I was recently reading a collection of interviews with Flannery O’Connor when I ran across her response to the question of how her time in the University of Iowa’s M.F.A. program contributed to her writing. After saying that “the kind of writing that can be taught must then be taught not to be read,” she goes on to say that what she learned was not “writing so much as how to read critically–her own work and others’.”
The R.D. my first year on campus had a reputation as a grumpy intellectual, but he was kind enough to grab me and a few other students from different majors for a literary pow-wow over the school literary journal whenever it came out. We’d go line by line, poem by poem, story by story, discussing how a given piece worked. Not just “do I like this?” but “Was this well-crafted and were there opportunities or words wasted?” Things from breaks in meter (were they intentional?) to word choice to alliteration received discussion, debate, and many swift strokes of a pencil. Verse crafted by use only of the enter and tab key received short shrift. A few of my own pieces were subjected to this same treatment.
This was my first experience with reading critically. While I had been taught to think critically about content, I had little experience with judging form–that which is, properly, art (or craft). But it moved me from merely being a reader and consumer and writer toward actually being an artist and scholar. Not a master yet, by a long shot, but consciously moving in that direction.
A carpenter knows wood and woodworking tools; he doesn’t just know what a type of wood looks like, but its weight, its strength, its grain. A writer needs to know words and forms: their weight, their strength, their connotations, denotations, their effects (aural and mental), and needs to use them to their best effect. This is what makes the difference between a fun read and a book that changes your life. A well-crafted piece of carpentry doesn’t have bits sticking out, but works as a whole. The artistry is significant in what isn’t seen–unless you take a good look and know what you’re looking for. Writing is the same way: the satisfaction and (sometimes or) revelation comes most profoundly when most subtle–but those willing to take a good, long look may find something taking a good, long look back at them and forcing them to take a good, long look back at themselves.
Writers, if they want to achieve this effect, must read critically, asking themselves “what makes this particular story or poem work?” “What words seem out of place?” “How could this character been developed differently?” “If the ending had been different, what implications would this have?” And then they need to apply these same questions to their own work. It can be as much fun as pouring isopropyl alcohol over scrapes, but I’ve never had an infection after I cleaned with that stuff. Pour it on.