Writing Tip: He Who Reads Writes Well

boy reads

Are you someone who reads?

If you aren’t reading, don’t expect your writing to improve. You know the cliche: garbage in, garbage out. Be one who reads.

My students and clients often ask for the best thing can do to help the writing. It is simple: read.

Read the best books you can. While we all love to read silly things — mind candy as some say — read challenging piece as well. Read them quietly. Read them aloud. Listen to a great audio version. Let it all soak in.

What will improve? Vocabulary, rhythm, syntax, concepts, grammar, and, pretty much every other aspect of writing.

Read daily. Make it a part of life. If you aren’t naturally a reader, start with five minutes a day. Yes, just five. If the book is any good, I guarantee you’ll read longer. And, like any fitness campaign, your mind with be shape to read faster, longer, and stronger.

I’d love to help you read. Let’s start a book club.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial by Franz Kafka

I’ve just started reading The Trial

by Franz Kafka. As most people who graduated high school, I’ve read .

About The Trial, Wikipedia says:

On his thirtieth birthday, the chief cashier of a bank, Josef K., is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. The agents’ boss later arrives and holds a mini-tribunal in the room of K.’s neighbor, Fräulein Bürstner. K. is not taken away, however, but left “free” and told to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs. He goes to work, and that night apologizes to Fräulein Bürstner for the intrusion into her room. At the end of the conversation he suddenly kisses her.

K. receives a phone call summoning him to court, and the coming Sunday is arranged as the date. No time is set, but the address is given to him. The address turns out to be a huge tenement building. K. has to explore to find the court, which turns out to be in the attic. The room is airless, shabby and crowded, and although he has no idea what he is charged with, or what authorizes the process, K. makes a long speech denigrating the whole process, including the agents who arrested him; during this speech an attendant’s wife and a man engage in sexual activities. K. then returns home.

K. later goes to visit the court again, although he has not been summoned, and finds that it is not in session. He instead talks with the attendant’s wife, who attempts to seduce him into taking her away, and who gives him more information about the process and offers to help him. K. later goes with the attendant to a higher level of the attic where the shabby and airless offices of the court are housed.

K. returns home to find Fräulein Montag, a lodger from another room, moving in with Fräulein Bürstner. He suspects that this is to prevent him from pursuing his affair with the latter woman. Yet another lodger, Captain Lanz, appears to be in league with Montag.

Later, in a store room at his own bank, K. discovers the two agents who arrested him being whipped by a flogger for asking K. for bribes and as a result of complaints K. made at court. K. tries to argue with the flogger, saying that the men need not be whipped, but the flogger cannot be swayed. The next day he returns to the store room and is shocked to find everything as he had found it the day before, including the whipper and the two agents.

K. is visited by his uncle, who was K.’s guardian. The uncle seems distressed by K.’s predicament. At first sympathetic, he becomes concerned that K. is underestimating the seriousness of the case. The uncle introduces K. to a lawyer, who is attended by Leni, a nurse, whom K.’s uncle suspects is the advocate’s mistress. During the discussion it becomes clear how different this process is from regular legal proceedings: guilt is assumed, the bureaucracy running it is vast with many levels, and everything is secret, from the charge, to the rules of the court, to the authority behind the courts – even the identity of the judges at the higher levels. The attorney tells him that he can prepare a brief for K., but since the charge is unknown and the rules are unknown, it is difficult work. It also never may be read, but is still very important. The lawyer says that his most important task is to deal with powerful court officials behind the scenes. As they talk, the lawyer reveals that the Chief Clerk of the Court has been sitting hidden in the darkness of a corner. The Chief Clerk emerges to join the conversation, but K. is called away by Leni, who takes him to the next room, where she offers to help him and seduces him. They have a sexual encounter. Afterwards K. meets his uncle outside, who is angry, claiming that K.’s lack of respect has hurt K.’s case.

K. visits the lawyer several times. The lawyer tells him incessantly how dire his situation is and tells many stories of other hopeless clients and of his behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of these clients, and brags about his many connections. The brief is never completed. K.’s work at the bank deteriorates as he is consumed with worry about his case.

K. is surprised by one of his bank clients, who tells K. that he is aware that K. is dealing with a trial. The client learned of K.’s case from Titorelli, a painter, who has dealings with the court and told the client about K.’s case. The client advises K. to go to Titorelli for advice. Titorelli lives in the attic of a tenement in a suburb on the opposite side of town from the court that K. visited. Three teenage girls taunt K. on the steps and tease him sexually. Titorelli turns out to be an official painter of portraits for the court (an inherited position), and has a deep understanding of the process. K. learns that, to Titorelli’s knowledge, not a single defendant has ever been acquitted. He sets out K.’s options and offers to help K. with either. The options are: obtain a provisional verdict of innocence from the lower court, which can be overturned at any time by higher levels of the court, which would lead to re-initiation of the process; or curry favor with the lower judges to keep the process moving at a glacial pace. Titorelli has K. leave through a small back door, as the girls are blocking the door through which K. entered. To K.’s shock, the door opens into another warren of the court’s offices – again shabby and airless.

K. decides to take control of matters himself and visits his lawyer with the intention of dismissing him. At the lawyer’s office he meets a downtrodden individual, Block, a client who offers K. some insight from a client’s perspective. Block’s case has continued for five years and he has gone from being a successful businessman to being almost bankrupt and is virtually enslaved by his dependence on the lawyer and Leni, with whom he appears to be sexually involved. The lawyer mocks Block in front of K. for his dog-like subservience. This experience further poisons K.’s opinion of his lawyer. (This chapter was left unfinished by the author.)

K. is asked by the bank to show an Italian client around local places of cultural interest, but the Italian client, short of time, asks K. to take him only to the cathedral, setting a time to meet there. When the client does not show up, K. explores the cathedral, which is empty except for an old woman and a church official. K. notices a priest who seems to be preparing to give a sermon from a small second pulpit, and K. begins to leave, lest it begin and K. be compelled to stay for its entirety. Instead of giving a sermon, the priest calls out K.’s name. K. approaches the pulpit and the priest berates him for his attitude toward the trial and for seeking help, especially from women. K. asks him to come down and the two men walk inside the cathedral. The priest works for the court as a chaplain and tells K. a fable (which was published earlier as “Before the Law“) that is meant to explain his situation. K. and the priest discuss the parable. The priest tells K. that the parable is an ancient text of the court, and many generations of court officials have interpreted it differently.

On the eve of K.’s thirty-first birthday, two men arrive at his apartment. He has been waiting for them, and he offers little resistance – indeed the two men take direction from K. as they walk through town. K. leads them to a quarry where the two men place K’s head on a discarded block. One of the men produces a double-edged butcher knife, and as the two men pass it back and forth between them, the narrator tells us that “K. knew then precisely, that it would have been his duty to take the knife… and thrust it into himself.” He does not take the knife. One of the men holds his shoulder and pulls him up and the other man stabs him in the heart and twists the knife twice. K.’s last words are: “Like a dog!”.

What I’m Reading: Flies and Cuckoos

Reading: Lord of the Flies - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestWhat are you reading? I read a lot. Sometimes, it goes with the job.  Gotta keep sharp. Sometimes, what I read is a product of curiosity.

Since my job is a mix of teaching various levels of students, fiction sand poetry writing, and writing speeches, this covers a lot of territory. Some American classic one day, a leadership book the next, and probably the Bible as well throughout.

The best writers, you’ll hear me often say, are the best readers. I’m not suspect of writers who don’t read. I’m dismissive. I will not hire a writer who hasn’t got a strong grasp on the classics.

Controversy

Two classics I’m reading this week are controversial and occasionally excluded intentionally from high school libraries. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and  Lord of the Flies.

I don’t say censored because the United States government didn’t stop Ken Kesey or William Golding from writing or publishing, or anyone here from buying them. They may be censored in intellectually stifled countries like China and the Sudan, but here, just go to Amazon.

These two are controversial for reasons of violence, language, and sensuality. I have a student who needs to learn them so I’ll work with them. Read them and you’ll see why. Whether you believe they should be taught to teenagers is another question, but there is no doubt

Are you struggling through a book filled with difficult issues? Contact me.  I can help.

What about you? What’s on your nightstand this week?

The Sot-Weed Factor (First Line)

The Sot-Weed Factor

In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point. —John Barth, (1960)

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (First Line)

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Learn why this particular first line matters.

More great books.

The Catcher in the Rye (First Line)

The Catcher in the Rye

‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger,

(1951)

John E. McIntyre’s trigger warning

“Take a seat, school’s back in session. Here’s John E. McIntyre’s “trigger warning” to new students at his editing class at Loyola University Maryland.”

John E. McIntyre’s trigger warning

This is a fun, yet honest look at how one editing professor considers his journalism class. I agree.

Meanwhile, see