Yesterday on Twitter, Erin Feldman of Write Right had a little interchange about the biographical fallacy. Like me, she’s hesitant to subscribe to it fully, and she made an interesting observation about why she and I might share that perspective – perhaps, she said, it’s because we both studied literature.
Her comment got me thinking about how else I might be different as a reader and a writer because I studied literature before I studied writing. I started out in college as an English major, and then I got an MA in literature – all the while thinking I would be a college literature professor. But my path didn’t go that way – I went via the woods of writing – teaching it and studying it . . . and it seems this is where I will be for life, gladly.
Yet, those years in literature programs gave me a set of tools that I’m grateful for every day. By studying literature, I learned how to break down a piece of writing – to see how the writer (we always called him the “author”) establishes setting and uses point of view to craft a particular lens. I learned to look for symbols and themes, and I still adore allusions and references to things beyond the page more than I enjoy any other literary device. I studied how to break down poetry and see how alliteration and meter affect the way I read a piece, and I came to understand a variety of approaches to reading itself – feminist and Marxist (my favorites) as well as historical and biographical and new critical. I can still remember how in Crystal Downing’s Victorian lit class I figured out that the tower in The Mill on the Floss was a phallic symbol as was the knife in Tom’s pocket; talk about an epiphany. Just that small insight charged me for weeks – what else might be tucked into the story that made it deeper?
The truth is, though, that while I’m sure this literary knowledge affects the way I write – how could it not – I don’t think about any of those things when I write. I don’t want them, too. The minute I sit down to write with a particular symbol in mind is the minute that symbol will be heavy-handed and obvious, too mechanical for the truth of the piece. The tools of literary study are not useful in drafting, at least not consciously.
But when I revise, when I take apart my work to make it stronger, I begin to look at my own work as literature. I see where I have repeated motifs or where my point of view wavers and shifts unhelpfully. During this stage of the writing process, I begin to see how I might draw out themes more fully – for example, in You Will Not Be Forgotten I found that I referenced stone often, so I turned that into a more prominent element of the book. In revision, all this literary knowledge guides me to make my work stronger.
I do not, however, think a writer needs a literature degree to write well. That’s absurd. Anyone can learn to analyze literature if they want to do so. Many of us don’t choose to analyze deeply though. We, instead, read for content only – deciding if something is worth reading based on whether or not we like the subject. This is a little sad to me. In fact, I think we have lost something since so many of us do not critically analyze the work of other writers before and as we create our own. Our work, collectively, is shallower, more simplistic, less sophisticated; we simply don’t know how to build depth in our pieces because we don’t see depth in other works. We can learn though, and I hope we will.
I am so very grateful for my literature professors – Gary Stonum and Crystal Downing and Samuel Smith and Clyde Ross and Paul Nisly and all the others – because they taught me that there is value in seeing how something works, because they taught me to slow down and think. They showed me that there is a world within the world on the page, and for that I am ever grateful.
What do you feel about the value of studying literature for your writing? Where have you learned how to analyze a text? Would you like to learn more?