Want to Improve Your Writing? Read
by J. Michael Dolan
Me being one myself, I’m addressing all you novelists out there who never took a creative-writing course in college. Or again like myself, maybe never even went to college—but who discovered in high school or earlier that by whatever incomprehensible dictate of fate you’d not only developed a flair for putting words on paper but were driven to it by a force beyond your control.
Allow me to start by sharing something you might not know: we of this motley brotherhood are blessed with a patron saint. His name is Jack London—yes, that Jack London—improbable creator of the immortal work The Call of the Wild. He wrote plenty else, too, of course, much of it classic—The Sea Wolf, White Fang, and my favorites, his short stories—but his tale of the shanghai’d and ultimately heroic dog Buck remains his most enduring.
How enduring? The 1903 novel was the linchpin to a career that made London an American icon; has since been translated into a hundred languages; and next year Harrison Ford will be starring in its latest adaptation to the silver screen, the ninth time the book has found its way into the movies and on television.
Impressive, you say, beyond impressive—but what the Buck has any of that got to do with me?
Here’s what. Jack London never took any writing classes, either. Nor got anywhere close to college. High school? He dropped out his sophomore year, having had it by then with sitting in a desk all day. At the age of 15 he was taken on by oyster “pirates” working illegal boats in San Francisco Bay. At 17 he shipped out on a seal-hunting trawler that traveled the mid-Pacific on up to the Bering Sea. By the time he was 19, he was hoboing across the country by hopping freight trains, taking odd jobs when he could find them, and when he couldn’t, keeping himself afloat by begging and stealing. Drinking and barroom brawling were his idea of fun.
Come 1897, he was back in San Francisco sweating for his bread in an industrial laundry, when suddenly first the city then the rest of the nation went bonkers. Raggedy, smelly, weather-beaten miners had begun showing up there and in Seattle loaded down with gold they’d prospected in Canada’s frozen northwest. Word traveled swiftly by telegraph and that new gizmo the telephone, and overnight the Klondike Gold Rush was on.
One hundred thousand mostly men, but also women, lit out for Alaska from every corner of the U.S. with dreams of gold dancing in their heads but no clue what they were getting into. London, his brother-in-law, and four hardy souls they’d cobbled together joined the scramble, hurrying by ship for Juneau. From where their little group had to haul a ton and a half of food and supplies a hundred miles north into the Yukon, down rivers fraught with rapids, across dangerously half-frozen lakes, over the crests of towering mountains whose white peaks seemed to touch the sky.
Which is where you, oddly, and the twenty-one-year-old London start to intersect, for just as essential to him as the beans, tents, and tools he was schlepping were his beloved books.
Yes, you heard me: books. In his eyes Milton, Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain were well worth the extra weight on his back. Growing up in an unhappy home, he’d sought escape in reading, a taste he carried into adulthood. Though the unpredictable muse Erato must have taken up residence at some point in some part of him—show me an author in whom she hasn’t—it was the hundreds of books he’d burned his way through that laid the bedrock for the writing path he one day would walk.
How do I presume to know this? Because on top of lacking an explanation for how else an under-schooled naif could emerge literally from the wild with a working knowledge of syntax and style tucked away in his mental rucksack, that’s how a young yours truly came to get his first literary chops. I’d always been a good student but didn’t exactly set the world of academe on fire, and my education came to a halt in the 12th grade.
Which is to say, my formal education. From the age of eight I’d read as if my life depended on it, and the older I got the more selective I grew. With few exceptions I kept to the best authors, meaning those who wrote with an eye to fashioning script that stood a reasonable chance of sticking around long after they themselves were no more.
And I, like London his, learned from my authors—Roth, Updike, Mailer, Vidal—in large part through what I guess you’d call a process of osmosis. I absorbed, unconsciously and through repetition, the way they thought, how they manipulated the language: the rhythm of their sentences; plotting, pacing, and symbolism; how they used diction, dialogue, even punctuation to artful effect. There aren’t many better teachers of the craft, if one reads enough of them, than a book written to the highest standards.
But don’t think you’re getting off that easy: there is more to it than simply osmosis, which brings us back to the peripatetic Mr. London. After nine months of suffering at the edge of the Arctic Circle with but a handful of gold to show for it, he’d had enough. He’d come close to freezing to death twice, drowning once, and did end up contracting the dread “Arctic leprosy,” scurvy. Unlike so many others, though, who left their bones in the snow, he managed to make it back to civilization… barely.
But though he’d unearthed little gold, this he had found—his future. His experience of the far north became a door to the literary world, a much bigger treasure than any he ever could have dug from Yukon dirt.
With the 19th century morphing into the 20th, magazines were popping out of the fertile American soil like wildflowers; editors were tripping over each other in search of short, action-driven fiction. Nor was the opportunity this presented lost on London. Once recovered from his scurvy, he decided to try and put the metaphorical gold he’d mined from reading to use—not by charging like a bull into the writing ring, but counter-intuitively by reading more than he ever had, reading obsessively, like a man on a mission.
And so he was. He devoured whatever popular fiction he could buy, borrow, or beg, particularly that of the magazines but also novels, his goal to nail down the formulas for commercial storytelling success. Only when he felt he’d learned all he could from that did he begin to write—short stories, poems, the occasional article or essay—and was soon up to his ankles in rejection slips.
Distressing as this was, the ex-barroom brawler refused to cry uncle, found his voice, built his confidence, wised to a few tricks—and by age 24 was knocking readers dead, some going so far as to call him the American Kipling.
Then came three “training-wheel” novels, then The Call of the Wild, and our Jack had hopped his last train, an Express Flyer to everlasting fame.
My point is this: in that pre-icon, pre-writing year, he wasn’t just reading, he was READING, with a writer’s gimlet eye. Osmosis will only take you so far; you have to actively study your chosen authors as you’re ingesting them—pay attention to what John did to become Updike, Philip to make himself Roth. Why did he follow a sixty-word sentence with a four-worder? What prompted him to interrupt the arc of his narrative with a flashback? How did he go about employing the much-maligned passive voice to his advantage? Make a habit of squinting through a microscope at enough literary lions, and one sunny morning you’ll wake up to find yourself blessed with an instinctive feel for creating prose you can be proud of.
Of course, as with the osmosis approach, the road to writerly success doesn’t stop at the microscope. If you’re as ambitious as you should be, you’ll need to learn more about your craft than simply knowing how to avoid looking like the author version of a deer in headlights. Two things, in fact: the rigid editorial do’s and don’t’s that govern us myrmidons of Erato, and how to cajole that cruelly unforthcoming muse into revealing her mysteries.
For the more mechanical former, I recommend the book Keys To Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers. And for the acrobatic latter, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, a college-level creative-writing course crammed into 206 pages.
I used to cavalierly call myself a writer (“What do you do?” “I’m a writer…”), and having for years mimicked London’s both witting and unwitting strategies for becoming same, the claim wasn’t without merit. But not until reading then putting into practice what Wilbers and Gardner shared did I feel justified in entering AUTHOR as my profession on whatever form, official or otherwise, society compelled me to fill out.
In summary, all I’m saying is if your aim is to be a serious novelist, don’t overlook the importance of having been and continuing to be a serious reader. Of serious fiction. And not only reading it but picking it apart to see what makes it tick.
In case you’re wondering, and so you won’t feel neglected, most of the preceding applies to you nonfiction folks as well.
About the Author:
— J. Michael Dolan is the author of the award-winning novel The
Trumpets of Jericho, one of only two books (the other nonfiction
and in German) to tell the extraordinary, true story of the 1944
Jewish armed uprising at the Nazi horror camp Auschwitz.
“As moving as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, horrific as Son of Saul, heroic as Defiance… an adventure of a book destined itself for Hollywood.” — Raja Rao Literary Endowment
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