Saturday, February 20, 2010

authorial wisdom

In his "gradual interview," fantasy and science-fiction author Stephen R. Donaldson wrote the following:

" general I'm confident of two things: you can't really be a writer if you aren't an avid reader; and you can't really be a writer if you prefer not to think."*

Many writers, when talking about the craft of writing, have mentioned the first part: to write well, you must read well. Almost none of them go on to mention the necessary flip side: it's not enough merely to read well.

Language teachers, because they've taken their linguistics classes, are aware that the mind possesses two separate libraries: one for active vocabulary, and one for passive vocabulary. The two libraries have some connection, but no necessary or absolute one. Passive vocabulary is the storehouse we develop as we're exposed to language through listening and reading; active vocabulary develops through speaking and writing. These four "macroskills," as they're called-- listening, reading, speaking, and writing-- are themselves divided into passive (or "receptive") and active (or "productive") categories: speaking and writing are active; listening and reading are passive.

Some people immediately chafe at such a categorization: "Reading isn't a purely passive activity," they argue. And they're right: it isn't. When I engage a story, my imagination helps the author by filling in the gaps. The author lays out the framework for his fictional universe, but it's up to the reader to flesh it out and inhabit it. Furthermore, as the story progresses, the reader begins to form questions along the way, indicating an ever-deepening involvement with the plot and characters.

But this sort of engagement isn't the same as constructing the story. Creation is, at heart, a very different beast from mere consumption. It takes far more imagination and drive to create than it does to read, which is why being a good reader is no guarantee that one will be a good writer. A writer is constantly stretching his active vocabulary, which is largely informed by his passive vocabulary, but isn't the same thing.

If you've learned a foreign language, you already have an instinctive comprehension of the difference between active and passive vocabulary. Recognizing the French expression for "bathroom" is one thing, but having to produce the expression when you're desperately seeking relief at a train station in Rennes is quite another. The only way to increase active vocabulary is through the practice of speaking and writing, and this is what Donaldson is alluding to when he emphasizes the importance of thinking for good writing: it's not enough to be borne away by a narrative. Paddling along the author's fictional river is still not the same as creating the universe in which that river flows. That's the writer's task, and honing that skill requires more than the ability to read well. "Wow!" is a readerly reaction. "Fiat lux!" is a writerly act of will.

*We'll refrain from commenting on Mr. Donaldson's misuse of the semicolon, a punctuation mark that he often mistreats in his novels.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I tried to leave an actually pertinent comment--but when I tried to publish using my Open Identity, Blogger grabbed control and tried to force me through some process or other, with no explanation at the various steps, and no option to go back and correct my missteps. Oh well. I get that it's protecting you from spam--but nonetheless, annoying. I'll try again for this non-pertinent comment, and see if I can figure it out.