Hear Ye!

I probably spend about as much time reading my words aloud as I do typing them into my computer. We may think we read books only with our eyes, but the mental circuitry of language connects to our ears. The ancient Sufi poets sometimes spoke of sifting the sands of a beach with one’s eyelashes to remove the pebbles of imperfection. That’s what reading aloud lets a writer do. It takes a lot of work and you can never remove all the pebbles, but it’s still the best way of gauging writing-in-progress that I know.

Mohsin Hamid

Reminds us of Matt Bell ("[T]here was never a day when I worked on the book in silence").

And of Frost, who remarked that "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader." 

And, while we're at it, of Flaubert, who "once complained that his throat hurt — from too much writing." 

The Apprentice Years

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

—Oliver Sacks, from "The Creative Self" 

William Maxwell would agree. And so would William Zinsser.

The True Writing

I think that authors are devoted, diligent scribes, who draw in black and white, following a more or less rigorous order of their own, but that the true writing, what counts, is the work of readers.

Elana Ferrante, from "What an Ugly Child She is" 

Trying to Figure Out How They Did It

We all need models, whatever art or craft we're trying to learn. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model; they didn't spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso. This is especially true of writers. Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. S.J. Perelman told me that when he was starting out he could have been arrested for imitating Ring Lardner. Woody Allen could have been arrested for imitating S.J. Perelman....

Students often feel guilty about modeling their writing on someone else's writing. They think it's unethical — which is commendable. Or they're afraid they'll lose their own identity. The point, however, is that we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become. But nobody will write well unless he gets into his ear and into his metabolism a sense of how the language works and what it can be made to do.

—William Zinsser, from Writing to Learn

Voice and devotion

While we're talking about the power of the human voice, how it invites us and holds us, consider Jennifer Acker's experience with her husband's voice.  

Reading to me, reading stories I had chosen because I needed to hear them, was an intimate act of devotion. It not only helped me with my work, but also allowed me to revel in a side of him I rarely observed. Here were moments both vulnerable and so revealing they proved with a force beyond all reason that I wanted him, all of him, and to be near him always.

Read all about it (aloud?) here


The Ear Still Does It

Last week, while reading remarks from the Irish novelist Kevin Barry in The Atlantic's By Heart series ("How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World"), I heard another writer's voice break in. Barry, who had spoken by phone with Atlantic contributor Joe Fassler, was discussing the various challenges to sustained readerly attention. "We’ve changed very much as readers of texts, in recent years. We’re much more impatient now — I think, primarily, because we’re all online, all the time." But, he reflected, the human voice "can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks." This was a preface to his specific appreciation for the captivating power of "Under Milk Wood," Dylan Thomas's "play for voices." 

It was just after Barry had demonstrated the particularly inviting effects of the opening voice in the play, which asks us repeatedly to listen, that I was listening to Robert Frost's voice, talking from somewhere in my memory. 

I went looking for the source, which turned out to be a letter Frost wrote from England in 1914 to John Bartlett, his friend and former student. Soon I had Barry talking in one browser window and Frost writing in another.  And a minute later, Barry was standing on one side of an imagined stage, inside his home in County Sligo, the phone to his ear, while Frost sat writing at a desk on the other side. A bare space at center stage — and almost exactly a century — separated them, but still they conversed, in a way. 

FROST: (voicing what he writes) The ear does it.

Barry pauses. Pulls the phone from his ear for a moment, as if he's heard something in the room.

FROST: The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.

BARRY: (continuing into the phone) I always think there are two kinds of readers. There are readers who read with their eyes —

FROST: Eye readers we call them. They can get the meaning by glances.

BARRY: — who process a text in images —

FROST: But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer puts into his work.

BARRY: — and I think there are readers who read with their ears, who listen, as the sentences unfold across the page. I’m of the latter variety. 

FROST: (nodding) You listen for the sentence sounds.

BARRY: My ear is my critical tool.... It’s what catches the false notes.


 FROST: I wouldn’t be writing all this if I didn’t think it the most important thing I know.

On Going Deep

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading—slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity—is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions—Should I click on this link or not?—allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.

from "The Case for Preserving the Pleasure of Deep Reading"
by Annie Murphy Paul

A View from the Inside

Well, I’ve never liked the term “close reading.” I’d like to know who thought it up.... I think of close readers as people who want to read from the point of view of someone who composes with words. It’s a view from the inside, not from the outside. The phrase “close reading” sounds as if you’re looking at the text with a microscope from outside, but I would rather think of a close reader as someone who goes inside a room and describes the architecture. You speak from inside the poem as someone looking to see how the roof articulates with the walls and how the wall articulates with the floor. And where are the crossbeams that hold it up, and where are the windows that let light through?

—Helen Vendler, The Paris Review

SxS: The Irretrievable and Unnamed

For the past couple of years, just before the holiday break, I have read Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" aloud with my students. As we give voice to the story, passing the reading around the room, I ask my students to note with a pen any of Capote's sentences that they admire and find particularly effective (beautiful, memorable). We finish the story, sigh, and then go around the room again, this time reading out loud only the sentences that drew special attention. To hear the constructions gather in the air — these selected bests, free of their narrative context but reactivating in the imagination moments in Capote's story — is a special pleasure. Why? I suppose the discrete sentences make me feel closer to the making; I hear the pieces rather than thinking of the whole. 

This year, as I drove home from class, I was considering the design and operation of the sentence that delivers the unforgettably affecting loss in the story. Buddy is recalling, in continued present tense, when he learned that his friend had died, on a "leafless birdless" November morning:

A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. 

The effect of the sentence-ending simile draws my attention first. It may not be the freshest image, but contextually, it carries great meaning. Buddy and his friend have a long history of making kites for each other for Christmas and, in a pasture below their house, flying them together — "feeling them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind" (read that aloud, and feel the satisfyingly erratic tension on the line!).

Then I pan back to appreciate the complete sentence. The first half presents an arrival, a reception and confirmation. But the phrasing is nonspecific: "a piece of news" and "some secret vein." We don't see or hear about the message itself. It comes in whatever words, somehow expected.

And then, immediately, something — also vague — goes, something ineffable: "an irreplaceable part of myself." There is no defining this loss. How can you possibly put words to what's now not there, not anywhere, this deeply personal, private connection and history, this fundamental sense of stability and home in another person? 

So we have an image. The closing simile works against the nonspecific language, or emerges from it. We see the picture, as simple as it is, and by seeing it, we feel it. The kite is pushed this way and that, "loose," upward and away in the wind, trailing its broken string. What we feel is the irretrievability. It will never be back. We hold the other end of that piece of string as Buddy holds the "piece of news." Every moment, the part of himself that is no longer part of himself moves farther away. 

Not until I had spent a while feeling this irretrievability and beginning to write about it did I realize that Buddy — or Capote — never gives the friend's name. Buddy is seven in the story. She is "sixty-something." "We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember," Buddy tells us near the start. "We are each other's best friend." Every reference in the story is to "we" or "us" or "she" or "my friend." Had I forgotten this absence of a name? Or this avoidance? Reading through again, I see my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.... The discovery compounds the loss. 

The Professional Reader

We all read from different places, different backgrounds, and my meeting with Proust or Woolf, or Lydia Davis or J. M. Coetzee, will not be yours, nor should it be. On the other hand I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption. Borges would often remark that he was first and foremost a professional reader, not a writer, and he meant the claim as a boast, not a confession....

—Tim Parks, How I Read

Beyond the Veil

Q: I wonder if the wish to see a book made into a movie speaks to an anxiety people feel about reading and internal perception.

A: Reading is a very particular case, if you think about the arts. With music you have a direct sensory input, the sound of the notes. And with the visual arts or dance or architecture you have a direct visual apprehension of the thing that you’re looking at. With books the sensory information you’re getting is very limited. You can become aware, while you’re reading, of the white page and the black marks on it, but that’s presumably a neutral experience. You’re supposed to see beyond that veil. And I think it’s that extra step that people find anxiety-provoking. But that extra step is what makes reading reading.

from Portrait of a Cover Artist: An Interview with Peter Mendelsund, by Peter Terzian

Reading Ahead

A good pairing:

The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed....

from Reading: The Struggle, by Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books blog

We know a great deal about the present iteration of the reading brain and all of the resources it has learned to bring to the act of reading. However, we still know very little about the digital reading brain. My major worry is that, confronted with a digital glut of immediate information that requires and receives less and less intellectual effort, many new (and many older) readers will have neither the time nor the motivation to think through the possible layers of meaning in what they read. The omnipresence of multiple distractions for attention—and the brain’s own natural attraction to novelty—contribute to a mindset toward reading that seeks to reduce information to its lowest conceptual denominator. Sound bites, text bites, and mind bites are a reflection of a culture that has forgotten or become too distracted by and too drawn to the next piece of new information to allow itself time to think. 

from Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions, by Maryanne Wolf, Nieman Reports

My Teaching Philosophy, Rediscovered

Treasure chest.jpg

Recently, while combing through the files (and files) on an old computer in order to see what's worth taking with me to a new hard drive, I came upon three points toward a "teaching philosophy" that I forgot I had written several years ago. Things haven't changed....

              •   •   •

Teaching Philosophy


The most successful, enduring learning happens in and through relationship. Any classroom presents a teacher with as many different opportunities for relationship as there are students in the room. With the motivated, already-skilled, eager students, the relationship often builds through the work, through the material and a mutual desire for engagement, and learning is deepened by the increasingly sophisticated questioning that the relationship allows. But with the student whose fundamental skills and understandings require more attention (practice, reinforcement), the relationship is of more immediate importance; its development is crucial for surmounting the obstacles of low self-confidence and motivation. I also believe that a teacher's relationship with his or her students can be as much the foundation for future learning as are the specific skills or understandings attained. My aim is for my students to see me and to remember me as uncommonly challenging and also unfailingly approachable, to see that the tasks I set before them may be difficult, but that support is available.


Training for any special skill demands consistent attention to the fundamentals, and writing is indeed a special skill. Few can do it well—that is, clearly, coherently, persuasively, engagingly. I often ask at the start of a new course for a volunteer to tell me of a particularly developed skill he or she has. Usually, I learn about a student’s refined artistic or athletic ability. I then ask what the fundamental skills are that must be mastered before one could dream of attaining that special ability. My purpose is to shed light on the often overlooked basics, and on the process of building from them. More specifically, my purpose is to begin emphasizing reading as a special skill.

I purposefully use the verb “master” above: the traditional master-apprentice relationship, through which a newcomer to a skill learns by observing, greatly informs my teaching. The apprentice painter or dancer or pianist or carpenter or plumber can watch the master at work, noting precisely what he or she does at various stages of creation or revision (or repair), or in particular emergent predicaments, and then can imitate to practice and progress. Having taught for nearly a decade at an arts-intensive high school—a school for talented high-school-age dancers, actors, visual artists, musicians, and writers—I am often reflecting on this time-honored approach to learning, and in doing so confronting the distinctly different situation in which the striving young writer finds herself. Unlike the apprentice sculptor or ballerina or actor or violinist, the apprentice writer does not learn much of anything (aside from quiet perseverance, perhaps) from watching the master: a writer at work is not very instructional. What the young writer must do is make the page the master, which requires developing the ability to read closely and sensitively enough to see the master’s moves in the phrasings, the sentences, the paragraphs.

A student in the literature class or the creative writing class must learn how to read profitably, and in my view the best teachers for such classrooms are the ones able to model productive reading practices delightfully, and, in turn, to demonstrate the relationship between such reading and skillful, effective writing. When with enough practice students begin to recognize the art in the individual sentence, they begin not only to read more perceptively but to write with heightened attention and specificity, and they soon find themselves with more to invent and to argue on the page.


To not know is a very fortunate starting point. I am influenced here by oft-quoted words from John Dewey's How We Think: "Genuine ignorance is ... profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with a varnish waterproof to new ideas." Students begin to see, to observe—to notice for themselves—when they feel comfortable encountering the new, or when they cannot convincingly claim to know about the object under study. I strive in my classrooms to make plenty of room for not-knowing (and am helped when my material can't be "known" quickly). I encourage students not to escape ignorance but rather to get familiar with not yet having enough information. Only from there can well-earned discoveries be made, and discovery is the first step to a sense of ownership over an idea. On a related note, I feel more and more commitment to teaching patience, whether with an object for analysis or in the drafting of a scene for a short story. "It's not that I'm so smart," Einstein is reported to have said. "It's just that I stay with problems longer."

Rereading García Márquez

A portrait of the writer, four pages in to One Hundred Years of Solitude:

When he became an expert in the use and manipulation of his instruments, he conceived a notion of space that allowed him to navigate across unknown seas, to visit uninhabited territories, and to establish relations with splendid beings without having to leave his study.

Sentence Attention

I'm delighted by such sentence attention: 

In this spirit, with admiration for how time can pass vividly in a short space, I share another that my eyes traveled again recently: 

Most of the dandelions had changed from suns to moons.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Know any other sentences that operate in similar fashion? If so, please share! 

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.)

Ten Explanatory Fragments on the Sentence


Why am I launching a blog on sentence-making and what comes from it? Here are ten fragmentary, overlapping reasons:

1. Because of the complicated beauty I find in sentences (well, some of them!) — in their texture and balance and momentum, in their weaving of sound and sense, in their play with time and rhythm, in the power of their design to shape vivid imagery and precise ideas. 

2. Because what happens between a writer and a reader begins and ends with — and in — the sentences between them.

3. Because I find that to work as a writing teacher and coach and as an editor — and, of course, as a writer — is to invest, first, in being as good a reader of sentences as possible. This is often overlooked.

4. Because my students want to write stories and essays before they've considered what must go into writing the sentences to get there. 

5. Because the challenge to pinpoint how black marks on the page can have the effects they do in the receptive mind is endlessly compelling to me—and a lot of fun. 

6. Because the sentence teaches control and purpose: it is where limitless possibilities in the imagination narrow to specific effect and predicament. 

7. Because, unlike with the master painter or dancer or pianist or carpenter or plumber, you cannot learn much at all from watching the master writer at work; you must observe the sentences he or she has made. The page is the master. If you can observe what's there well enough, you can be an apprentice.  

8. Because I agree with Verlyn Klinkenborg when he writes: “If you understand how to build silence and patience and clarity into your prose, how to construct sentences that are limber and rhythmic and precise and filled with perception, you can write about anything, even yourself.”

9. Because effective sentence-making is so pleasurably and variously difficult. 

10. Because writing, editing, teaching, and reading are all practices, and I like to practice.

Thanks for your reading. I hope you continue.