Read Like A Writer
There are two ways to learn how to write fiction: by reading it and by writing it. Yes, you can learn lots about writing stories in workshops, in writing classes and writing groups, at writers' conferences. You can learn technique and process by reading the dozens of books like this one on fiction writing and by reading articles in writers' magazines. But the best teachers of fiction are the great works of fiction themselves. You can learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Anton Chekhov's 'Heartache' than you can in a semester of Creative Writing 101. If you read like a writer, that is, which means you have to read everything twice, at least. When you read a story or novel the first time, just let it happen. Enjoy the journey. When you've finished, you know where the story took you, and now you can go back and reread, and this time notice how the writer reached that destination. Notice the choices he made at each chapter, each sentence, each word. (Every word is a choice.) You see now how the transitions work, how a character gets across a room. All this time you're learning. You loved the central character in the story, and now you can see how the writer presented the character and rendered her worthy of your love and attention. The first reading is creative—you collaborate with the writer in making the story. The second reading is critical.
John Dufresne, from his book, The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction
Sunday, December 27, 2015
My Late Senatorial Secretaryship by Mark Twain
I am not a private secretary to a senator any more I now. I held the berth two months in security and in great cheerfulness of spirit, but my bread began to return from over the waters then--that is to say, my works came back and revealed themselves. I judged it best to resign. The way of it was this. My employer sent for me one morning tolerably early, and, as soon as I had finished inserting some conundrums clandestinely into his last great speech upon finance, I entered the presence. There was something portentous in his appearance. His cravat was untied, his hair was in a state of disorder, and his countenance bore about it the signs of a suppressed storm. He held a package of letters in his tense grasp, and I knew that the dreaded Pacific mail was in. He said:
"I thought you were worthy of confidence."
I said, "Yes, sir."
He said, "I gave you a letter from certain of my constituents in the State of Nevada, asking the establishment of a post-office at Baldwin's Ranch, and told you to answer it, as ingeniously as you could, with arguments which should persuade them that there was no real necessity for as office at that place."
I felt easier. "Oh, if that is all, sir, I did do that."
"Yes, you did. I will read your answer for your own humiliation:
'WASHINGTON, Nov. 24
'Messrs. Smith, Jones, and others.
'GENTLEMEN: What the mischief do you suppose you want with a post-office at Baldwin's Ranch? It would not do you any good. If any letters came there, you couldn't read them, you know; and, besides, such letters as ought to pass through, with money in them, for other localities, would not be likely to get through, you must perceive at once; and that would make trouble for us all. No, don't bother about a post-office in your camp. I have your best interests at heart, and feel that it would only be an ornamental folly. What you want is a nice jail, you know--a nice, substantial jail and a free school. These will be a lasting benefit to you. These will make you really contented and happy. I will move in the matter at once.
'Very truly, etc.,
'For James W. N------, U. S. Senator.'
"That is the way you answered that letter. Those people say they will hang me, if I ever enter that district again; and I am perfectly satisfied they will, too."
"Well, sir, I did not know I was doing any harm. I only wanted to convince them."
"Ah. Well, you did convince them, I make no manner of doubt. Now, here is another specimen. I gave you a petition from certain gentlemen of Nevada, praying that I would get a bill through Congress incorporating the Methodist Episcopal Church of the State of Nevada. I told you to say, in reply, that the creation of such a law came more properly within the province of the state legislature; and to endeavor to show them that, in the present feebleness of the religious element in that new commonwealth, the expediency of incorporating the church was questionable. What did you write?
"'WASHINGTON, Nov. 24.
"'Rev. John Halifax and others.
"'GENTLEMEN: You will have to go to the state legislature about that speculation of yours--Congress don't know anything about religion. But don't you hurry to go there, either; because this thing you propose to do out in that new country isn't expedient--in fact, it is ridiculous. Your religious people there are too feeble, in intellect, in morality, in piety in everything, pretty much. You had better drop this--you can't make it work. You can't issue stock on an incorporation like that--or if you could, it would only keep you in trouble all the time. The other denominations would abuse it, and "bear" it, and "sell it short," and break it down. They would do with it just as they would with one of your silver-mines out there--they would try to make all the world believe it was "wildcat." You ought not to do anything that is calculated to bring a sacred thing into disrepute. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves that is what I think about it. You close your petition with the words: "And we will ever pray." I think you had better you need to do it.
"'Very truly, etc.,
"'For James W. N-----, U. S. Senator.'
"That luminous epistle finishes me with the religious element among my constituents. But that my political murder might be made sure, some evil instinct prompted me to hand you this memorial from the grave company of elders composing the board of aldermen of the city of San Francisco, to try your hand upon a, memorial praying that the city's right to the water-lots upon the city front might be established by law of Congress. I told you this was a dangerous matter to move in. I told you to write a non-committal letter to the aldermen--an ambiguous letter--a letter that should avoid, as far as possible, all real consideration and discussion of the water-lot question. If there is any feeling left in you--any shame--surely this letter you wrote, in obedience to that order, ought to evoke it, when its words fall upon your ears:
'WASHINGTON, Nov. 27
'The Honorable Board of Aldermen, etc.
'GENTLEMEN: George Washington, the revered Father of his Country, is dead. His long and brilliant career is closed, alas! forever. He was greatly respected in this section of the country, and his untimely decease cast a gloom over the whole community. He died on the 14th day of December, 1799. He passed peacefully away from the scene of his honors and his great achievements, the most lamented hero and the best beloved that ever earth hath yielded unto Death. At such a time as this, you speak of water-lots! what a lot was his!
'What is fame! Fame is an accident. Sir Isaac Newton discovered an apple falling to the ground--a trivial discovery, truly, and one which a million men had made before him--but his parents were influential, and so they tortured that small circumstance into something wonderful, and, lo! the simple world took up the shout and, in almost the twinkling of an eye, that man was famous. Treasure these thoughts.
'Poesy, sweet poesy, who shall estimate what the world owes to thee!
"Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow-- And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go."
"Jack and Gill went up the hill
To draw a pail of water;
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Gill came tumbling after."
'For simplicity, elegance of diction, and freedom from immoral tendencies, I regard those two poems in the light of gems. They are suited to all grades of intelligence, to every sphere of life --to the field, to the nursery, to the guild. Especially should no Board of Aldermen be without them.
'Venerable fossils! write again. Nothing improves one so much as friendly correspondence. Write again--and if there is anything in this memorial of yours that refers to anything in particular, do not be backward about explaining it. We shall always be happy to hear you chirp.
'Very truly, etc.,
'For James W. N-----, U. S. Senator.'
"That is an atrocious, a ruinous epistle! Distraction!"
"Well, sir, I am really sorry if there is anything wrong about it--but --but it appears to me to dodge the water-lot question."
"Dodge the mischief! Oh!--but never mind. As long as destruction must come now, let it be complete. Let it be complete--let this last of your performances, which I am about to read, make a finality of it. I am a ruined man. I had my misgivings when I gave you the letter from Humboldt, asking that the post route from Indian Gulch to Shakespeare Gap and intermediate points be changed partly to the old Mormon trail. But I told you it was a delicate question, and warned you to deal with it deftly--to answer it dubiously, and leave them a little in the dark. And your fatal imbecility impelled you to make this disastrous reply. I should think you would stop your ears, if you are not dead to all shame:
"'WASHINGTON, Nov. 30.
"'Messes. Perkins, Wagner, et at.
"'GENTLEMEN: It is a delicate question about this Indian trail, but, handled with proper deftness and dubiousness, I doubt not we shall succeed in some measure or otherwise, because the place where the route leaves the Lassen Meadows, over beyond where those two Shawnee chiefs, Dilapidated Vengeance and Biter-of-the-Clouds, were scalped last winter, this being the favorite direction to some, but others preferring something else in consequence of things, the Mormon trail leaving Mosby's at three in the morning, and passing through Jaw bone Flat to Blucher, and then down by Jug-Handle, the road passing to the right of it, and naturally leaving it on the right, too, and Dawson's on the left of the trail where it passes to the left of said Dawson's and onward thence to Tomahawk, thus making the route cheaper, easier of access to all who can get at it, and compassing all the desirable objects so considered by others, and, therefore, conferring the most good upon the greatest number, and, consequently, I am encouraged to hope we shall. However, I shall be ready, and happy, to afford you still further information upon the subject, from time to time, as you may desire it and the Post-office Department be enabled to furnish it to me.
"'Very truly, etc.,
"'For James W. N-----, U. S. Senator.'
"There--now what do you think of that?"
"Well, I don't know, sir. It--well, it appears to me--to be dubious enough."
"Du--leave the house! I am a ruined man. Those Humboldt savages never will forgive me for tangling their brains up with this inhuman letter. I have lost the respect of the Methodist Church, the board of aldermen--"
"Well, I haven't anything to say about that, because I may have missed it a little in their cases, but I was too many for the Baldwin's Ranch people, General!"
"Leave the house! Leave it forever and forever, too."
I regarded that as a sort of covert intimation that my service could be dispensed with, and so I resigned. I never will be a private secretary to a senator again. You can't please that kind of people. They don't know anything. They can't appreciate a party's efforts.