Because Reading is Fundamental

I miss reading. I really do. In a big, big way. And it has, especially over the past couple of days, been making me very, very sad. It started after I read Joshua Bodwell’s article in the most recent issue of Poets & Writers, “You Are What You Read.” “Not long ago,” he begins

I had an unsettling epiphany that probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise but nevertheless left me disheartened for the better part of an afternoon.

I won’t get to all the books I want to read in my lifetime.

For the average reader, this is one of life’s relatively benign epiphanies; as a writer it’s a serious limitation. After all, writers are readers first. Most of us were consuming books long before we ever picked up a pen or pencil, and confronting the fact that there is a limit to the number of them we will read feels a bit like realizing there’s a finite amount of oxygen in the room.

I don’t really buy the oxygen metaphor, but I endorse wholly the idea Bodwell is trying to get at. Indeed, a jolt of regret ran through me more strongly than I have felt in a long time when I read the words “writers are readers first,” because I can’t remember the last time that statement would have been saying something true about me. Sure, I read. I read for school, both material that I am teaching and that my students write; I read the newspaper and articles in magazines; I read blog posts and occasionally the discussion threads they spawn; I read emails and memos and occasionally scholarly articles and other similar material that feeds my academic work; but it has been years since I have been able to create at the center of my life a space for the kind of reading that nourishes me as a writer, reading that puts me back in touch with myself just for the sake of that experience, that connects me to language in ways that are challenging and revitalizing, that affirms my right to claim a place in this world simply because I am, that shapes who I am and shows me possibilities of being I would not otherwise have imagined.

It’s easy to lay the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of my adult responsibilities–having a job, needing to work extra hours because we need money, being a partner to the woman I married nearly twenty years ago and a parent to a thirteen year old boy–and, to some degree, putting the blame there is not inaccurate. Those responsibilities do take up time I could otherwise spend reading. It is also true, however, that I simply have not prioritized reading the way I used to, not so much in terms of how much time I can give to it, but in the sense that I’ve made choices about how to use my time that have pushed the kind of reading I am talking about here to the margins of my life. I did not start this post thinking about New Year’s Resolutions–since I don’t really believe in them anyway–but it is appropriate that I should be starting it on New Year’s Day, the day after I finished the first book in a very long time that I read just because I wanted to read it–though I didn’t start reading for that reason (about which more below)–Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

Fish divides his book into the two sections named in the title, treating the first, roughly, as a discussion of form and the second, more or less, as a discussion of content. Of course, since the two are not really separable, his analysis of one often bleeds over into an analysis of the other. Nonetheless, the distinction is useful, since it allows Fish to ground a lot of what he has to say in the notion that a sentence is a material thing, like paint, an object with a structure and characteristics independent of the particular content the sentence has been fashioned to convey. Too many people who want to write–at least this is true of too many of the students I meet who say they “lo-ove” to write (and they almost always turn “love” into a two syllable word)–just don’t get this. Here is the first paragraph of Fish’s book:

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?'” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.'” The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will have in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other. (1)

There are few pleasures that I enjoy more than getting my hands dirty in the tangled mess that the sentences of my first drafts usually are; and if we’re talking about poems, in which case you need to add to that mess the lines over which the sentences break, and perhaps a meter and/or a rhyme scheme, then the pleasure is even greater. Right now, there are two piece I am working on, an essay and a poem, each one needing revision. I have set them aside until I finish prepping my technical writing class for next semester–I am writing this post to take a break from that preparation–and I can’t wait to be able to pick each one up again and give to revising it the solid chunk of time that it will need (and deserve).

My students, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, feel no such pleasure in revision. Indeed, most of them barely know what revision is, thinking instead that the only changes that ever need to be made to a piece of writing they’ve produced are grammatical or proofreading corrections. These students, I think, can usually be divided into two large groups: those who find writing to be a real chore, but who are nonetheless able and willing to write for class with some degree of competence, and those for whom writing can be a truly painful experience, who are convinced it is a skill they will never acquire–that they are congenitally bad at it anyway–whose work is most commonly labeled remedial and who therefore hate writing.

There are reasons that this second group feels the way it does, and I could devote an awful lot of space to meditating on why, but those reasons don’t concern me now. Nor am I really interested in why the first group feels the way it does. No one is obligated to like writing. What I am interested in is a stance towards language that, in my experience, these two groups seem to share. More interestingly, it is a stance I remember being articulated in an essay on poetry that I read a long time ago but that I can’t lay my hands on right now. (I want to say the writer was Wendell Berry and that the essay was called something like “A Poet’s Education” or “The Education of a Poet,” but I can’t remember for sure.) In any event, according to my memory, the essayist was asking why people so resisted the idea that writers in general, and poets in particular, should have, or require, as formal an education in their art as painters, say, require in theirs. I read the essay at least 10 or 15 years ago, and it is likely older than that, so I think the piece was part of a conversation about why MFA programs were necessary. The reason the writer felt the essay was necessary, if I remember the argument correctly, is that while everyone seems to understand paint or sound as material about the properties of which people might be ignorant, and about which, therefore, aspiring artists or composers need to learn, since just about everyone who wants to be a writer is already a native speaker of–has already, on some measurable level, mastered–the language in which they want to write, it is much harder to see how people might be ignorant of language in the same way.

This is a point that I think almost every freshman composition text I have ever tried to use has missed, with the exception of They Say, I Say, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein: the idea that college freshman need to learn how to write not at the level of large rhetorical forms like narration, description, comparison-contrast and the like, but at the level of language, of how language works to structure and create meaning. Graff and Birkenstein do this by foregrounding the use of linguistic templates that they say every competent writer uses. So, for example–and those three words right there are an example of such a template: so, for example–their book contains examples and exercises that resemble a kind of academic Mad-Lib (remember those?). Here are two moderately sophisticated examples of templates:

In recent discussions of __________, a controversial issue has been whether ____________. On the one hand, some argue that ____________. From this perspective, ____________. On the other hand, however, others argue that ____________. In the words of one of this view’s main proponents, “___________.” According to this view, __________. In sum, then, the issue is whether _________ or ___________. My own view is that ____________. Though I concede that _________, I still maintain that __________. For example, _______. Although some might object that _________, I reply that ________. The issue is important because ________. (9)

Anyone who has ever written an argumentative or persuasive piece of writing should recognize as one they have used the structure of reasoning that is given form in those two examples. More to the point, that structure is available to everyone; and it can be learned, like the playing of scales or the mixing of colors, through practice. My students often resist this notion because they think that using the templates will make their writing programmatic, that it will straitjacket them into a voice that is not their own; and it’s not only my freshman composition students who feel this way. My creative writing students who worry that reading other poets will somehow contaminate their style, rob them of what is unique in their work, are expressing a similar fear; and I think it is in part a fear rooted in a consciousness of themselves as already having mastered the language they speak, in which they express themselves using a voice that is already no one else’s and that they feel they will lose if, for example, they try on for size the templates that Graff and Birkenstein are talking about or really study as models to learn from the creative writing of established authors.

The irony, of course, is that those students who do consciously and attentively work with the models I provide for them in the classroom–whether that work is to adopt the models or to work purposefully against them–start to sound more like themselves than they did before; and this is because the scaffolding that the models provide actually allows the content of my students’ ideas, or creative vision, to reveal itself more fully than the muddled, muddy, poorly edited language in which they all-too-often otherwise write. Indeed, Graff and Birkenstein make precisely this point in a couple of different ways, pointing out, for the benefit of instructors using the book, that “templates have a long and rich history. Public orators from ancient Greece and Rome through the European Renaissance studied rhetorical topoi or “commonplaces,” model passages and formulas that represented the different strategies available to public speakers” (xvii). Later, in a section addressed to students called “Do Templates Stifle Creativity?”, the authors make the point more directly:

As for the belief that pre-established forms undermine creativity, we think it rests on a very limited vision of what creativity is all about. In our view, the above template and the others in this book will actually help your writing become more original and creative, not less. After all, even the most creative forms of expression depend on established patterns and structures. Most songwriters, for instance, rely on a time-honored verse-chorus-verse pattern, and few people would call Shakespeare uncreative because he didn’t invent the sonnet or dramatic forms that he used to such dazzling effect. Even the most avant-garde, cutting-edge artists…need to master the basic forms that their work improvises on, departs from, and goes beyond, or else their work will come across as uneducated child’s play. Ultimately, then, creativity and originality lie not in the avoidance of established forms, but in the imaginative use of them. (10-11)

Fish’s goal in How to Write a Sentence is to illuminate some of those forms, not in the template-sense that Graff and Birkenstein are referring to, but as sentence “styles,” by which he means ways of organizing the world; and he wants to do this illumination with as little reference to formal, prescriptive grammatical terms as possible. By and large he succeeds, though not at the level which first excited me about his book, which was that I might be able to use it in my classes. Published as a hardcover, the book costs just $19.99, much less costly than the relatively inexpensive (for college texts) They Say, I Say, which I think costs around $40 or $45, if you buy the volume with readings. Unfortunately, while I really like a lot of what Fish has to say about sentences–“the success of a sentence is measured by the degree to which the [writer’s intended] effect has been achieved” or “The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is ‘What am I trying to do?'” (37)–the sentences he chooses as examples, throughout the book, would be entirely inappropriate for my freshman composition students, who are neither aspiring writers nor English majors. Here, for example, is a sentence from John Milton’s An Apology Against a Pamphlet (1642) that Fish uses as an example of the “subordinating style:”

For me, readers, although I cannot say that I am utterly untrained in those rules which best rhetoricians have given, or unacquainted with those examples which the prime authors of eloquence have written in any learned tongue, yet true eloquence I find to be none but the serious and hearty love of truth, and that whose mind so ever is fully possessed with a fervent desire to know good things and with the dearest charity to infuse the knowledge of them into others, when such a man would speak, his words (by what I can express), like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about him at command, and in well ordered files, as he would wish, fall aptly into their own places. (Qtd. in Fish 57)

It’s not that I think my students are unable, intellectually or otherwise, to appreciate sentences like the one I have just quoted, but were I to assign them Fish’s book, I would be derelict in my duty if I did not provide them with a good reason to use Milton to develop that ability. Fish takes for granted Milton’s relevance to his readers, and to the degree that he does so, it is clear that I, and people like me, not people like the overwhelming majority of my students, are his audience.

An obvious point, perhaps, but thinking through this distinction in terms of audience between They Say, I Say and How to Write a Sentence has been for me less about the differences between the audiences, or even between the books, than about figuring out the relationships between and among myself as a writer, a teacher and a reader. I started out by saying that I miss doing the kind of reading that feeds my writing, and Fish’s book, despite the fact that his example sentences are taken overwhelming from canonical (white male) writers (with whom there is nothing wrong; it’s just a very narrow field of vision), connected me once more to one of the ways that reading can be so nourishing. Here he is taking apart, as a writer, not a teacher and not a critic, but as a writer, the first sentence of Agatha Christie’s book Nemesis: “In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.”

Even before we meet Christie’s detective-heroine, Miss Marple, we know a great deal about her. She has a routine, she follows it, and it occurs daily. Indeed, it is more than a routine. It is a custom, a word that suggests tradition, duration, and an obligatory practice tied to social class and norms. (These suggestions are enhanced by the slow progress of her full title, “Miss Jane Marple.”) Moreover, oe senses that “custom” is not for her a thing easily trifled with. Her customs, we intuit, are methodically, even ritualistically observed. We know this from the word “unfold”; unfolding is so much more formal than opening; merely opening a newspaper, in any which way, would seem indecorous and overhasty to her…. The word that sets the seal on this mini-portrait is “second.” The word is casually delivered, but because it comes late and constitutes a small surprise–it tells us that this is part two of her custom, something we hadn’t been expecting–it calls attention to itself and to its message: Miss Marple is not content with one source of information; she has to know everything. And she will know everything. You wouldn’t want to be someone who has something to hide. (100-101)

I remember when I used to write paragraphs like that in my journal trying to figure out how and why the words of certain writers were able to move me as powerfully as they did, and it makes me sad that I have not done that for a very long time. Or at least that I have not done it for myself, for its own pleasure, its own sake; that, most recently anyway, I have done it only in the service of teaching. Indeed, I had not realized until I finished How to Write a Sentence just how thoroughly teaching had infiltrated my sense of myself as a literary person, a reader and a writer. It’s evident to some degree in the form this blog post has taken, moving as it does through a discussion of writing pedagogy in order to get to here, to the issues that are most important to me.

I used to dismiss the warnings of writers who talked about the dangers that teaching could pose to being able to write, to do one’s own work. For a long time, I was teaching and I was writing, and I was productive. I’ve published five books after all (The Teller of Tales is not yet on the page that link takes you to); I have begun to make a small name for myself as a translator of classical Iranian poetry; my own book of poems was well-received and well-reviewed when it came out; but if I am honest with myself, I have to admit that the more I became immersed in my professional life, the more I pushed writing and reading into the corners of the larger life I was living as a husband, father and more, stealing time for it when I could, always putting other things first, and it’s only now that I am allowing myself to feel how deeply unsatisfying this has been, how, little by little, I have let this part of who I am–where I am most fully engaged with the world; or, better, where my engagement with the world takes its best and most enduring and most meaningful and even most joyous form–slip away. I love teaching and everything it stands for, and it’s important to me to make clear that this post is not about being burned out. I’m not leaving my profession. Rather, it’s about remembering that my profession exists in the context of a much larger truth about who I am, that I am, as e. e. cummings said of poets in his introduction to Is 5, someone “to whom things made matter very little–somebody who is obsessed by Making.” It is time for me to organize my life once more around that truth.

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

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11 Responses to Because Reading is Fundamental

  1. 1
    Martha Joy says:

    Thank you very much for sharing, I enjoyed reading all of it. Your writing seems so effortless. You mention doing this post as “a break from preparing your next semester”, so it can’t have taken that much time, and still it’s coherent, structured and interesting. The text pulled at me from the first paragraph and I finished it all in one sitting, going back to reread some of the passages and quotes. It also sent me out searching for a blog post by a favorite author that I read just last week, even though it is from March 2011. Please have a look at Ursula K. LeGuin on the topic of swearing. Thank you for not.

    Your thoughts about writing makes me want to write better. There is not much writing in my life anymore, not like it used to be when I was a student*. Some status updates on Facebook, some rambling blog comments, and chatting with friends and family. I do not expect or want to be an athour of any kind, but it’s important to me to be able to express my thoughts in such a way that they are coherent and persuasive, both in English and my native language, Norwegian. I obviously need more practice for that, as recent forays into commenting here and on NSWATM shoes me. The templates you quote look like they could be very useful to me.

    * I was outside those two groups of students you mentioned, I think. I have never enjoyed writing, and have shed a lot of tears over writing assignments, from age 7 and up, but I have always done it well enough to get 6 and 5 (analogous to A and B+). I knew how to perform the labour, but not how to enjoy the craft.

  2. Martha,

    Thanks so much for the kind words!

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    but it has been years since I have been able to create at the center of my life a space for the kind of reading that nourishes me as a writer,

    After which comes a descriptive passage that I had a little trouble getting my hands around. I find the concept intriguing, though. Can you give a concrete example?

    those for whom writing can be a truly painful experience, who are convinced it is a skill they will never acquire–that they are congenitally bad at it anyway–whose work is most commonly labeled remedial and who therefore hate writing.

    Tell them that they have to understand that writing is a skill. Some people will take to it readily. Some people, such as themselves, need to work at it for some time before they break through, but they can still get there. My father-in-law was a carpenter. He could use a hammer and saw like they were extensions of his brain. Me, not so much. They, like I, are fated to smash their fingers a number of times before they figure out how to hit a nail square. They may never build a house – they may never make a living as an author. But they will learn how to put up a set of shelves so that they are square and level and will hold up a set of books without danger of collapse – they will learn how to write some sentences that will express an idea and convey a concept clearly. That will suffice. And it will put them ahead of a great many people for any profession or job they end up pursuing. It’s worth smashing your fingers a few times.

  4. 4
    shuu_iam says:

    I do aspire to be an author, and found this article very interesting. I hate editing, mainly because I like working linearly through the story as I write it rather than backtracking and getting less of a sense of accomplishment. I also was able to easily, without editing, get good grades on papers all through my life, so I never really learned how to do it… This might also be a major variation between writing fiction verses nonfiction, or maybe even between writing escapist fiction verses literary works. Sentences to me are about advancing the story in a way that easily connects with the reader, and while I loved the Agatha Christie example, the one from Milton almost feels like snobbery put into writing. Like the reader somehow has to be worthy of understanding it, or must be only the most sophisticated and cultured sort who would take pleasure from the slow deciphering of meaning, rather than move on to something easier and more relaxing.

    Anyways, I found this to be a very interesting post, so thank you. Milton verses Christie verses the sample paragraphs really shows how a style of writing can be directed at a specific group (this writing is for fun, this writing is for academic persuasion, etc.), which, as someone who’s recently been working on her resume, is something that’s been on my mind.

  5. Ron:

    I will respond to the first question you asked later, when I am home and have the time to look at my bookshelf–and I realize you were not necessarily asking me for a list of books, and that’s not all I am going to give you, but it’s part of how I want to answer you. Meanwhile, I want to respond to this:

    Tell them that they have to understand that writing is a skill…. And it will put them ahead of a great many people for any profession or job they end up pursuing.

    On one level, of course, and of course I tell them that, and of course I understand that for some people this level of response is the only one that is going to be meaningful, and I understand very well the importance of writing to professional success on all levels. I teach technical writing to engineering students few if any of whom are going to be technical writers per se–in other words, they need technical writing skills; they do not need to be “communications professionals”–and so I don’t want anything I am about to write to be construed as dismissing the importance of the point you are making, but I want to push back a bit against the lowest-common-denominator notion that employment is the best and only justification for acquiring the skill of competent writing. Mostly, since I assume people on this blog would agree that there is value beyond employment in being able to write, I am being leery here of a pedagogy in which teaching to that lowest common denominator is the point–and, just to be clear, I am not saying you suggested this. But if the only reason I can offer students, remedial or otherwise, for learning to write competently is that it will help them get a job, then I don’t really have much to say about the value of writing to the 18 & 19 year olds in my classes who don’t know what kind of career they want, for whom the realities of professional life are at best an abstraction.

  6. 6
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Richard – you seem to have a pretty different experience with your 18 and 19 year old students than I have; my students often don’t know what career they want, but they constantly want to know how everything I teach them will help them get jobs and do well in them in the future. I hear the word “employability” a lot, both from University mandates but also from the students themselves.

    I wonder if it’s a cultural difference between British students and American students, or a difference between the institutions we teach at, or just random sample differences.

  7. 7
    RonF says:

    I assume people on this blog would agree that there is value beyond employment in being able to write,

    You can certainly include me in that group.

    I am being leery here of a pedagogy in which teaching to that lowest common denominator is the point–and, just to be clear, I am not saying you suggested this. But if the only reason I can offer students, remedial or otherwise, for learning to write competently is that it will help them get a job,

    I don’t see how employability is the LCD for learning how to write. That seems to put a stigma on being employable. And if you become a professional author, writing itself will be your job.

    then I don’t really have much to say about the value of writing to the 18 & 19 year olds in my classes who don’t know what kind of career they want, for whom the realities of professional life are at best an abstraction.

    I was a 15 year old kid who had repeatedly blown off English class in school because I knew I was going to be a scientist and that all I needed to know was math and science – which I was tremendous at. Then a couple of teachers brought it home to me that it doesn’t do much good to do that kind of work if you can communicate to anyone else about it, and I sharpened up. Hell, the best writing teacher I ever had was at MIT (Janet Anderson was her name).

    My point being that you don’t have to know what you’re going to do for a living to know that there are very few jobs where being able to express yourself in writing isn’t valuable. If they don’t know that they need to, badly, and I encourage you to tell them.

    If I were to tell someone what the most important reason was to learn to write clearly, I might say that writing about something clearly forces you more than anything else you can do to think about that thing clearly. Something that I’ll wager everyone on this blog has experienced, probably even while writing something on this blog.

  8. 8
    Joshua Bodwell says:


    I’m thrilled to see that my piece in Poets & Writers served as such a touchstone!


  9. 9
    Grace Annam says:

    My students, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, feel no such pleasure in revision.

    I did not become a decent writer (in my own hindsight, anyway) until I learned to value revision. In school I was able to get excellent grades with “one-draft wonders”, and I took pride in it. I had to learn that not every word I wrote was a rare and beautiful pearl before I could make any progress as a writer. Once I learned to murder my darlings, my writing improved almost overnight.

    My wife, Lioness, was instrumental in this. She is an excellent editor, and she took to handing my drafts back to me with the comment, “Too many words.” Turns out you can’t reduce the number of words without cutting some of them out, and when I just cut some out, I found I’d lost a bit of what I wanted to say, so that rather than simply cut them out, I started to re-phrase. From there, I found myself descending a slippery slope into wholescale editing. I started to cut the offending passage out and carefully paste it somewhere else, and thus persuade my ego that the darlings were not murdered, but preserved in amber for posterity. Then I found that I could re-write the section from scratch, and that was a lot like having to write something all over again after the power went out, which I hate, so I’d get downright ruthless and get right to the point, as fast and as colorfully as I could.

    Almost overnight, Lioness started handing my drafts back to me with comments like, “That’s really good. Tight.”

    Such opprobrium was a bit disorienting at first, but I found that I rather liked it.

    And that’s how I learned to stop worrying and love the revision.

    ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’

    Thank you for this. It crystalized for me a lot of what I enjoy about my own process of writing: creating a sentence (or paragraph, or passage) and then savoring it, considering it from different angles and in different lighting, rolling it around in my head, speaking it aloud and letting it roll and swish about in my mouth, and then, the best part, re-writing it, re-molding it, trying to do it better, trying to find Mark Twain’s difference between lightning bug and lightning.

    Indeed, I like sentences. I like them as I imagine a potter likes clay.

    Even the most avant-garde, cutting-edge artists…need to master the basic forms that their work improvises on, departs from, and goes beyond, or else their work will come across as uneducated child’s play. Ultimately, then, creativity and originality lie not in the avoidance of established forms, but in the imaginative use of them.

    Originality also lies in the avoidance of retreading ground long since pounded dusty by others. If you study where others have trod, you have a better chance of actually heading into new territory, and not looking up to find yourself in the middle of the city, wondering how all of these people got there ahead of you.

    This is distinct from brainstorming or stream-of-consciousness writing, or other techniques for getting a flow going — in those cases, concern for whether your work is original is like a driver’s concern for whether the correct tire pressures are written on a label on the inside of the glove box; if you check while you’re driving, you’re going to end up in a ditch more often than a garden party.


  10. Pingback: Responding to RonF’s Question about Reading and a Reading List | Alas, a Blog

  11. Pingback: Responding to a question someone asked on Alas about my “Reading is Fundamental” post | Richard Jeffrey Newman