Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Advice to Writers

After more than 40 years of teaching students to write, I should have some valuable insights to impart, especially to my upcoming summer workshop on style.

I should be able to do better than Barbara Kingsolver, who reportedly told a writers' group that the only advice she could think of was to stop smoking and obey traffic laws so that they would live to see their work published.

Well,at least this is more practical than some of my customary advice, which I suspect the majority of my students have not really heard. It's based on my conviction that I cannot really teach them to write; all I can teach them is to revise.

This means I hope they learn to respect each sentence and to take time to polish it or condense it or expand it, as the need may be. I hope my students have read so much quality writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, that they have learned to pick up an unconscious sense of what a good sentence is. This means that they must read their drafts aloud to hear how they sound.

These two imperatives are inseparable: reading and listening. We listen to how we sound on the page in relation to all the printed voices we have read and remembered.

So to be a good writer means, above all, being a good reader. All the other advice is secondary.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Man Knitting

Yesterday I saw a man knitting in the public library. He seemed to be a man in his fifties, fit as a runner, and totally unfazed by the possibility that he might be observed.

I am always fascinated by the varieties of masculinity. Most of the men I know are like me: acutely sensitive to any failure to live up to the masculine stereotype, crippling though it can be, and aware of the invisible chorus of male critics, to use a term by Dr. Frank Pittman.

Pittman wrote a valuable book about men, "Man Enough," which I assigned to my students when I taught a course in the Literature of Masculinity. Actually, we called it "masculinities," to recognize the various manifestations of the cultural patterns that men learn in various ways to adopt.

I admired that man in the library, publicly doing something counter-cultural and being at peace with who he was. What a shame that I could not say something directly to him. . . .