Francine Prose’s “Reading Like a Writer”

     Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is a must-have for both new and more seasoned writers. Ms. Prose has focused on one of the most pivotal elements when becoming a strong writer: being a strong reader.

    Each chapter focuses on aspects of reading that lead to being a more equipped writer. From discussing the significance of Close Reading to Reading for Courage, Ms. Prose proves that she understands the obstacles writers face as well as the tools that can help them overcome their insecurities.  

    The chapter on Sentences will both educate and inspire anyone who wants to write “one true sentence.”  Using an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” Francine Prose shows us how substantial writing comes in many forms:

     Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters off annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth” with the greetings of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

    After reading the chapter on Sentences, I decided to find some of my favorites and consider why I so strongly connected with them. Amy Hempel’s “The Harvest” not only uses a unique story structure, but is filled with sentences that make writers pause and break down why and how they work:

 The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.

    In nineteen words, Hempel tells us that the narrator is young, wants to seem worldly, and that she almost died due to the actions of a man she didn’t know well. Take note, three of the words are adverbs and two of them are back to back, something that is considered a real no-no in the literary world. In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose points out that, “One essential and telling difference between learning from a style manual and learning from literature is that any how-to book will, almost by definition, tell you how not to write.” Anne Michael’s “Fugitive Pieces” overflows with so many beautifully crafted sentences that it is difficult to choose. The story tells us of Jakob Beer, a young Jewish boy and how his experiences create him and affect those he encounters. The sentence structure is simple and precise, but the word choice is lyrical and inspired. 

     The shadow-past is shaped by everything that never happened. Invisible, it melts the present like rain through karst. A biography of longing. It steers us like magnetism, a spirit torque. This is how one becomes undone by a smell, a word, a place, the photo of a mountain of shoes. By love that closes its mouth before calling a name. 

     Francine Prose clarifies the path to life-long literary study when she writes, “What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.”


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