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Close Reading Essay

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Because if what people mean is: Can the love of lauguage be taught? Can a grft for storytelling be taught? thenthe enswer is no. Which may be why the’question is so often asked in a skeptical leng imFlying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can’t be tansmitted from teacher to student Lnagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help virh Paradire Lost,orKa{ka enduring d1s semirlsl in which his classmates irrforn. him thaq franklp they just don’t believe the part about the guywaking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.

VLrat confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but tJre fact that, when addressed to me, it’s being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty -What years. would it say about mq my students, and the hours’wete spent in the classroom if I said drat any attempt to teach the writing of fiction is a complete waste of timl?

I should probably just go ahead and admit that lve been com mi tting criminal fraud. to f-l an creative *iting be taught? t ] rt” ” r. “roo.6l” qu”Jtiorr, but no matter how \-/ often I’ve been asked it, I never krrow guite what That’s the experience I describe, the answer I give to people who ask about teaching creative writing: A workshop can be usefirl.

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A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right dass can encourage you and form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you. But that dass, as helpful as it was, is not where I learned to write. *itirg ike most-maybe all-vriters, I learned to write by and, by example, from reading books.

Instead I answer by recalling my owu most valuable experienee not as a teacher, but as a student in one of the few fietion workshops I have ever taken. This was in the 1970s, during ny brief careLr as a graduate student in medieval English literature, when I was allowed the indulgence of taling one fiction dass. Its generous teacher showed me, ,mong other things, how to line-edit my work For any writer, the abiJity to look at a sentetce and see what’s superfluous, what cen be altered revised, erpanded and, especially, cut, is bssential.

It’s satisfring to see that sentence shrinl, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, e conomical sharp. Meanwhile, my classmates were providing me with my first real audience. In that prehistory before mass photocopying enabled students to distribute manuscripts in advance, Irre read our work aloud. That year I was b”g*ning what would become my first novel Arld what made an important d. ifference to me was the attention I felt in the room as the others listened.

I was very dncouraged by their eagerness to hear’more 8 Long before 6e idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot consuuction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; tl:ey honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson- And who could have asked for better teachexs: generous, uncriticel blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessh forgiving as only the dead can be?

Though writers have leamed from the masters. in a formal. methodical way-Harrv Crews has described aking apart’a Graham Greene novel to see how many chapters it contained, how much time it covered how Greene handled pacin& tone, and point ofvieiv-the truth iS that this sort of education more often involves a kind of osmosis. A-fter I’ve written an essay in which lve quoted at length from great writers, so that fve had to copy out long passages of their work, I’ve noticed that my own work becomes, however briefly, just a little more fluenl In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved.

I read for pleasure, firsg but also more aualytically, conscious of stylef of dicrion, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as’I wrotq I discovered that writing like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a ti-e. It reguired what a friend calls lputting every word on u-ial for its Lfe”, changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a sqttrlna and putting the comma back in.

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. Arrd though I can’t recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks? courses of private lessons in th”e term paper on the theme of blindness il Oedipus Rex and Kinglear. Newere supposed to go through the rwo tragedies and cirde every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and visiort then draw some conclusion on which we would assigned a art of fiction.

When I was a high school junio4 -our English teacher base our final essay. The exercise seemed to us dul! mechanical. We felt we were way beyond it AII of us knew that blindness played a starring role in both dramas StiL we liked our E. nglish teacher, and we wanted to please him. And searciing for everyrelevantword turned out to have ari enjoyable seasure-hunt aspect, a Were’s Waldo detective thrill. Once we started looking for eyes, we found them everywhere, glinting at us, winking from every page.

Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyonds eye, writers leamed by reading their predecessors. Th*y studied meter with OYi{ plot construction with Homer, -omedy with Aristophanes. T’ong before the blinding of Oedipus or Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was prepariag us, consciously or uncousciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to b6 dear-sighted or obtuse, short-sighted or prescieng to heed the signs and wamings, to see or deny what was right in front of one’s eyes.

Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent-all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness. tacing those patterns and making those connections was fun. Like cracking a code that the playwright had em. bedded in the text, a riddle that existed just for me to decipher. I felt as if I were engaged in some intimate communication with dre writer, as if the ghosts of Sophodes and Shakespeare had been waiting patiendy all those centuries for a bookjsh .attention to whatever each word or phrase is tr4nsmitti’.

Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read” which seems only fitting, because that is how the books we are reading were written in the 6rst place. The more we read, the fasterwe can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehen{ the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book.

At 6rsq the thrill of our own brand-new expertise is all we ask or expect from Dick and Jane. But soon we begin to ask what else those marks on the page can give us. We begin to want information, entertainmeng invention, even truth and beauty. W’e concentrate; we skim, we skip words, put down the book and daydream, start over, and reread. We firrish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have Tissed, or the ways io which time and age have affected our understanding. As a child, I was drawn to the works of the great escapist chjldren’s writers.

Especially if I could rerurn to my own bed in time to turn offtl:e lights,I Iiked trading my famiJiar sixteen-year-old to come along and fiad them. I believed that I was learning to read in a whole new way. But this was only pardy uue. Because in fact I was merely relearning to read in an old way that I had leamed; but forgotten. e all begin as close readers.

Even before we learn to read, the process ofbeing read aloud to, and of listenirig, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a trme, in which we are payrng world for the London of the four children whose nanny parachuted into their lives on her umbrella and who turned t}re mo$t routine shopping uip into a magical outing.

I would have gladly followed the white rabbit down into the rabbit hole and had tea with the Mad Hatter. I loved novels in which children stepped through portals-a garden, a wardrobe-into an alternate uoiverse. Children love the imagination, with its kaleidoscopic possibilities and its protest against the way that children are always being told exacdy what’s true and false, what’s real and what’s illusion.

Perhaps my taste in reading had something to do with the limitations I was discovering, day by day: the brick walls of time and space, science and probabfity, to say nothing of whatever messages I was picking. up from the culture. I liked novels with plucky heroines like Pippi Longstocking, the astringent Jane Eyre, and the daughters in Little Wonzw grls whose resourcefulness and intelligence donot automatically exclude them from the pleasures of male attention. Each word of these novels was a yellow brick ia the road to Oz.

Some chapters I read and leread so as to repeat the dependable, out-of-body sensation of being someulzere ebe. I read addictively, constantly. On one-family vacation my father pleaded with me to close my book long enough to look at the Grand Canyon. I borrowed stacks of books from the public libraxy: novels, biographies, history anything that looked even remotely engaging. Along with pre-adolescence came a more pressing desire for escape. I read more widely, more indiscriminately, and mostly with an interest in how far a book could take me from my life and how long it could keep me there.

Gone With rlze LVind Pearl Buck. Edna Ferber. f’at James Michener best-sellers with a dash of history sprinkled in to cool down the steamy love scenes between the Hawaiian girls and the missionaries, the geishas and the GIs. I also FtcTtoN rssuE 2006 lO THE ATLANTIC MoNTHLY appreciated these books for the often misieading nuggets of information they provided about sex in that innocent era, the 1950s. I turned the pages of these Page-turners as fast as I could.

Reading was like eating alone, with that same element of bingeing. I was fortunate to have good teachers, and friend. s who were also readers. The books I read bdcame more chal’ lenging, betterwritten, more substantial. Sieinbe& Camus.

Hemingway, Fiugerald, TWain, Salingea Arrne Frank. Litde beatniks, my friends and I were passionate fans of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We read . Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and the proto-hippie classics of Herman Hesse, Carlos Castenada-Mary Poppiru for people who thought they’d outgrown the flying nanny. I-must have been vaguely aware of the power of language, but only dimly, and only as it applied to whatever effect the book was having on me.

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