A Constructive Bit of Deconstruction

Posted: September 27, 2006 in Topics Writing-Related

Have you ever thought about why the great writers are so great? I mean really thought about it, as in sat down and examined their work, pulling it apart bit by bit to see what they did and how they did it? It can be very enlightening.

Sound too much like a literature class to you? Well, maybe, but the good thing is when you’re deconstructing for your own edification there are no tests (unless you count the test as to whether or not you’re accepted for publication, if that’s your goal. okay, that’s sort of a test…)

This is the theme of Francine Prose’s latest book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them. Prose urges the thoughtful reader to keep a shelf of the “heavies” beside her desk, so that when she feels either too confident or too awkward in her own writing she can pull one down, flip to a random passage, and see how the truly great really do write. Then she can have a quick comparison to her own writing, likely wail and gnash her teeth briefly, but then plunge into things with a renewed gusto.

There truly is a method to the madness of great writers, and to some extent it can be learned, or at the very least imitated. Modeling yourself after authors you admire is never a bad idea. You can’t copy or duplicate them, but you can use them as a scale to measure your own success.

Take any random paragraph from a work by a great author, say, this paragraph I flipped to in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying:

“We hold to the rope, the current curling and dimpling about our shoulders. But beneath that false blandness the true force of it leans against us lazily. I had not thought that water in July could be so cold. It is like hands moulding and prodding at the very bones…”

Curling and dimpling… Would I have thought to use those descriptives for water? No way! But it works, doesn’t it? It all works. In this one random paragraph the writing is lush and perfect.

How depressing, in a way, but how uplifting, in another. Look what you can do, what conventions you are free to shatter. If it sounds outrageous never mind, just put it out there in a draft. Then come back to it later and see what you think of it after having it rest a while. It’s like baking bread, really. You let the yeast rise, come back and punch it down, then let it rise again. Hopefully then you’ll be able to bake that idea at that point. Maybe not, maybe an extra punching down will be required, but that’s progress, right?

That’s the spirit. Heigh ho, etc.

Prose’s book is one I’ll most likely dip into at intervals. I don’t see myself reading it cover to cover immediately. For one thing, it does spoil the content of several short stories I haven’t read yet. I had Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” completely spoiled for me, plot-wise, and I’m a bit miffed about that. I’ll forgive her, mostly because I should have already read this one and I’m ashamed I haven’t, being Ms. Southern Literature Fan. But still, be warned, you may inadvertantly read a few plot spoilers along the way.

Check this one out if you have any desire at all to figure out why the greats are great. It’s very illuminating stuff, whether you’re a reader who admires writers or a writer yourself. At the least it will give you renewed respect for the craft (and sweat) behind perfect sentences, and remind you why the greats really are so great.


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