I Don't Know Much About Writing
[Several years ago, when I was just beginning to take my own writing more seriously, I joined a blogging site that aimed to help writers develop their craft by means of interaction with lots of other writers. After having spent several months there and watching the way the site worked, I was surprised to find how many of the good writers there were not very good readers. So, I posted this at that site. Since the place has since folded and the original post is no longer available, I thought HubPages might make a nice new home for this modified version of that article.]
There are a lot of people maintaining websites out there who do an outstanding job writing about writing. It is a good thing, and something I enjoy popping in to look at from time to time.
I, however, know nothing about writing. I still have to work quite hard at the business side of it. I do give a lot of thought to the craft, the creative processes, of writing, but really, "my thing" is in a related but different area.
For me, if there is something I think I know how to do, it is not writing but reading. Reading well -- and misreading too -- formed a big part of my postgrad studies, and reading well -- and misreading too -- is on my mind again, for various reasons.
I think there are a few things one must know in order to read well.
First, what are you reading? Is it a play? A poem? A novel? A blog post? Each of these genres should be read differently. Indeed, a failure to recognize a book as fiction can create all sorts of silly hoopla surrounding it, as seen in the whole debate surrounding Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code some years back. Knowing what is being read should shape the approach of the reader, which is the sole reason I see genre as being significant at all. It shapes the text by adhering to (or carefully departing from) certain conventions, and knowing how it does so will enhance the reading process.
Second, knowing when you are reading is also useful. A text is shaped by the material and cultural realities of the society in which it was written. Knowing and understanding this can raise the reader's awareness of what is happening in the text. I think this is an aspect of literary studies that can be overlooked. A book from Renaissance England needs to be approached differently than a book from postcolonial Africa. Different forces have shaped the text, and to read them in the same way is to potentially impose an interpretation on the text rather than draw one out from it.
Third, it is crucial to know who you are reading. By this, I am absolutely not saying that you must know who the author of the text is and dig out his/her biographical information in order to understand the text. That is, in my mind, a very wrong approach to take. Rather, there is the point that is commonly understood, but too often forgotten — that a speech should not be analyzed in a way that it is taken out of the mouth of the speaker (i.e., the character doing the speaking), or one might take a negative point in a text as a positive one. Equally important is the need to understand that a text is spoken through a persona, and does not necessarily tell us what the author thought, felt, or experienced. Creating a text is an imaginative process, and it might have absolutely nothing to do with the author's "real" thoughts and feelings. As an example, I remember in my high school English class hearing classmates say they thought, upon reading "A Modest Proposal," that Swift was cruel and heartless, and that perhaps his views formed a foundation for Nazi thought. (OK, yes, that was a really dumb group of classmates.) As absurd as that might seem, such misreadings happen at all levels of literary studies. Some critics take The Sonnets as evidence that Shakespeare was bisexual. He might have been, but it will take much greater evidence than a collection of poems to prove that to me. Perhaps it is skeptical to say so -- but then, perhaps skepticism is necessary for effective reading too.
This raises a question for me. How do we in cyber-world read each other? Is a blog always a reflection of one's deepest darkest feelings? Or might the blogger effectively sustain a persona, even throughout his comments section in a post? Does a tweet about self-destruction or self-loathing mean the poster is really suicidal, or is that a character speaking to us? What about this guy? Does he really have a need for more time with his therapist?
What do you say? Are we supposed to believe everything we read in this virtual place? How can we tell what is supposed to be a revealing of the deepest self, and what is just good, imaginative, creative writing?
© 2009 Shelly Bryant
Update (since the writing of this post)
I've learned a lot about both the craft and the business of writing since I first posted this entry. I've had a fair bit of work published since then, but still... I always feel I am a better reader than writer. — SB