Reading as a Means to Writing: An Introduction

This is the first post in a series written for the Writing Blog by Ryan Sheldon ’13.

I first conceived of this study of the relationship between reading and writing when I found I could not answer a question posed to the Ford Seminar class last fall: How do people learn to write?

I was at a loss for how to respond as either a tutor or an aspiring writer, and that shocked me.  In considering literary development, especially within the context of tutoring, I had purposefully traded only in academic models of thought. The personal element of this process was something I’d more or less neglected, and to suddenly become aware of my ignorance was staggering.

It struck me later that this line of inquiry might be expanded a bit. I ruminated on it and generated a few questions of my own. How do we become writers? What does it mean to come into our own as writers? Further reflection on this issue produced no easy explanations, but it did furnish me with a point of departure: our relationship to existing literature—the ways in which we read and relate to that experience—must invariably factor prominently in our navigations of the writing process.

In this series, I will attempt to address questions of literary development—how we experience the study of writing; how we develop individual relationships with texts; how we read; how we come to know and own literature—while talking with writers here at Wesleyan about their experiences of this maturation process.

First, I’d like to ground the series by way of a few remarks on contemporary letters.

The Half-Finished Heaven

The Internet communiqué often wants of self-situation: it is a cool night in late October—about a quarter to one—and I am working my way (if one could call this work) through The Half-Finished Heaven, a collection of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer’s verse, selected and translated by Robert Bly. I confess that I am fairly uninitiated when it comes to Transtromer’s work; I knew nothing of the poet before he was chosen as the latest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in October, but I’ve been devouring this collection ever since the news was announced. His poems are gems: beautiful, elegiac, dreamlike, and all the sharper for the hour at which I’m reading them.

The shallowest thing I could say about Transtromer is that he “lives up to the hype” (perhaps that’s a self-protective way of deflecting attention from the woefully malnourished state of my knowledge of poetry). In fairness, there has been quite a bit of hype surrounding Transtromer; he has seen a vast upshot in critical attention of late. I had the pleasant occasion to read Dan Chiasson’s nuanced, glowing treatment of Transtromer’s poetry in The New Yorker alongside the poems themselves, and it reenergized my thinking on the matter of individual literary development. Chiasson observes that Transtromer’s work draws on a wide range of personal influences: the harrowing nightmares of his childhood, years of psychological practice and musical study, the solitary echo of his mental distress, and, following a stroke he suffered in 1990, the inability to speak. Despite the shocking resonance of the last event, which couches the depth of Transtromer’s struggle in arguably more understandable physical terms, I still wonder most about what the young man might’ve read while making his earliest forays into the world of writing—what verses echoed in his head as he first explored the sensuous, expansive contours of the poetry that would finally give voice to his racing, supernatural confusion.

Nobel Laureate Tomas Transtromer

Chiasson goes on to apply John Ashbery’s description of Elizabeth Bishop to the Swedish master, calling him “a ‘poet’s poet’s poet’.” When I read that, I couldn’t help but smirk at the absurdly layered nature of the compliment. Is it overly “meta”? Perhaps so, but not in a way that diminishes its weight. Chiasson is commenting on the nature of influence here—he situates Transtromer in a genealogy of craft. Yet we must also mind Chiasson’s sensitivity to the emotional vulnerability that is so present in Transtromer’s work. One hears his poetry resounding not solely with poets themselves, but also with those readers who have felt similar sensations—of loneliness, fright, and distress—and one imagines that it is from this latter audience that an heir to his work and his tradition might emerge.

Permit me to make an unqualified assertion: right now, as I’m writing this, there is a young poet—perhaps someone who’s already started to cut her literary teeth, perhaps someone to whom the art has only just revealed itself—picking up the pen because of Tomas Transtromer. Just like someone has just done so because of Ernest Hemingway or Virginia Woolf or George Saunders or Michel Foucault…

In short, I’d like to assert that discoveries of writing must spring from uniquely personal relationships with literature. What I’m going to do in this blog series is explore that idea through interviews and analyses of contemporary scholarship on the issue. What I will show I leave untouched for the moment, as the individualistic nature of the endeavor recommends.

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