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Unearthing Personal Gold

How reading good writing makes you a better writer

A few days ago, I came across an article on CNN exploring the word ‘dotard,’ by James Griffiths. I enjoyed how he zeroed in on the meaning of the word as well as its history and evolution of usage. When I looked up other articles by Griffiths, I found more articles that were not only informative but enjoyable to read. For me, that’s the hallmark of good writing, and it’s unusual to find both in news articles that are churned out daily. It’s this kind of writing, though, that I know I will get from my favourite magazines, but I also love to read this kind of writing because it inspires me to be the best writer I can be. This type of writing pushes me to unearth my own personal gold.

Another example of luscious writing that I came across this week was in the February 2017 issue of Harper’s. In the section entitled “Trump: A resister’s Guide” was a wonderful array of thought-provoking articles, including, “Terrorist and Alien,” by Nimmi Gowrinathan and Valeria Luiselli. They are both writers and both teachers of creative writing. One is Tamil Sri Lankan and the other is Mexican. Their joint piece takes the form of a dialogue or play between two characters, one labelled “Terrorist,” and the other “Alien.” It is perhaps a 1,000 words long, this article, and it has stayed with me for days. I’ve been thinking about the ideas and the beautiful, challenging and artful way they chose to express their point of view in this Trump Resister’s Guide. Here is a part of it that I found particularly profound and moving. The Alien says:

This reminds me of a nightmare I had: I assign a group of creative writing students to read something great—say, Kafka, or Sei Shonagon. When they come to class, and I ask them what they think, the only answer is “not relatable.” End of nightmare.

I heard that word, “relatability,” for the first time a few years ago. It took me a while to understand that it was the direct opposite of “empathy”: a piece of writing is “not relatable” when it doesn’t talk about me or reflect my experience. The point of literature is precisely to force us out of ourselves, to expand our understanding of the world by allowing us to see it through the mind of another person.

I’m done with relatability. Now when I teach any course on literature or creative writing, I go out of my way to choose texts and topics that are totally “un-relatable,” so as to teach my students how to make the effort that empathy—emotional and intellectual—requires.

Do you see why this has stayed with me for days? Why it feels as though the ideas have jumped into the very core of my being and are searching for a place to nestle within my consciousness?

When I read writing like this, I want to strive for such profound clarity. I want to move people with my words like that, and everything I do in my own classes on literature and writing are all about opening ourselves up to the wonder of words that can move us in this way, that can crack open our complacency so that we see with new eyes and feel with new cells.

Luiselli mentioned asking her students to read something great such as Kafka. I want to share with you a quote from Kafka that also gives me goosebumps and challenges my writing students, too, whenever I share it with them.

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.

When I share this quote with my students, it’s at the point where they begin to realize that writing is more than a feel-good past-time. It’s a calling, and it calls us to dig deep into words so that we come up with our own personal gold.

The personal essayist, William Gass, said the essay is the mind moving over an idea. The thrill of reading is being able to watch that mind sort through ideas and come to a carefully and purposefully crafted piece of writing that is not just functional but beautiful, too. It’s the beauty of it that holds the axe. It’s the beauty that cracks us wide open so that, as Leonard Cohen wrote, the light gets in.

What have you read recently that has cracked you wide open, made you see the world anew, from a different angle, or with greater empathy? Drop a comment below and share what has moved you.

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