Learning to Write Through Reading
Two things happened yesterday that reminded me why I’m a writer and a teacher. Over the past thirty years, I’ve published a dozen books and taught thousands of students to write. I’d known since third grade that all I wanted to do with my life was to teach and write. The path I’ve taken hasn’t always been smooth or straight, but I’m one of the lucky people who has actually done with my life what I hoped to do.
Yesterday afternoon, a student I haven’t seen in twenty-five years called me. A good writer and great student, Susan is now a doctor and a mother of three. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Maisy, is an avid reader and writer, and Susan wanted to talk with me about how she could encourage Maisy. My answer, though stock, is true: read and write every day. A writer writes, and only a reader has some sense of how writing really works. Maisy writes poetry and has recently begun to write longer fictional pieces. Life at her age is inherently confusing, and any reflective writing has got to be both helpful and healthful.
I learned to write, in large part, by keeping a journal. For me, the journal was more a notebook than a diary. Though I did include my emotional responses to events in my life, far more often I tried to describe whatever had happened. Scribbling in journals taught me more about writing (flowing language and following ideas and finding salient details and catching people’s voices) than did all the papers I wrote for school.
Whatever classes I taught, I had students keep daily or weekly journals. Most often in my teaching career, especially before the plague of school shootings in America, I didn’t read the students’ journal entries. I simply checked them off. That the students were writing was more important to me than what exactly they wrote—and I wanted each of them to find his or her voice.
My suggestion that Maisy read every day isn’t pedantic. That students (or any of us, for that matter) should read habitually is exactly the point. Obviously, I don’t want her to read trash, but a lot of popular stuff is plenty good enough. After all, Shakespeare’s plays were popular entertainment. And, frankly, some classics fail to speak to me. A Hundred Years of Solitude still takes my breath, but War and Peace involves a battle I’m no longer willing to fight. I can appreciate what James Joyce is doing in Ulysses, but I don’t like the book. I learned as much about writing from Graham Greene’s “entertainments” as I did from his “serious” fiction.
Last night, I had a Bone Box book chat with a group of well-educated, well-read, and well-informed women. I always like talking with readers, and I inevitably learn from them. This particular group was really interested in the story’s setting—Istanbul, the area around ancient Ephesus, and Cappadocia. A couple of the women had visited Turkey and, just as I did, had fallen in love with the area and the people. The members of the book club also wanted to know which of Bone Box’s characters I like most (Abrahim) and which character is most like me (none really—I’ve felt the deepest kinship with the cetacean narrator of Whale Song).
All of the women asked compelling questions about writing; none of their comments was about the currently cuckoo business of publishing. We shared wine and fruit and chocolate, and at one point, the host mentioned that she likes to read books twice, once for the story and once to figure out how the writer did it. Could a writer and teacher ask for anything more from any reader?
Jay Amberg is the author of eleven books. He received a BA from Georgetown University and a PhD from Northwestern University. He has taught high school and college students since 1972.
His latest book, Bone Box, is now available from Amika Press. Amberg has also published Cycle, America’s Fool, Whale Song, and compiled 52 Poems for Men.
Prior to Amika Press, Amberg published thriller novels Doubloon (Forge), Blackbird Singing (Forge) and Deep Gold (Warner Books).
Among his books on teaching are School Smarts and The Study Skills Handbook, published by Good Year. Amberg wrote The Creative Writing Handbook (Good Year) with Mark Henry Larson and Verbal Review and Workbook for the SAT (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) with Robert S Boone.