I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more important, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.
It also helped me to realize that the reader represents the final step in a book’s life of translation.
One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book. We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting or song. They are physical entities. …
WRITING, however, does not exist without an active, consenting reader. Writing requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper brings to them a different set of associations and images.
If I didn’t think creative-writing programs were helpful, I would not, of course, teach in one. I’m always a little puzzled by people’s insistence that writing, alone among the art forms, be sui generis. Few people question artists going to art school, or musicians going to music school. There’s some strange romance about the writer as a Bunyanesque figure who goes untutored and unaccompanied into the mountains and returns years later with a newborn novel in his hands.
Language in fiction is made up of equal parts meaning and music. The sentences should have rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear. Ideally, a sentence read aloud, in a foreign language, should still sound like something, even if the listener has no idea what it is he or she is being told.
Let’s try to forget that the words “Call me Ishmael” mean anything, and think about how they sound.
Listen to the vowel sounds: ah, ee, soft i, aa. Four of them, each different, and each a soft, soothing note. Listen too to the way the line is bracketed by consonants. We open with the hard c, hit the l at the end of “call,” and then, in a lovely act of symmetry, hit the l at the end of “Ishmael.” “Call me Arthur” or “Call me Bob” are adequate but not, for musical reasons, as satisfying.