted the time and mental energy to make the most of this course I have taken. I attended the University of Toronto, as a graduate student, back in the sixties. I was amazed at the quantity of work handed out by the professors in the School of Graduate Studies. My first decision, made very early on in my graduate career, was to take a speed reading course. Accelerating my reading speed and capacity for understanding was the only way I would be able to compete. I am still a fast reader, though not as fast as I was. This speed reading has left me time for long thought and slow writing.
Over the last eight weeks, in addition to the reading, as described above, I have written five new short stories, including two for the course. I have also revised and re-written a series of short stories for my next collection. As a good friend keeps telling me, we are not writers, we are re-writers. After eight very intense weeks, the acts of re-writing, re-reading, re-vising, and re-editing have become much, much easier.
Carpe diem, seize the day: pick up a book and start reading. Pick up your pen and start writing. No excuses. Participaction: don’t think about it, do it.