Of Reading for Writing


Charlotte-Mason-quote-bookmarks-vintage-girl-reading-bookCindy asks:

I am not questioning the need to know grammar, in general, or the grammar of any subject, in particular, I am questioning how that is best accomplished.


But should the technicalities of a subject take up so much time that we never get to the heart of the matter?

One of our regular reader-friends here sent me this Atlantic Article, which I recommend in its entirety.  The author is writing about the pervasive self-help books which are essentially cookbooks for how to be a good writer.  He was asked to contribute an essay to one such book, and this is part of his contribution:

Finally, a word about this kind of instruction: it is always less effective than actually reading the books of the writers who precede you, and who are contemporary with you. There are too many “how-to” books on the market, and too many would-be writers are reading these books in the mistaken idea that this will teach them to write. I never read such a book in my life, and I never will. What I know about writing I know from having read the work of the great writers. If you really want to learn how to write, do that. Read Shakespeare, and all the others whose work has withstood time and circumstance and changing fashions and the assaults of the ignorant and the bigoted; read those writers and don’t spend a lot of time analyzing them. Digest them, swallow them all, one after another, and try to sound like them for a time. Learn to be as faithful to the art and craft as they all were, and follow their example. That is, wide reading and hard work. One doesn’t write out of some intellectual plan or strategy; one writes from a kind of beautiful necessity born of the reading of thousands of good stories poems plays… One is deeply involved in literature, and thinks more of writing than of being a writer. It is not a stance.

The publishers wished to delete all the italicized words from his essay.  He declined, and they declined to use it.

Richard Bausch goes on to say:

With a frequency that is dismaying, I run into people who are widely versed in the manuals, and quasi-literate in all other ways. They have no sense of the love of the art they wish to practice, because they have very seldom or never been in the thrall of a work of fiction as practiced by the great artists in their own literary heritage, or even the good craftsmen in the genres. They may have had some exposure to the great writers, or some anthology-exposure to a fraction of someone, little pieces of the treasure that is there. Or their reading is so deficient that in fact the only books they’ve read that might be called fiction are the few best sellers that achieve some literary merit or cachet. Which is to say that these people, many of them college students, want to be considered serious writers; they seek literary excellence; but they have come to believe that they can accomplish this by means of the convenient shortcut. And the industry that produces the how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.
My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write.

Isn’t it possible, even probable, that the reason adults who fancy themselves writers think that the self-help books, the recipe books for writers, are the way to approach this craft because of what they learned in school about writing?  Having grown up on a diet of the cookbook approach to good writing without ever being introduced, formally or otherwise, to the great classics in their natural habitat, that cookbook approach is what they relate to in adulthood.
I suspect it is also likely that the way writing is taught in schools teaches students the wrong model for ‘good’ writing.  I often see a stiff, somewhat unnatural style of writing complimented by others as ‘good’ writing- but it’s not good writing at all.  It is still and awkwardly formal, like a robot attempting to dance.  The grammar is correct, but the style is not genuine.

I’m going to use a commenter over at Cindy’s post here as my hunting dog and share a CM quote she dug up:

Of Form II (ages 9-12) she [Miss Mason] says,”Composition is not an adjunct but an integral part of their education in every subject…But let me say there must be no attempt to teach composition.”… Then about Form III and IV she says “some definite teaching in the art of composition is advisable, but not too much, lest the young scholars be saddled with a stilted style which may encumber them for life.” She also says composition requires “no special attention until the pupil is old enough to take of his own accord a critical interest in the use of words.”

You may also be interested in some of our other posts on Charlotte Mason’s approach to language arts, grammar, composition, spelling, etc.

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