Learn to Write from the Literary Greats

While books on writing have a lot to say about the writing process, many valuable skills and strategies can be learned by studying the work — as well as the lives — of writers you admire. Writing fiction is a complex process: it requires a suitably nuanced course of study. In the same way, the answers to many questions about how to lead a writer’s life can be found in the models provided by successful writers.

Learning from Literature

Literature, especially the books that have stood the test of time, offers an endless supply of examples of how to approach various writing roadblocks, as Francine Prose points out in her worthwhile book, Reading Like a Writer. Want to see how to handle an emotional topic without lapsing into sentimentality? Try Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, for instance. Or how metaphors can establish character and allude to a novel’s themes? Raymond Chandler’s your man. Contemporary fiction has a lot to teach as well, but don’t discount the masters. They continue to be read for a reason. In finding out why, we learn valuable strategies for better telling the today’s stories.

Make an Author Study

Writers are often urged to immerse themselves in the work of one author, to really absorb that person’s style and learn as much as possible from it. It’s a good approach, but I advise taking it a step further. Once you’ve studied their oeuvre, see how they came to write these books.

For instance, this spring, an old Paris Review interview led me to make a study of Katherine Anne Porter. I started with some of her most acclaimed works and then read the biography by Joan Givner.

Through the biography, I got to see how these stories and short novels came into being: what life experiences went into them, what her process was like, and what her stumbling blocks were. I had an epiphany when I saw that she often put stories aside for years. I’m always afraid that if I don’t muddle through a story or novel right then, I’ll never go back to it. But clearly for Katherine Anne Porter, this was integral to her success. She kept the drafts, returning to them when she had the insight or skill to finish them properly. I imagine that this kept her from ruining or overworking her stories, and let her go on to new work (or, very likely in her case, more drinking!).

I’ve done this other times, with Raymond Chandler, Eudora Welty, and Jane Austen. Each time I took something away that helped my writing.

How-to’s are fine, but writing fiction is a complicated process: simple advice isn’t going to work for everyone or for every story. By studying literature and biographies, you collect the examples you need for your writing life.

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