Reading as a Writer

This past week, I attended a one week Reading as a Writer program at Stanford, led by Jonah Willihnganz, Director of the Stanford Storytelling Project. There were about twenty of us, in a cosy seminar room up in the fourth floor of Sweet Hall, with gorgeous views of the campus. There are two beautiful windows, very large and round, taking up nearly two full walls of the room. Through the window to my right hand side, I could see the eastern side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The architect who designed Sweet Hall must have planned the views for us. For one moment, I imagined myself like a kite flying out the window towards the mountains and having a grand tour of Filoli and Crystal Springs Lake from up in the air.

This is going to be a beautiful week”, I thought of that when I stepped into the seminar room on my first day there. After a round of self-introduction, agony and self-consciousness hit me briefly: “I have no idea whether I can survive this week. Look around, sitting around me are real real real writers….Well, if I am not good enough to be here, that means I would be able to learn a lot this week from the pros by being here. Is it not wonderful? Yes!” Sometimes, having a skin as thick as the Great Smog of London in 1952 is of great benefit to me. Jonah is a great teacher. He is very good at leading interesting discussions and encouraging us to discover and share freely, without any stifling atmosphere that one would imagine for courses on English or any other languages. To some extent, it is the exercise of one writing principle of “showing” without “telling”. I am grateful to Jonah’s detailed and insightful explanations in answer to my many questions. I am also thankful to my fellow classmates for their patience and their not throwing me out of the window like a kite without a string.

There were a number of reading assignments that I can safely say that I would never have read in my lifetime if not for this program. Take as an example Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle. No offense to T.C. Boyle though. Under ordinary circumstances, the old me (before this week) would not have liked a bit of Greasy Lake, for its coarse language and dark stories that I found very hard to relate to even using my imagination. I realise that fine and coarse, dark and bright are all relative. The old me would be thinking: get on with life, stop roaming around and squandering the invaluable and very limited youth you have, do something constructive. My judgement kicked in, limited my thought process and my capability of appreciating the work. It was wrong of me. After hearing a few people praising Greasy Lake highly and appreciating it so much, I had to confess to the room that I did not enjoy reading Greasy Lake but I was eager to hear their views and find its beauty. I realise “beauty” is a very over-loaded word. Again, my apology to T.C. Boyle. You see, I have to pick an example to make my argument concrete. On Thursday, Roxane asked me whether my opinion about Greasy Lake has changed. It had indeed and I explained to her why. However, the point is not what exactly I started to appreciate about Greasy Lake. It is through reading we experience what we never ever might come across, especially the works that are out of our comfort zone. I had too restrictive a set of criteria for selecting my reading materials before. Not only has this program made me realise that limitation, but it has also convinced me of the benefit of much broader reading, for the small set of reading materials this week have broadened my view tremendously. It felt like the improv exercise that Katie led us to do in Stanford while lying on the ground with eyes closed: imagine you are Stanford, now imagine you are Palo Alto, next you are California, now you are Northern America, now you are the earth…it keeps on going. Reading as a Writer program have sent me off to explore new territories.

We read a couple of dozen great works recommended by Jonah and had in-depth discussions about many of them. Through close reading some selections in the program, we focused on examining each piece for the five typical components of creative writing: the plot, setting or description, dialogue, interiority, exposition or summary. The plot or action typically include stasis, inciting incident, conflict, reversal, climax and resolution. Some writings may omit a couple of these elements.

Jonah also led us to analyse the texts according to three axis: architecture, tropes and prose. Prior to attending this program, I was mostly aware of the tropes and prose, but not seeing the architecture as a main thread, for non-technical writings. We typically take the architecture for granted. For the purpose of writing, it is instrumental to design the architecture before being trapped in the word choices. The architecture choice helps create the plots and develop the characters. It cover linear, modular or other design choices, time management, point of view, central intelligence, psychic distance, suspense and surprise, epiphany, kairosis and so on.

We read works by Peter Taylor, Ernest Hemingway, John Didion, Naomi Shihab Nye, Monica Wood, T.C. Boyle, Michael Pollan, David Quammen, E.B. White, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Sherman Alexie, Dave Eggers, Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, Grace Paley, Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Cheryl Strayed, Pico Iyer, Alice Munro, Anthony Doerr, George Saunders, Ta Nehesi Coates, Tobias Wolff, Eula Biss, Jhumpa Lahiri. It is impossible that I would ever read great works by so many writers in so short timeframe, if not because of this Reading as a Writer program by Jonah. To say “thank you” is an awful understatement on my part.

You may find the textbook recommended by this program helpful. I only read the first two so far. But given what quoted by Jonah during the program from the latter two, I would like to read them too when I get a chance.  

Reading Like a Writer – by Francine Prose

Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction – by Jack Hart

Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction – by Catherine Brady

Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form – by Maddison Smartt Bell

I thought about what are my favorite readings of this program. It is very tough to rank them, if at all possible. Each one is very different from the others. I am glad my mind was opened up to appreciate the styles that I was not used to before. If I must leave you a couple readings for your leisurely consumption, I would choose these very short ones for you (in case you are a computer scientist as I am). The volume of the body absolutely does not correspond to its depth and impact though.

Am I Blue?  – by Alice Walker

Fiesta, 1980  – by Junot Diaz

Indian Camp – by Ernest Hemingway

Kindness – by Naomi Shihab Nye

Disappearing  – by Monica Wood

 

Will I ever be a writer, besides writing technical articles which I profoundly enjoy? I do not know the answer. This week has opened a new horizon though. None of us needs any qualification to be allowed to do what we would like to do, within reason and provided we do not harm others. Like the rose garden I created a couple years ago, it taught me that anyone can be a garden designer, you simply just do it and learn in the process. The outcome is beautiful rose bouquets, lighting up many households of neighbors and friends besides my own. Rose gardening is therapeutic. Reading and writing are too.  

     

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