We were talking yesterday morning about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” about how that story continues to speak to the reader more than half a century after its original publication. On the one hand, it’s simply an elegant, ironic accounting of fictional events; on the other, it’s a damning consideration of the role of ritual and sacrifice in a culture that no longer honors ceremony. Tessie Hutchinson is no sacred vestal raised with a glorious sense of her own purpose, tenderly brought to sacrifice for the greater good of the community. She is a random, reluctant victim and therein lies the story’s horror.
Jackson had an idea about what we are as a society, an idea that many readers experience as I do, a sense of the danger inherent to rituals divorced from their original meanings. Each time I reread the story, I am shocked again at Tessie’s desperation, at her friends and family as they pragmatically shoulder rocks in order to stone her to death. I feel for Tessie, I actually feel her fear as if I am the one in the center of the square and the pebbles and stones are beginning to land on my face and arms.
An artist’s purpose is to go places that others haven’t been. If we’re doing our jobs well, readers follow us. Readers live vicariously through the experiences we imagine. We read to feel, don’t we? And when we write, we write to evoke emotion. I mean, we actively and consciously choose events and language, character and structure, to guide our readers to emotional experience. You can be Carver or Hemingway, Proust or Faulkner, Atwood or Davis or Munro, it does not matter: moving the reader is the goal.
Your art, in fact, is not about you. It’s about your audience. And the more you speak to the needs of our culture, the wider the audience you will find. The more you align your writing to feelings others want to have, the wider the audience you’ll find. I’d never really thought about writing as leadership before, but in a certain sense, that’s what it is. You’re out there, working on the edge of what you think you can do, putting one sentence down after another. You’re feeling the pebbles hit your skin, in the hope that someone else, someone you’ve never met, will one day read your sentence, and close her eyes, cringing, hoping the stones will miss their mark.
“…I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”
“I could never teach writing,” a literary novelist of my acquaintance said emphatically over dinner the other night.
His reading to our MFA students had run long, and each of the book buyers waiting to meet him had asked additional questions, worshipfully eager to extend their time in his presence. It was very late, and the restaurant was deserted, and I thought, He’s my guest and I’m tired. Do I want to get into this fight? We had just received our salads. I was already tucking in, but he lingered before picking up his fork, fingers stroking the tines, as if what he had to communicate was far more important than food. “It takes too much from you. It destroys your ability to do your own work.” He glared at the busboy, who was already hovering, ready to move our meal along. “None of my friends who teach in MFA programs ever produce.”
I hear this a lot.
“Students sap your energy.” “Student work infects your work.” “Student work fills up your head so that you can’t find space for your own creative thinking.” So many people have said things like this to me over the years, and with such authority, that I feel a vague shame admitting to the fact that my experience is different. Working with the MFA students in creative writing at Stony Brook Southampton has had the opposite effect on me. Student work inspires me, gives me energy, and satisfies a primal need to share. I’ve learned so much in the last two decades about what one needs to think about in order to write engaging, interesting fiction—I want to communicate it. Why does every young writer have to reinvent the wheel when those of us who have already been there can pass on our hard-earned knowledge?
“I could never teach writing,” he said again, and finally turned to the glistening beets and arugula on his plate. Behind him, our waitress and the busboy were rolling clean silverware into napkins in anticipation of the next night’s shift.
“Me neither,” I said. “I think you’re right. But I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”
And in fact, that’s exactly what I do. My students learn how to read for craft—why was there an em-dash here rather than a semi-colon? For that matter, why phrase that last clause as a question?
What happens when you set a single sentence aside in its own paragraph?
What happens when you separate a number of clauses by commas instead of periods, speeding up the action, driving home the points you are trying to make? What happens when you cast that same sentence into the past tense? What then? What’s gained and lost?
We read for sentence, and paragraph, and language, and punctuation. We read for openings and closings, for point of view, for authorial distance, for tense, for the way the unbelievable is established as fact. Most weeks, my poor students read seven or eight published stories for class—anyone from Tolstoy to Gaitskill, from Atwood to Hawthorne. Over the semester, each one presents a story of his or her own choosing as well. Because I read my students’ fiction at the same time, I am always looking for the work I think individual writers can benefit from reading. My syllabus changes week by week, and so I am always learning more and seeing more as well. Teach writing? Maybe not. But teaching writers how to read, oh, that is wonderful!
Teach reading. You will always be inspired and excited and energized.
Teach reading. You will never find yourself struggling to find “brain space” for your own art.
Teach reading. Create writers. That’s how it works.