Great Writing Revealed

During the depression, my mother danced for her family’s dinner: ballet, jazz, tap, and once in a burlesque house where she praised the sprays of ostrich feathers hanging on the walls only to be told they weren’t headdresses, they were costumes. But that’s a different blog.

Because our mother danced, my sister and I dutifully filled our after school hours with plié, relevé, shuffle-ball-toe and “jazz hands” long before Bob Fosse’s Chicago. From studio to performance, I learned what goes on backstage – what’s easy but looks hard and how hard it is to make it all look easy.

I just finished Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, in which she pulls back the red velvet curtain on writing. This is no dry academic tome suitable only for writers with the caffeine and stamina to plough through it. This New York Times bestseller and “Notable Book of the Year” award winner is a magic decoder ring worth all the box tops a reader can muster.   

Ms. Prose (and is there a better name for an author?) makes writing look simple through chapters on close reading, words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. Then she exposes her own struggle to write and teach in two final chapters: “Learning from Chekhov” and “Reading for Courage.” She wraps it all up with a list of over one hundred “Books to Be Read Immediately” ranging from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (I always liked Jo) to Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Prose quotes copiously from her booklist.  In the chapter on sentences she reaches to the opening of Heinrich von Kleist’s story “The Earthquake in Chile” for a “complex, introductory sentence that not only establishes the tone but also encapsulates something essential” about the story. She describes the sentence as “so full of bravado and playful assurance that it’s the literary equivalent of a poker player opening with a gigantic bet.”

            “In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.”

            Yowser! Now that’s a sentence with more meat than some short stories I’ve recently read – that too is another blog. Barely a page goes by without Prose sharing great literature then exploring how some authors do more than entertain, they transform.

So now, dear reader, off to your local indie bookstore, online purveyor, or local library for your own copy of Reading Like a Writer.  I’d loan you mine but with all my underlines, arrows, and exclamation points my copy is too annotated to share; besides, I’ve moved my bookmark to page one. I’m starting again.

6 thoughts on “Great Writing Revealed

  1. Hi Jo:

    Nice piece. It occurs to me, however, that the intro you wrote about your mother could make a fabulous setting for a good story. Have you written anything about that yet? What a character she could be dancing for her family’s supper.

    I very much appreciated your writing in this posting.

    V

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. Bravo! This is inspired! I hate exclamation points but I’m unable to resist!

    I am going to get this book immediately. You’ve done a masterful job here. Your mother is definitely a short story waiting to happen.

    S

    • You bet. That’s Betty en pointe as the ballet-types say. The note in the corner says 1938, she would have been twenty-two-years-old and married to my father for about a year.

      It’s clearly a staged photo because there are no ribbons to tie her point shoes to her feet. One twirl and she’d be cradling a sprained ankle, or worse. Check out those muscles! She had amazing legs her whole life.

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