First off, the author’s name. Could she have been anything else? She had to be a writer, right? Just saying.
I said a few days ago that I didn’t expect to finish any more books before the end of the year. That was before I opened this gem on Christmas morning. This book should be read by anyone who loves to read and wants to write. Can you want to write without loving to read? Hmmmmm….. I don’t see how.
Ms. Prose showed me how to read, how I should be reading in order to be a writer. And this book is so lovely, it made me feel like a better writer just having read it! Each chapter examines a different aspect of writing, from the minute detail like word choice, to broader topics like dialogue and character. Along the way, the author quotes passages from the great writers and shows why the choices they made have created classics. (As a result, there are a few new authors added to my to-read list.) As I read this book, Ms. Prose’s love for reading and the craft of writing fills every page, and made my fingers itch to start writing something truly beautiful.
Here are a few favorite passages:
“Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure. This may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you. You will do yourself a disservice if you confine your reading to the rising star whose six-figure, two-book contract might seem to indicate where your own work should be heading. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read such writers, some of whom are excellent and deserving of celebrity. I’m only pointing out that they represent the dot at the end of the long, glorious, complex sentence in which literature has been written.
With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.” p. 15-16
“The well-made sentence transcends time and genre. A beautiful sentence is a beautiful sentence, regardless of when it was written, or whether it appears in a play or a magazine article.” p. 36
“When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are not saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we are saying. As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.” p. 144
“Reading Chekhov, I felt not happy, exactly, but as close to happiness as I knew I was likely to come. And it occurred to me that this was the pleasure and mystery of reading, as well as the answer to those who say that books will disappear. For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on a bus.” p. 235
“When we think about how many terrifying things people are called on to do every day as they fight fires, defend their rights, perform brain surgery, give birth, drive on the freeway, and wash skycraper windows, it seems frivolous, self-indulgent, and self-important to talk about writing as an act that requires courage. What could be safer than sitting at your desk, lightly tapping a few keys, pushing your chair back, and pausing to see what marvelous tidbits of art your brain has brought forth to amuse you?
And yet most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know – those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.
All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.” p. 249-250