Reading Like a Writer

Over a six-hour-flight across the country, I read for the third time Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

When I landed, dizzy and ravenous, it wasn’t from the jetlag and the meager airplane food, but from a book now highlighted in yellow, green and blue – that’s what reading a book for the third time does.

In this Guide for People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want to Write Them Francine Prose begs us to slow down and pay attention to words, out of which all literature is crafted.

Isn’t summer the perfect time to slow down and even pause?

I highlighted too many sentences and dog-eared too many pages, but here are the ones that struck me most – for different reasons. I hope they will tempt you to read – or read again – this outstanding book. It won’t make writing any easier but will rekindle the joy of storytelling.

On Close Reading: “Writing, like reading, is done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time.”

On Words: “The responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language. There are many occasions in literature in which telling us far more effective than showing.”

Good news that trigger a sigh of relief from the writer.

On Sentences: “Gertrude Stein wished to construct sentences and use language in a way that reproduced, on the page, the operation of consciousness, the chatter of the inner voice that propels us through the day, the voice in which we understand and explain our own lives to ourselves.”

On Dialogue: “If we do want to write fiction set in the world in which we live, it’s useful to study the words of authors who do have an ear for dialogue, for the locutions people use, for the accidental poetry with which humans express and conceal their thoughts and feelings.”

On Details: “Details aren’t only the building blocks with which a story is put together, they’re also clues to something deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment.”

On Gesture: “Mediocre writing abounds with physical clichés and stock gestures.”

image(7)“Too often, gestures are used as markers, to create beats and pauses in a conversation that, we fear, may rush by too quickly without them.”


On Learning From Chekhov: “Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means…The wider and deeper your observational range, the better, the more interestingly and truthfully you will write.”

And from Chekhov himself, one quotation: “It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, the wider they conceive their horizons to be. And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees – this in itself constitutes clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”

On Reading for Courage: “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.

If the culture sets up a series of rules that the writer is instructed to observe, reading will show you how these rules have been ignored in the past, and the happy outcome. So let me repeat, once more: literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.”

That is some relief.

Francine Prose also talks of her experience, when away from home and afraid of running out of books she decided to read Proust in French. She discovered that reading a masterpiece with a dictionary is in itself a lesson in reading word by word.

I really liked that one.

At the end of her book she has compiled her own list of Books to Be Read Immediately. All illustrate the eleven chapters of Reading Like a Writer.

I’m glad a few are from French writers and I certainly hope for a long summer.

My favorite sentence from Reading Like a Writer: “For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolation along with us on a bus.”

Or on a plane.

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