One of the many advantages to living in Iowa City is having Prairie Lights (arguably one of the best independent bookstores in the country) right here. Prairie Lights brings in a lot of authors, and the University radio and TV stations both broadcast the programs (they may even be archived on the WSUI website) “Live from Prairie Lights.”
Last night they had Francine Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer, so I made my husband pick up Preteen from play practice so I could go. Francine read the beginning and end of her chapters on words, sentences (her favorite sentence is the 181 word Virginia Woolf sentence on page 42), dialogue and details. She said those sections that she read out loud were the “stories,” and the rest of it was the information, which we could read on our own. After that she took questions and comments from the audience.
She said she’s been surprised by the book’s success. When she was writing, she thought her audience was “desperate M.F.A. instructors” like herself. But the book definitely has a larger appeal.
She’s one of those writers who “bleeds on the page” (like me)…writing doesn’t come easy for her. She says everything she writes goes through “probably 200 drafts.” Her husband is her first reader, and he doesn’t see her work until it’s been through probably 60 drafts.
She told about a very bright student she had…a sophomore…he was very intelligent, but he couldn’t write. She said she thought the problem was he’d already mastered “paperese.” So she worked with him sentence by sentence and asked him what he was trying to say. That helped. Most students can speak…even if they have trouble writing.
She was asked about the connection between listening and writing…she said her best listeners are also her best writers.
She talked a little about gestures in literature (though she didn’t read from that section of the book)…she said most gestures in a story are there to provide “beats” in dialogue. She thinks a gesture should TELL THE READER something specific. For instance, a guy who takes off his hat in the elevator when a lady steps inside tells you something about him as a person.
She’s published one YA novel (Argh!!! I didn’t know that, so I just now looked it up on Amazon – she’s the author of a book called After, which I own (it’s about a school shooting)…and could have brought for her to sign if I’d made the connection!)…she said kids hated the ending (interesting!) because it was unresolved. (She didn’t know that kids actually write letters to authors to tell them they don’t like their books!) She personally likes books that end with a “and then their story really began” concept. (Which is kind of how I’d describe the end of my Do You Know the Monkey Man…)
She was also asked about her life as a teacher vs. a writer. Surely both bring her joy…at the end of the day, which brings her greater joy? To have completed a wonderful piece of writing herself or to look at a student’s writing and see the improvement, knowing she was the one who made the difference? She kind of paused when the question was asked…and then she talked about how much she enjoys teaching and how much she enjoys her students (she’s currently teaching at Bard and her students are all good readers and good writers…she likes to assign them stories she has a hard time understanding because maybe her students will explain them to her!)…but while she was reluctant to come right out and say it, it was clear the answer to the question is her own writing ultimately brings her more joy. She said “there’s minimal suffering in teaching in comparison to writing.” (What author/instructor can’t relate to that?)
To people who claim they don’t read while they’re writing because they don’t want to be “influenced” by someone else’s style, she says, “you wish!”
Someone asked her to comment on literature that’s been published in the last 5-10 years…what does this modern literature do that previous literature didn’t? She said that was a really good question. And she had to think about it a bit because she thought most literature (whether it’s classic or modern) does essentially the same thing. But to answer the question, she said what she enjoys about newer literature is “finding ordinary moments of human life that no one else has described that way before.”
And finally, the store sponsor asked her to comment on her “Reading for Courage” chapter…what does that mean? (I get the impression the store sponsor asked that just to wrap things up!) She said ultimately one should read widely, read a lot, and read SLOWLY (which she admits is a contradiction of terms…but the whole book is about slowing down as a reader…). Find encouragement in great literature and know that no one else can tell a story exactly as you can.