Tom’s Knife: How Studying Literature Made Me a Better Writer

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.  2712408394

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? 

  • Nate Shields

    Oh I remember Samuel Smith classes. I don’t think I appreciated them when I took them, but now I remember some of the critical thinking lessons that he taught. It took awhile for them to take root. I’m no scholar to be sure, but I’m glad to have one or two tools that help me look at text however it is presented.

    • Andi

      I found Samuel’s classes to be both so tough and so amazing, probably because they were tough. And like you, those lessons have served me very well.

  • Aaron

    I have never taken a formal literature class. However, I have been a reader, a lover of the depth of story and hidden meaning, and an allusion hunter long before I was a writer. For me, these things are essential to my writing voice. I began writing as a poet (teen angst poems, gotta love them), and quickly fell in love with prose. The depth of meaning I could find in the prose I read made me want to write it well.

    I agree with you though: never plan it on the first draft. Then it’s blunt, crass, and pointless. But when we see the symbols, the themes, the little things that tie into the bigger things start to poke through in our writing, it’s only right that we nurture them into bloom. Our minds are full of all that we have rad, all that we have seen, all that we know. It’s going to leak out onto the paper. We do our writing and our readers a disservice if we don’t let it show up naturally, and then fan it into a fire.

    • Andi

      Agreed, Aaron. I think we put down a powerful energy in our first drafts, but it’s the process of revision that makes them accessible to readers. And if they aren’t accessible to readers, then, why bother sharing them?

  • Steve Thomas

    When I was an editor, I had a number of writers who sent me rough drafts. I edited as lightly as I dared, but sometimes I didn’t even correct spelling (example: when they would write gummint instead of government) because their idiosyncratic ways added authenticity to their writing. Others would turn in copy that was perfect in terms of grammar and spelling, retyped on beautiful laid cambric with no whiteout or correction tape used, nor any signs of erasures (this in an era when electric typewriters were outnumbered by manual Smith Corona manuals) and yet the submissions were dry, flavorless, almost worthless.

    Those weren’t all the submissions, of course. There were writes who regularly gave me good stuff that their 8th grade English teacher, a spinster field marshal for the grammarian army would have approved of, and writers whose pages I numbered in litho blue pencil immediately upon taking possession, for if I pied the manuscript, I couldn’t be sure I could figure out the original sequence.

    But I believe, based on my experience, that far too many writers wring all the juice out in the editing process, far more than make significant gains in “fanning the flames.”

    I’m not trying to tell you, Aaron, to change what’s working for you, but for writers who haven’t yet formed a habit of succeeding, I would urge caution. Or as Hunter S Thompson said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many famous authors have been alcoholics. There’s a story inside, the gestation period is over, and the story claws its way out, just as Rosemary’s Baby did.

    I wish alcohol or drugs relaxed me. I’ve had to rely on insanity….

    • Andi

      Steve, while I do agree that it’s possible to over edit something, I have found both as a writer and an editor that the process of revision is absolutely necessary for almost every single thing anyone writes. Without editing, we get hot emotion and unclear thinking – which is valuable in a draft but not in something other people will read. For writing to work, it must be transactional. If it leaves the reader out, as most first drafts do, then it has failed.

      And as for alcohol and drugs, I absolutely disagree. While I’m not a teetotaller, to advocate that people rely on substance or even mental illness to write well, is to advocate that their work is more important than their life, and it’s not. Plus, I have never met a writer who wouldn’t be better if they were sober. Hemingway – imagine his mastery if he wasn’t drunk much of the time; imagine what he might have produced had he not killed himself. More on this in today’s post.

  • Pilar

    I would love to learn how to do this.