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The importance of reading

V V | September 14, 2005

In real life, making a living is not easy in the book world -- for authors, publishers and the retail trade.

On the movie screen Jack Nicholson in Wolf (with Om Puri) may be transformed from a civilised editor into a werewolf just to fight off the sharks in the business. But, in real life, the gap between rich and poor writers is now greater than between CEOs and drones.

Forget Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul and a few others whose book advances make frontpage news and perhaps, because of the curiosity value of the astronomical advances, help sell the book.

The vast mass of the 'second string' of writers survive by the skin of their teeth and certainly not by writing books alone. Yet How-to-Write books and creative writing courses proliferate. Some books, like Francis Thomas and Mark Turner's Clear And Simple As The Truth and William Zissner's On Writing Well, go on to sell a million copies and more.

Clearly, there is a market of hopefuls wanting to break out with just a little help from teachers. Marie Arana's collection from the Washington Post Book World, The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Write -- somewhat on the lines of the Paris Review Series but more condensed and relevant -- is the latest arrival that promises to join the big league of sophisticated guides to good writing skills that sell.

Before getting into The Writing Life, let it be said that dumbing down is not what upmarket writing manuals advocate: they want writing to be clear and simple, or as Hemingway often said, 'just write one simple honest line.' Authenticity and clarity is what they advocate. But it is easier said than done because to say in simple words what is deeply felt comes from 'a great deal of living with and living by.'

Therefore the idiom of classic style is the voice of conversation. 'The writer adopts the pose of a speaker of near-perfect efficiency whose sentences are the product of the voice rather than some instrument of writing.' And the ideal speech will always be spontaneous and motivated by the need to inform a listener of something.

Arana has gathered more than 50 contemporary literature's finest voices that would seduce readers with stories of 'the writing life'. She has provided a brief biographical sketch to the writer and his/ her works before letting them disclose their professional secrets: how they first discovered they were writers at heart, how they work, how they deal with their work, how they deal with their myriad frustrations and the delights a writer's life affords.

Culled from 10 years of Washington Post columns, the book highlights an eclectic group of writers who have wildly varied stories to tell, but who share the same writing life with dramas and failures, insights into the demands and rewards.

Writers are highly individualistic characters but is there anything they share in common? There are some things.

First, there is no one way to approach the writing of a book unless it is producing pulp --cookie versions of the same thing. There is no magic formula.

But there is one basic lesson for all: writers learn their craft, above all, from the work of others. That is, from reading. 'They learn from immersing themselves in books. They do not learn from the classrooms, or workshops, or manuals -- they cannot be programmed to perform. It is, in essence, lonely work; isolation is what they must learn to savour.' Arana quotes the American essayist, Cynthia Ozick, 'reading and writing are like getting born or dying, you are obliged to do it alone.'

From this, it follows that writers create themselves. Arana does well to remind us that 'to educate' means 'to bring out'. This process of being brought out, of developing an innate capacity, or realising that you harbour an overwhelming impulse to writing things, is touched again and again by the writers here.

Writers therefore cannot write except in their own way. And it is precisely because everyone does it differently that good writing is difficult to teach. Hence the conclusion: if you are willing to be led from within and if you are willing to let your rigorous teacher -- which is yourself in the final analysis -- fashion a clear, well-written page, the writer would be born.

After all this, you are reminded of Hemingway's famous comment: 'The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have it.'

The problem is that many writers have dialled it down to zero because they no longer read.

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