Cultivating Good Writing

Want to write? Read. So says Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Skube, in an editorial written for the L.A. Times.  

Skube is somewhat critical of most creative writing programs, suggesting “The aim is not competency in the plain carpentry of prose but self-expression and creativity. It is the Little League of Art. Nothing wrong with self-expression. But it’s worth asking when self-expression devolves into self-spelunking and the preening narcissism evident everywhere on the Internet.” 

Those of us who want to become great writers, Skube says, need to expose ourselves to “highly accomplished writing” and then emulate it. As example, he offers up one of the most elegant pieces of writing I’ve ever read — an elegy composed by E. B. White for his wife.

“Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katharine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed to the director’s chair — a folding canvas thing — that had been placed for her at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment. As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance — the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”  

I wish I had a list of the books E. B. White read while learning to writing this well.

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  1. OOOooooo I totally agree with this. Varied reading is just as important as reading “good” writing — why? It’s that old “S” word again. Subjective. What’s good to one, stinketh to another. So spreading your eyes across the board, sampling the buffet, etc.,etc., etc.

  2. I totally agree that we all need to be exposed to different sorts of writing. I’ve made myself read some classics… Had to make myself. To me it’s all–yada, yada, yada–get to the point already! Like in the passage above, I just couldn’t get into it. This reader lost interest the moment the character sat down in the director’s chair. Maybe I lack depth and sophistication… Oh well! For those readers out there lacking their own depth, I’m just the writer for them! ;-D

    • You don’t lack depth or sophistication, cocoskeeper — I’m with you on the yawnsville factor of some older lit. No better sleeping inducement than a “classic” read.

      Some of the time.

      And I’ve heard many writing professors PROFESS that those older works wouldn’t make it past the slush pile today. Writing, as with everything else media oriented, has changed. You can’t sell a ten course meal to a fast food generation anymore.

      • That’s true about the ten course meal to a fast food generation, but I do appreciate a good steak… And I do appreciate more meaning to a story than just a wham-bam experience like some Gossip Girl stories offer… So, I guess it’s finding that perfect medium.

        Probably eating steak in a restaurant–then I don’t have to do the work! 😉 As for stories… Well, just not the classics…. 😉

    • I like treading deep waters, but I also enjoy splashing in the shallow end of the pool. There’s a time and place for every kind of writer — and every kind of reader. 🙂

  3. I firmly believe the more you read, the better writer you become. Even if I’m slogging through something, I try to figure out why I don’t like it, or what’s slowing it down for me, so I can learn from it. Sometimes it’s harder to pinpoint why you like a piece than to figure out why you don’t like it!

    EB White is absolutely amazing. “On Shooting an Elephant” is one of my favorite pieces of all time. And CHARLOTTE’S WEB. And STUART LITTLE. And…

    • I admit that I’m sometimes kind of lazy about reading difficult passages; I’d rather skip over them than try to get through them. But like you, I feel there’s lots to learn (about subject matter AND writing) from slogging through challenging pieces.

      And YAY for EB White!

  4. I like the part of the editorial: “They need only be exposed to possibilities in things outside themselves.” The writer was referring to kids, but for us, um, older folks, I like the idea of getting outside my head and comfort zone to challenging myself. If it’s way too painful to read, then it’s not for me. But if it’s interesting, and I like the writing, I’ll keep going. Fun/trashy books can be freeing, but can just as addictive as junk food and TV.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Years ago my kids and I listened to E.B.White read his book Trumpet of the Swan on tape. When I read the eulogy for his wife I could hear his voice clearly. There’s love in that voice. I wonder if there’s something in that love which carries into his writing.

    Reading is important for learning how to string the words together well. But I think passion and heart are most important.

    • I read that love and passion in this passage, too. I got a lump in my throat when I read White’s loving tribute, and my heart skipped a beat when he made symbolic reference to a “resurrection.” Amazing, how much he was able to write in so few words.

      • It made me all teary eyed. I hope when I’m pushing up daisies, or bulbs or whatever, that my significant other (this assuming I actually managing to *have* one before I croak) will write something that wonderful about me.

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