Although many writers claim divine inspiration or innate ability, a good work ethic, not miraculous intervention, is to credit. Even William Wordsworth, who pronounced poetry to be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” subjected his work to bouts of revision with his sister Dorothy. W.B. Yeats more clearly expresses this sentiment of the difficulty of writing well. In “Adam’s Curse,” Yeats admits to the difficulty of slaving over verse, only to make it appear effortless. He writes,
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
In this stanza, Yeats laments the backbreaking work that goes into a single line of poetry. He notes that unless this line looks instantaneous, all has been for naught. Moreover, other professions look down on poets as idlers. Perhaps a more succinct description of the writer’s predicament comes from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write,” in which he says, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” This is a far cry from the notion of divinely inspired poets. If this is the case, it is a wonder we have any literature at all.
Nevertheless, having established that writing well is hard work, the question now is how most effectively to learn how to do it. The key to writing well is simpler than it seems. We learn to write well by reading well.
Ben Franklin purportedly taught himself to write well by imitating passages from articles and books he admired. In his Autobiography he recounted, “With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat [sic] the papers again.” Perhaps Franklin was taking a page from the ancient Greeks. In Poetics, Aristotle asserts that true art is an imitation, or mimesis, of the natural world. Moreover, he argues that imitation is a deeply human trait, and that the propensity to imitate sets humans apart from animals. He writes,
Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.
Not only do we experience catharsis through artistic imitations of things in real life that cause pain or pleasure, we also learn how to live — learn our “earliest lessons,” as Aristotle says — through mimesis. Babies learn how to walk and talk by imitating adults, children learn good (and sometimes bad) habits by imitating their elders or older peers, and adults learn social and professional skills by imitating those more successful than them. If we learn virtues, habits, and skills by imitating the masters, does this method also apply to honing a craft like writing?
This act of learning to write well by reading well can best be seen in the high school classroom. Ideally, by this age, students have mastered the basics of grammar, acquired an arsenal of rhetorical devices, and begun to find their own voice. Good course books are to thank, in part, for these developments. But the greater credit goes to good literature. Humans are experts at unconsciously internalizing things we see, hear, or read. How much greater, then, can we benefit from closely and critically reading great books.
In JH Classical Academy’s high school creative writing class, students are studying how to write well in specific genres by reading masters of those genres, carefully noting patterns of style and syntax, and imitating them. They have improved their creative nonfiction skills by reading Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, their short stories by reading Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, their poetry by reading Seamus Heaney and Marianne Moore. By dissecting, consuming, and emulating these works, students form a deeper understanding of the inner workings of good literature and are able to better perform their own craft.
It may be useful here to address the line between imitation and plagiarism. While plagiarism is expressing another writer’s words or ideas as one’s own, imitation is a method of acquiring or sharpening skills learned from a master. However, imitation is not the end goal. Good writing is not simply words well strung together, but also good thoughts, ideas, and motivation underlying and inspiring these words. Orwell continued his essay on why he wrote by explaining that political motives foremostly inspired his work. He writes, “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
While imitation answers the question of how we write well, what about why we write well? Like Orwell, we may want to shed light on a social or political injustice or truth. Or, like Dostoevsky, we may want to convey the inner workings of the human psyche. Or, like Achebe, we may want to illuminate the history and culture of a particular people. Inspiration is more difficult to come by than the craft itself, but if we spend all our time waiting for the Muse to come, we may not be ready when she does. Whether currently feeling inspired or not — experiencing a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” or not — we can begin working towards writing well by picking up a good book and reading well.