The Daily Parker

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How to write a novel

I finally got around to reading The Atlantic's 2010 Fiction issue, and I happened upon this essay by Richard Bausch:

Finally, a word about this kind of instruction: it is always less effective than actually reading the books of the writers who precede you, and who are contemporary with you. There are too many "how-to" books on the market, and too many would-be writers are reading these books in the mistaken idea that this will teach them to write. I never read such a book in my life, and I never will. What I know about writing I know from having read the work of the great writers. If you really want to learn how to write, do that. Read Shakespeare, and all the others whose work has withstood time and circumstance and changing fashions and the assaults of the ignorant and the bigoted; read those writers and don’t spend a lot of time analyzing them. Digest them, swallow them all, one after another, and try to sound like them for a time. Learn to be as faithful to the art and craft as they all were, and follow their example. That is, wide reading and hard work. One doesn’t write out of some intellectual plan or strategy; one writes from a kind of beautiful necessity born of the reading of thousands of good stories poems plays… One is deeply involved in literature, and thinks more of writing than of being a writer. It is not a stance.

He's absolutely right. Anyone can learn the notes; not everyone can learn the music. To write, you first have to read.

This goes for all forms of art. In college, I started as a music major. My first year, the music department instituted a requirement that all music majors take and pass a listening exam each year. My first year, only two of us passed. The department saw this as a disaster, for good reason: how could it produce musicians who had never heard music?

The exam consisted of 60 one-minute excerpts from major works of classical and contemporary music. To pass, we had to identify 45 or more of them by composer, work, and if appropriate, movement.

Lest you think this terribly unfair, I present two more facts: one, incoming freshies got a list of all the works that would be on each of the four exams they would have to take, organized by year. So at orientation, we all knew what would be on April's exam.

Two, they chose major, well-known works. The year-three exam, for example, had on it Bach's Magnificat, Debussy's Nocturnes, Mendelssohn's Symphonies #4 and #5, and Berg's Wozzeck. Now, someone might, conceivably, confuse the two Mendelssohn symphonies, but I can't imagine how a thinking person—even one who hadn't actually heard the works—could confuse Stavinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat with Josquin's Missa "L'Homme Armé." Even if you didn't know they were written 500 years apart, you would presumably know that one is an a capella choral work and the other is a ballet. (Not a lot of choral parts in ballet, you know?)

The point, of course, is that it's very difficult to teach someone music if they don't listen to it.

Neither Bausch in his essay nor I in this post mean to say that one should read (or listen to) only dead white men. But you really can't understand literature (or music) without having some immersion in the works that have lasted the longest.

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