Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Reading Like a Writer – Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett has worked as a government policy adviser on water, genetically modified organisms and child and family health. She has had essays and stories broadcast on Radio National and published in Cinema PapersPicador New Writing and The Sydney Morning Herald, among others. She completed the MA Writing (UTS) in 1997 and a Varuna Mentorship in 2000. When We Have Wings, her first novel, was published by Allen & Unwin in July 2011 to rave reviews. Today Claire is talking about reading like a writer.

Every writer, on being asked to give advice for emerging writers, will emphasise the importance of reading widely.

There is something to be said about the kind of reader you become once you start writing seriously, though, especially once you start to feel surer of your own style. At first it seems hard enough to write a decent sentence; then there are struggles with tense, point of view, and structuring a plot.

As I began to become more confident with some of the technical challenges of writing narrative fiction I noticed to my surprise that the way I read began to change. If a story impressed me, instead of just surrendering to it, I began to look more closely, to take it apart to see how it worked. Visual artists do this all the time, perhaps more consciously than many writers. An integral part of art training is (was?) to copy old masters until their tricks and techniques were known, understood and could be incorporated into the student artist’s repertoire.

I had already been through this process with film; I studied film-making during my Communications degree and went on to crew on feature films. I was fascinated by the technical difficulties of film-making, devouring issues of American Cinematographer and books written by directors. I learned deep respect for craft as I studied film stocks, lighting, processing, sound effects, mixing soundtracks and so on. I could watch a film, analysing the skills with which it was made while still enjoying the story and artistry.

Oddly, it took years before it occurred to me to do this with reading. I was so enthralled by writers I admired that I was swept away every time. I was aware that some writers I’d read and re-read obsessively had influenced my very sentence structures by osmosis, and I thought this was the only way to learn to write. I still think this is true of the way a writer’s deepest self is formed – through childhood reading. This is the way your ‘ear’ is trained for the sound and rhythm of the English language. Clearly that training can occur in other languages as some writers whose first language is not English, such as Conrad and Nabokov, are among our finest.

I remember the first time I wondered about the skill in a particular technique and considered whether I might teach myself how to do it. I was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and marvelling at how readers know only what Ishiguro’s narrator, the butler Stevens, tells us and yet we have a completely different view of events and of Stevens’ actions than he does. The writer never speaks to us directly, all we have are Stevens’ words, and yet we have at least two views of the events in the novel, the butler’s and our own (or possibly Ishiguro’s).

Most writers would probably try to give us a different view through the perspective of another character but somehow Ishiguro manages to give us at least two views through only the one lens. The subtlety of the technique is breathtaking and Stevens is proof you don’t have to find a character ‘likable’ to empathise with him. Stevens would refuse the reader’s sympathy. Yet still, you feel. No wonder that novel won a Booker prize.

Another writer whose technique I tried to unravel is possibly the world’s greatest short story writer, Alice Munro. Her stories end with a punch to the heart but she rarely relies on the ‘twist’ so beloved of short story writers. It took me many re-readings to pin down exactly how she does it and in the process I worked out why her style and her emotional power depends so heavily on the stories being shorter, why what she does would not work in novels. Ah, I hear you say. And how does she do it? I can do no better than point you in the direction of collections such asRunaway or The Love of A Good Woman or The Progress of Love.

A technique I had to consciously teach myself – painfully at first but I like to think I mastered it – was free indirect speech. Critic James Wood lays out how free indirect speech works brilliantly in his discussion of Jane Austen in his book of essays The Broken Estate. In When We Have Wings I have two narrators, the young flier Peri and the private investigator searching for her, Zeke. Zeke had to speak in first person because he is the reader’s guide through the new, strange world of the winged.

I felt I needed to write Peri’s part of the story in third person but in early drafts she was too remote, lacking in feeling, and the word choice was more mine than hers as the character. Using free indirect speech, where the third person can occasionally slip in and out of first person, brought Peri closer and allowed her to express her thoughts directly. This technique takes practice to make it supple but may have erased that distance so well that readers barely seem to notice that one strand of the book is in first person and one in third.

So my message is: read widely, read at least some work that is difficult, not because it’s badly done but because it’s trying to do difficult things, and most importantly read beyond whatever genres you like and want to write in, including literary fiction. I can’t stress this enough. Just reading young adult won’t give you anything new to bring to young adult fiction, you might get an amazing idea for a fantasy tale from a business book (this seems to be the secret to much of Terry Pratchett’s comedy!) and if you read something you love, experiment with trying to make that technique your own. I don’t read much crime fiction and yet a crime novel gave me one of the most thorough master classes in style I’ve ever had. It’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

Thank you, Claire. I definitely need more practice in reading like a writer. 

Claire's website is here:

FOOTNOTE, March 2012. When we Have Wings has been shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Prize, a major Australian literary award.

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