A Course in Being an Accomplice

There is a writing course I would like to design and teach whose title I would lift from Virginia Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?” and in which we, the students and I, would not write — at all. The purpose of the course would be described pretty well by this excerpt from Woolf’s essay (recently featured here):

Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.

Doubtless, there are writing teachers out there with this opportunity, or something like it. (I would like to know of them, please!) In my course I would successfully redirect the urge to write into reading, into practicing reading as sensitively, responsively, and accurately as possible, both in performance (aloud) and privately, as silent observers of language and its effects. I’ve always liked Zadie Smith’s comparison of a reader to “the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own hard-won skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.” (See “Fail Better,” published in The Guardian, 1/13/07.)

In other words, I would give much more room, all available room, to what I teach, in various ways but always first and foremost, when I teach any writing course. In this ideal environment, I would feel no pressure to move students toward their own crafting on the page. We would work mostly on the air, from the eye through the voice to the ear. We would together discover and come to understand — come to know through our various senses — the materials with which writers work, or have worked, and be able to discern how they succeed with these materials. And we would compile a mental library of instructional moments, instances of successful crafting that we have committed to memory.

Along the way, for support and sustenance, I’m sure I would revisit the experience Francine Prose describes in her very useful book Reading Like a Writer:

I liked my students, who were often so eager, bright, and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously, I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds….

No wonder my students found it so stressful to read! And possibly because of the harsh judgments they felt required to make about fictional characters and their creators, they didn’t seem to like reading, which also made me worry for them and wonder why they wanted to become writers. I asked myself how they planned to learn to write, since I had always thought that other learned, as I had, from reading.

Responding to what my students seemed to need, I began to change the way I taught. No more general discussions of this character or that plot turn. No more attempts to talk about how it felt to read Borges or Poe or to describe the experience of navigating the fantastic fictional worlds they created…. I organized the classes around the more pedestrian, halting method of beginning at the beginning, lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhanced and contributed to the story as a whole.  

(As for being an author’s “fellow-worker and accomplice,” consider this.)