What is Good Writing? First, Strengthening Ones Literary DNA

The well-read Henry Higgins from “My Fair Lady.” 

It’s 9:06 PM and I’m reading Thoreau for the first time. Lots of famous writers new and old get tossed around in our class discussions, which I hardly participate in. Maybe it’s that the other students take the “craft” a lot more seriously and have over the years diligently built up their foundations with books from the “canon.” Or more likely (I sincerely hope this is the case because I am now at a point where if I had to choose between even a classic author I like – James, Melville, Fitzgerald – and the latest issue of Vogue, I’d go with Vogue) they just spent more time as undergraduate English majors rather than tried, like me, to squeeze the entire major into two semesters.

For too long a while, I was an ill-informed art history major, thinking it an easy way to get a B.A. Apparently having visited a couple of museums and expressing an “interest” in art doesn’t cut it. You have to have the chops to write twenty-five pagers on very strange, minute details. An interesting, looping design on the side of a porcelain Chinese vase, for instance. Is it a cloud or a dragon? Or neither? You’ll never know for sure because the artist/craftsman is dead, but spend enough hours in the stacks and you might come close to convincing the two or three people who will read your paper.

But I’m all done with that. That stuff really went over my head, though now I find myself sitting only slightly more comfortably in workshop and fiction/nonfiction seminars. Overpriced, glorified book-clubs, as another student put it, and sometimes I can’t help but agree. But I’m beginning to think it’s me.

Early on in workshop our professor had asked us to think about our literary DNA, a phrase I promptly fell in love with and which, according to my professor, represents the writers who’ve influenced and impacted our style, substance or both. It was interesting to think about and I realized I had a select few authors I liked very much and admired, but perhaps there could be more – if reading voraciously is like letting ideas collect and ferment, and if writing prodigiously is like allowing the very best of those ideas distill, than the more you do of both ought to lead one writing some top shelf stuff. (To the other writers out there, if you’re in the mood to share, to whom do you attribute your literary DNA?)

I really ought to start doing the reading for class and beyond, to look into these writers that everyone else seems to have read. Thoreau, for instance. Emerson too, and Woolf and Forster and Faulkner and Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, just to name a few names out of the hundreds I’ve yet to know better. Right now, it’s like we’re acquaintances. I know (roughly) when they lived and what they wrote, but of their writerly essence I know nothing. I always nod along like I know what references everyone is making but inside I’m thinking, “Damn, was I supposed to have read that?”

Probably. That’s always been the joke for my friends, who encourage my writerly ambitions and take the time to read what I write, but who also know that 80% of the books on my bookshelves are untouched and mainly serve as decoration.

Sometimes though, it feels I’ve spent so long looking at the book covers that they become a part of my literary DNA, and I almost believe that I’ve read them. Almost. It’s a most sinister form of self-trickery. But back cover summaries make for very weak literary DNA.

Never as introspective as I ought to be, I read this article the other day and then gushed to C: how true was the third point: “You can judge a man by the size of his library.” So true.

“So true,” agreed C, thinking as I and the author and Jane Austen did, that of course reading prevented “small-mindedness.” However C, an astute reader, failed to point out to me that I had quite a large library but what did it mean, as most of it was unread? It means that I’m relieved women are judged by different things…right?

“You’re pretty much a bullshit reader,” said Grace, a few nights later. We were discussing a person of interest who liked to read, which I thought was important.

“I think he reads more than I do,” I said.

“Everyone reads more than you do,” Grace said, “You just buy books and arrange them nicely on your shelves.”

I was about to bring up the Austen article then realized too, that I’d never actually read any Austen. Excellent BBC productions took care of those for me, but were they really a good substitute? No. They could supplement, but not substitute. I thought about that terrifying phrase: small-mindedness, and about the amount of time I spent reading everything and nothing: the millions of blogs I try to keep up with (my own often taking a back burner to these), fashion magazines (though there are occasionally some good profiles and relationship pieces in various ones), and the never-ending feeds on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. How much reading and writing I could get done if I scaled back on those things (I am not so delusional as to think I’d be able to do away with them completely)! My literary DNA would strengthen and, as a result, so ought my writing. At least that is the great bright hope.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with some Thoreau before I return to him:

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, -who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the holy land, till the children exclaimed,”There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, – a Holy-Lander… Some however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”      – Walking

2 thoughts on “What is Good Writing? First, Strengthening Ones Literary DNA

  1. Amazon's free Kindle classics, the Kindle app for your phone, and daily bus/subway rides are a great way to get through those “Classics You're Supposed to Have Read, But C'mon, Really? You're Saying You Read That One, Too?” type of books. It's amazing how many books you can get through by sneaking in a few pages at a time between four stops on the F train. And Austen, for what it's worth, is still surprisingly easy to enjoy.

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