Reading Authors.

I’m just working on the research I need to do for my Anna Karenina reading group in a couple of weeks time.  Once again, I am struck by the amount of studying the great writers do.  Where does this idea that writing cannot be taught come from?

It was the same last year, when we read Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  Alongside our enjoyment of a rollicking good tale, we began to build up a phenomenal list of texts referenced by the narrator and characters in the story, and also quite a bit of story-theory being discussed along the way.

So, here I am looking at a chronology for Tolstoy.  Besides his education at university, where he read first Oriental Languages then Law, though he did not finish his course due to ‘ill health and domestic circumstances’, he read widely.  His interests were philosophy, education, reform, history, politics, religion, ancient Greek and travel.

He also lived fairly wildly, at least at first.  It’s fascinating to find his life experiences and interests mirrored by characters and situations in A.K.  Is it just me, or do most of us enjoy seeing how things are made?

Tolstoy honed his skills by writing essays and short sketches. He did not finish every project he started. War and Peace, for instance, evolved out of another novel called ‘The Decembrists’.

You could argue that we look for the connections, but does that matter?  Surely, the more we can take from our reading the better?

I like stories that make me think, or go away to find out more afterwards.  Again, it’s a different style of reading to the pure entertainment page-turning novels, and I like those too.  But I would say that this is writing that has matured.  Here is a writer who practiced his craft and shared the variety of his interests through his stories and novels.

Writing Blocks – Strategy 2.

I had to go for some training the other day.  In the break one of the other tutors said, ‘I’d love to write, but I have no imagination.’

A lot of people believe that.  I don’t.

I suppose it depends on how you perceive imagination, and writers.  Even though writing courses are now available at many universities, it is still possible to come up against the belief that writers are born and cannot be taught.

My friend, the language tutor, had something like that in mind, and we had an interesting discussion about how much creativity she already used in planning and delivering lessons.   The discussion broadened out to include other activities.  I suggested that any kind of a plan required the use of our imagination, from writing a shopping list to working out the details of a holiday.

‘Yes, but,’ she said, ‘it’s not like writing a story. I’ve never had a good idea.’

There it was, the one word that gave the game away, ‘good’.  She had had ideas.  Most people do.  What was really stopping her from translating her ideas into writing was that most annoying of all blocks, her inner critic.

I’m sure you know the one I mean, that quiet but insistent voice that is always trying to control your imaginative impulses.  It says things like:

  • ‘You stole that idea.’
  • ‘Anyone can see you’re not being original.’
  • ‘You think you can write?  This is just a cheap copy of Katherine Mansfield, A.S. Byatt, Raymond Carver, Stephen King…’
  • ‘How can YOU, call yourself a writer?  You’re not clever enough, or wise, or talented.’
  • ‘You are being ridiculous.’
  • ‘You are not a writer.’

The list goes on, endlessly.

I have two strands of attack for my inner critic.

  1. Overpower it.  Timed writing exercises are great for this.   The need to complete a task within a set period means my focus is all on what I am writing.   Try the free-writing exercise I’ve set below.
  2. Aristotle.  Yes, I am talking about a theory that was written in 335 BCE.  Think about it.  Aristotle claimed that there were 7 basic plots, and most of us still agree with him.  So, all those years, those hundreds and thousands of stories told and written, have all been reworking the same seven ideas.  If it was good enough for Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boccaccio and the hundreds of other storytellers to do that, who am I to think I can produce plot number 8?  Of course, that won’t stop me trying, but there’s another story.

Free-writing – The rules are strict on this.  If you break them, it doesn’t work.


A timer – mechanical or digital, or a friend with a watch.

paper & pen/pencil,

or wordprocessor.


  • We’re starting off gently.  Your aim is to write for two minutes without stopping.
  • Once the timer is set the writer must start writing and not stop until the two minutes are up.
  • You must not pause once you have begun – ignore grammer, spelling and punctation mistakes.
  • This is not about creating a plot, with a beginning, middle and end, it is about freeing up your access to the creative areas of your mind.  Don’t inhibit or restrict yourself, let words form on the screen or paper without thought.
  • If you get stuck don’t stop, write, ‘I’m stuck I’m stuck I’m stuck…’ You will soon find you are writing something else.
  • Do not think about where you are going with this peice of writing, you must not be following a plan. Copy the words and then continue writing without stopping until the timer stops you.
  • When you are ready to begin, write:  ‘She would always…’

If you try this, why not post your result below.

Do You Re-Read?

Whether we like it or not, we belong to a ‘throw away’ culture, and that is as true of literature as it is our other purchases.  Most of us could not possibly keep all the books we read unless we lived in a library or large warehouse.  So, we pass finished novels to friends or into the second-hand market.  That’s not bad, at least it’s recycling.

Mostly, I suspect, we read our books once and then move on, as if all the pleasure is in that first read.  Sometimes it is.  Not all writing can entertain us a second time, even if we read several other authors before a re-read.  This is as true of short stories as it is of novels, poetry or scripts.  Some things do need only one look for us to absorb their story.

However, I believe that for most of us, moving onto the next book has become a habit, and that’s a shame.  A lot of stories, especially many of the short ones, have more to offer when we read them a second, or even third, time.

Often, our first read is fast.  We are involved with events and looking forward to what happens next.  We develop a rhythm of page turning that is difficult to break. Besides, page turning is good. Why should we want anything else?

Well, first let me say that I’m not talking literary analysis here.  Re-reading is a pleasure, not homework.  My pitch is that re-reading is a chance to really explore what the writer is saying, and to discover that it may not be what you first thought.

When you re-read you already know where the story is going, so you can read more slowly.  This can take some getting used to, but try thinking of it as cycling along a country lane.  When we stop, the grass verge is no longer just a green blur.  We see that it is made up of a variety of shades and textures, and even that there are small flowers on it.

In a re-read you will have time to notice similar treasures. The repeated images, clever twists in vocabulary, hidden jokes and a hundred other tricks that any writer might employ suddenly come into view.

What is the story really saying then?  That’s up to you.  You are an active, rather than passive reader, now.