Reading to Writing
How I learned to write.
In my early adulthood, I regretted I never learned to think systematically. I thought professional writers — critics, historians, philosophers, journalists — synthesized their thoughts while reading and taking notes, constructed three-dimensional models of their arguments in their minds before they began to write. Once they had decided what it was they wanted to say or argue, only then did they open their laptop or take out a pad of paper and start to compose. For systematic thinkers, so I supposed, the point of revising their work was to make their argument comprehensible to readers. Revising your draft, in other words, reveals what is already embedded in the writing.
I have never constructed an argument as systematically as I just described. In fact, now I’m not sure that anyone has. My outsider’s conception of what it means to think systematically may be a new species of the Imposter Syndrome, a concept I understand from the inside out. I have never shaken off the regret that I was not, by any measure, prepared to become a professor, a career I fell into without much forethought, until I had to learn the job while performing the job. It never occurred to me, the daughter of a poor single mother who married unhappily into the middle class while I was in my teens, to enter academia prior to suddenly finding myself, at the age of thirty, standing right outside its doors, ringing the doorbell to be let in. No one, including myself, encouraged me to aspire to an academic career, although I did imagine myself briefly as a writer until that urge was squashed (see “My New Old Age”).
The one constant over my lifetime was my love of reading. I’m not a critic, although over the years I have become more thoughtful about what I read. As a teenager, I read books in order to float away from my suburban New Jersey home off to the past, to Bloomsbury, to Windsor Castle, to WWII like Catch-22 or the South in The Confessions of Nat Turner, neither of which I understood. I read histories of the Marx Bros (including Karl), old Hollywood, classic Broadway musicals, biographies of all kinds, plays, and early 20th century British comic authors. In my twenties and thirties, I dived into African American literature, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison in particular. And I just kept going. None of what I read what informed my schoolwork. My reading life was always divorced from my education. I read for pleasure when I should have been reading for school and I paid the price in low grades. It was only in graduate school that I reaped the benefit of those years of reading on the side.
In my New Jersey high school, I was a lousy student. I worked just hard enough for an occasional A in history or English. Thereafter, my academic performance during the two years I spent at a Northern California junior college, followed by two years at a Cal State, could be described, at best, as desultory. In college, I blithely took language class after language class, soaking up grammars, syntaxes, and phonemes, until my transcript had absorbed more units in French literature classes than in Spanish or Italian ones. French won the units derby and I received a B.A. in the literature of that language. Because I didn’t have enough money to travel, I made use of all those classes by reading French, Italian, and, later, modern Greek novels. I fell into graduate school almost by luck, thanks to a brief marriage to a Greek academic who took a job at the University of Toronto. There, I finally found professors who took the time to help me learn to write. The chance to start speaking the languages I had studied began when I spent months at a time in Venice and France for research or in Greece to spend summers with in-laws. How I finished my doctorate at the Centre for Medieval Studies in 1991 is a blur in my memory.
I describe here my lackluster pre-graduate school academic training to underscore the feeling I had of being poorly prepared for the career I found myself succeeding in. Once I got down to work and began the long slog that writing a dissertation entails, I learned to write and think the hard way, when far more was at stake than a decent grade in an undergraduate class. The end of my marriage meant that henceforth I would have no one to rely on financially but myself. Needing a job concentrates the mind wonderfully but not necessarily productively. I remember castigating myself for not having a better trained mind and for having to learn while doing. Finding the argument of my dissertation took as long to find as it did to write it. I did not talk to my peers about how anguished I felt as I edited draft after draft. Sharpening and resharpening my arguments felt pointless. I often despaired of finishing the damned thing. When I printed up for the last time my five chapters, I felt wrung out, exhausted, and sad. Did it have to have been so difficult?
Well, yes, it did, as I realized once I finally compared experiences with friends and colleagues. I seem to have misunderstood the entire creative process while immersed in it. Finding my dissertation’s argument was the point of writing it. Writing did have to be as hard as I experienced it, but not because I was unprepared for the work — which I was. Not only did I learn that my feelings of deficiency were relatively common among graduate students and junior faculty when they were completing a big and time-consuming project. I also felt an enormous sense of relief once I accepted how integral to the writing process my extensive revisions were. Everyone revises. Everyone benefits from having an editor. All writers rely on the process of revision to clarify and even discover what they are thinking. This insight — to write is to think — came as a revelation to me and led to a not entirely comfortable insight. I realized I loved writing more than I loved what I was writing about. The reality was, unfortunately, that my employment at a research university depended on a harmonious relationship between my writing and my subject matter. I had to publish or perish professionally.
Joan Didion’s passing on December 23, 2021 brought all these thoughts to the forefront of my mind. In the weeks following the announcement, I read “Why I Write,” in the last collection of her essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean (containing also Hilton Als’s trenchant introduction). If I had read “Why I Write” at the start of my academic career, I would have realized that the systematic thinkers I thought I was surrounded by in academia were chimeras. More consolingly, I would have recognized myself in her own insight into herself as a writer. Images, not ideas, in need of elucidation or explanation formed in her mind. I thought of her as a reporter of the specific rather than as a critic or essayist of the general. To concentrate on the specific, a writer has to think hard about her choice of words and their placement to a degree that abstractions don’t quite require. Furthermore, for Didion, writing was an end in itself as much as it was a means of expression. Writing and thinking are one process. The essay confirmed for me a suspicion I’ve had about myself in recent years: I would rather have been a writer than an academic. Fortunately, I wound up in the more steadily employable line of work. Not only that, but I have made modest contributions to the research fields I participated in. So, my career has not been for naught.
My years as a university professor, however, have revealed to me a critical element in the process of learning to write well that Didion didn’t address: the relationship between writing and reading. “Why I Write” establishes that she wrote as a way of searching for answers to questions raised by the images in her mind, but it begs the question of how and when she learned to write in the first place. Was she taught to write during her years at McClatchy High School,located in the neighborhood of Sacramento where I lived for many years? Did she only learn when she went to work at Vogue magazine in the fifties, as she describes in another essay in this collection, “Telling Stories”? Did writing photo captions there furnish her with the time and focus to revise and cut and revise? Or did she become a writer by simply writing constantly? What, I wonder, did it mean for her to find her voice? Where is mine? If arranging and rearranging words on a page was what appealed most to Didion about writing, by what standard was she judging what she produced?
After years of working with students on rough drafts and grading their papers, I have come to accept that not everyone successfully learns to write well by simply writing a lot. As a rule of thumb, I came to see that the students whose writing improved turned out to be readers; those whose writing remained chaotic, did not read for pleasure. For myself, I am convinced my lifelong reading habits made it possible for me to learn how to write well when I had the chance in my early thirties. I unwittingly carried models of previously read prose in my mind against which I judged my own writing. Like that 19th-century cartoon of Charles Dickens with his characters floating around his head, I hear in my mind what I am writing.
At the beginning of my serious attempt to learn how to write, I found comparing my writing to my reading painful. A professor in graduate school did me a great favor when he read aloud to me a draft of a paper I had written for him. The experience was excruciating. But hearing him read aloud my draft set me on the path to becoming a writer, when I heard the unclear, convoluted, nonsensical sentences I had written and the disordered flow of my argument, such as it was. I recognized how bad my writing was only because I knew subconsciously what clear and graceful prose sounded like.
Over my career as a professor of history, most of my students, both undergraduate and graduate, have not been readers. When I ask them why they don’t read more, they shrug and say they don’t have the time. For the non-reading students, the exercise of reading aloud to them their drafts usually failed. They were less able to hear why their sentences made little sense than their reading peers. Even if their sentences were intelligible, they lacked an ear for the infelicities and therefore had little idea of how to fix what they wrote. I am still surprised that the majors of the non-readers are unpredictable. Humanities majors show a little more interest in reading for pleasure than do science majors, but not by much. On the graduate level, I have noticed that more and more graduate students with minimal writing skills, like I had, are admitted to our program, which I welcome. But I can’t tell how many of my colleagues line-edit their students’ drafts. I don’t know of anyone who reads their students’ papers aloud to them. Without graduate advisors as editors, graduate students are forced to rely on reading to develop their inner editor.
It is gratifying that many more graduate schools now admit more students who didn’t grow up with the expectation that they would go to graduate school or, if they did, didn’t attend schools whose curriculum emphasized writing and reading. The ability of students who begin with few aspirations and little training to learn, grow, and change depends not just on instructors who don’t assume their students are well prepared. It depends also on the intellectual curiosity of students and their willingness to read. Reading is itself a form of instruction distinct from the information being read. Yet most programs to help students fail to take reading widely and for pleasure into account as a necessary complement to the exercise of writing.
Whether or not systematic thinkers as I once envisioned them exist in pure form no longer matters to me. Like Joan Didion, I am in thrall to the process of arranging and re-arranging words on a page. In my case, as it might also have been the case in hers, I would not revise my work so happily were it not for my reading. The question I ask myself whenever I write is, how can I discover what I want to say in a pattern of words that I have not read before but nevertheless emulates the grace of what I have read? This is the way I link my reading to my writing. Let’s see where it leads me.