On This Matter of Learning to Write

An acquaintance of mine once called to ask advice on a memoir he was writing. He told me he wanted to learn to write for better effect. And he told me something that has been bouncing around in my mind ever since. He stated -- emphatically -- that he didn't want to "read any books."

I didn't believe I'd heard him correctly. It went past me the first go-round. I asked what books he enjoyed reading. He said he sometimes read the sports section of his city's newspaper.

"No," I said. "Books. What books do you read?"

"No books. I don't want to read any books."

"I don't want to read any books," was his reply. It was a sentence I muttered to myself throughout the rest of the week. It sounded so ludicrous. I had trouble believing that a man who wanted to learn to write actually said this.

What could I tell him? I told him the truth. I said I'd never met a good writer who didn't read. I said that every good writer -- whether employed in journalism, fiction or poetry --was a passionate and compulsive reader. For a fledgling writer to say he doesn't want to read any books is akin to a student who plans to become a musician, yet doesn't want to hear any music.

Yes, I was shocked. But I soon came to the understanding that his... I guess you'd call it passion, for not reading is the standard in today's dopey world. Though many fine writers go about their business, despite a lack of publishing sales, the successful writers of today -- the writers who ride in limousines -- shed no light on good writing. If you consider The Hunger Games and 50 Shades of Gray, to be of good authorship, that's your business.

The poet Charles Simic recently wrote an essay on the rotting of the American mind in a New York Review of Books essay entitled "Age of Ignorance." In one paragraph, Simic laments his students' inability to think:

Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught. Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.

The inability to grasp ideas, as Simic put it, has consequences. Whereas students once studied the Greek classics, Shakespeare and opened their minds to moderns like J.D. Salinger and James Baldwin, they now build their inner worlds around movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. You might call it the "Big Bang Aesthetic," and be right.

Let us address the mission of a writer. For many, the mission is to garner fame and riches. If my aforementioned friend is solely after lucre, he needn't try to write a memoir. He could, perhaps find success as a Hollywood screenwriter, if he learns enough clichés for American screen dialogue.

If a would-be writer is serious about his intention to become a fine writer, he would do well to get his head out of the vampire/zombie dreck that somehow passes for literature and discover the masters.

The first skill is to learn the basics of English grammar, in order to write clearly.

My primer was Strunk and White's Elements of Style. It's a pill of a book at a 105 pages, and the paperback version fits nicely into the back pocket of your Levis. With dictums by Strunk, and short essays by E.B. White, one can negotiate the difficulties in putting words-to-page (or computer screen). Adages like "Keep related words together" and "Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end" are the keys to solid syntax. The Elements of Style remains the primmest of the primers and an absolute necessity.

If you haven't the habit of reading, don't kid yourself. You must acquire it. If you haven't read Chekov, Melville, Baldwin, Fitzgerald, Cather, Morrison, Dostoyevsky, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner and the like, you're not just missing out on fine writing, you're cheating yourself out on the stories and wisdom of the authors. These are pleasures.

And, for heaven's sake, attend any play penned by Shakespeare, Chekov, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, and them Greek playwright dudes: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Yep. That's the style.

You may well have a book in you. But if you don't know how to write it, good editors will toss your manuscript into the slush pile. As the great short story writer, Raymond Carver, once wrote in an essay to young writers, "All we have are the words. And they'd better be the right ones."

Remember: No vampires. No zombies. Get the words right. Now get busy.