Good morning! Sunday is check-in day at Jen’s blog, Teach Mentor Texts, so be sure to visit her today for some words of encouragement and to check in for some encouraging conversation with fellow TW participants.
Our guest author here today is Susan Hill Long, whose books include THE MAGIC MIRROR: CONCERNING A LONELY PRINCESS, A FOUNDLING GIRL, A SCHEMING KING, AND A PICKPOCKET SQUIRREL and WHISTLE IN THE DARK. She joins us today to talk about literary models in our writing lives.
Writing is about the only profession people assume can be leapt into, like a well-made canoe — plop down, start paddling, and soon you’re there! Published, and sporting a healthy glow, besides. Not you, of course. You’re here! You’re doing the work, learning and practicing and sharing along the way. You know that writing is more like carving the canoe, from a giant log that first you must fell in dark woods where you may have been lost for a while.
Luckily, there are many tools available to the lumberjack/paddler/writer. There are classes. There are advanced degrees. There are craft books and podcasts and peers. But one thing I sometimes hear from writers, beginning or expert, is how they stop reading, when they start writing. “I don’t want to be influenced,” they say. Or, “I don’t want to discover someone’s already written my book.” Or, “If I read Kate DiCamillo’s latest marvel, I swear I’ll pack it in.”
These are understandable concerns. But to give up reading is to ignore the writer’s ultimate (and most enjoyable) tool. Have you ever seen art students arranged around a painting in a museum, copying the work of a master? Of course – that’s partly how it’s done. Like many, I am self-taught. That is, I didn’t attend an MFA program or take creative writing classes. I majored in Art History, which prepared me for a vibrant career as a “temp.” But I’m only “self-taught” insofar as I had enough desire to learn and to practice that I used the countless works available to me for study. In this pursuit I’m in excellent company.
In her slim volume THE SCENE BOOK: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, Sandra Scofield tells of a friend who structured her own story using an admired book’s chapters one by one to lay out scenes. In the end, her novel was, Scofield says, “very much her own, she had a story she was proud of, and she had learned a lot.” Scofield tells us, too, that “Alice Munro has said she enters others’ stories wherever she has a notion, as one enters a room in a house. She connects this habit to her ideas about building up a story of her own around its “soul” in a way that leads to its structure.”
Before starting to write her first manuscript, Kirby Larson says she studied Patricia Reilly Giff’s books thoroughly, even typing two of them out to help her get a feel for the rhythm, pacing and length of a chapter book. In one interview, Barbara O’Connor credits her whole career to Cynthia Rylant. “When I read MISSING MAY,” she says, “I had one of those light bulb moments. I finally GOT voice. And I GOT the importance of place.” Similarly, Barbara O’Connor was fascinated by the shifting viewpoints in JULY 7th by Jill McCorkle, and “filed that away, hoping someday I would be up for the challenge.” Her book GREETINGS FROM NOWHERE is written with four viewpoints.
Many writers go in search of words – out and about in the world, and in the books of writers we esteem – sparkly words, singing words, words that slide or stop. In her sturdy book THE WRITER’S PORTABLE MENTOR, Priscilla Long encourages writers to keep a notebook of interesting words, a personal lexicon. And we can use books we admire not just to study language and technique, but to cultivate our own talent for and love of storytelling. Sandra Scofield, again in THE SCENE BOOK, encourages us to develop that facet of talent by “immersing yourself in more reading, and in reading more diverse stories, such as those by ethnic and immigrant writers, foreign writers, and other tellers of stories far from your experience.”
Remember that we are beginners only for a time, but we are, all of us, forever students.
Keep reading! Keep paddling!