Once More, With Feeling

Thoughts on the art of reading, by L.E. Taylor ©2014

A reader of these essays, call her Carli, commented to me recently that she found herself uneasy as she read because it seemed she was reading pages of my diary. I take it as a compliment. I often write impulsively and when there’s really a flow, I guess it may drift into imprudence. Usually, this gets fixed in the second filter of editing but if I’m feeling bold I usually opt for letting it be – and just risk the consequences.

This came to mind today as I closed an anthology of short stories and began thinking into what I’d just read.

Over the months since I began mentoring adult students in storytelling workshops, I’ve found myself reading more short fiction by the great writers. Although reading for vicarious escape has been a passion since high school, I’m now reading with an eye to the subtleties, just as I teach my students to read: slowly and with expression. Good writers, classic or contemporary, don’t just bash this stuff out, you know. They worry it into shape… often, syllable by syllable.

A good writer’s words deserve to be savored. And you, as a reader, deserve to get the most from the time you invest reading what they leave for you.

So, a teachable moment just happened an hour ago as I closed that Bantam Classic of 50 Great Short Stories – reissued 2005. The writer in question is the 19th century master, Guy de Maupassant. (Now just sit still and stay with me for a minute; have I ever bored you?) The story is Looking Back. The reader was me. An elderly countess and the old village priest have finished their weekly dinner at the woman’s chateau. Her grandchildren, who live with her, have been trundled off to bed; the two aged companions sit before the glowing hearth, and the old woman brings their quiet conversation around to a question: “And now, M. le Curé, it’s time for you to make your confession to me.”

The story is a mere six pages and took me no time to read. I found its gentleness of voice and sparseness of detail compelling. Its denouement (coming together – look it up!) and conclusion were moving and satisfying. Then I realized I’d done just what I tell my students to avoid: I’d raced through it. Okay, self, I said, now that you know where it’s going, read it again – this time with care; slow down, it’s only a few pages.

Having devoured the story in a gulp, now I was able to linger over the old priest’s monologue which constituted most of the writer’s tale. Only a half-page into re-reading, I discovered a single “throw-away” sentence, almost an incidental author’s mumble that revealed a subtext that I’d missed in my hurry to see where the old man’s soliloquy was going.

It helped me discover in the priest’s “confession” that Maupassant was describing… me.

I went online to research the life of Guy de Maupassant. In no time, I learned that he had put into the words of the ancient curé a clinical description of his own journey. The saintly old fellow was laying bare his life, mind you, as seen from a moment in his eighth decade. But the author had written this story while in his own thirties!

One of the joys of my workshop teaching is the richness of the tales my students set down in writing. Some are painful, some lovely, many are inspirational, others can be very funny. Once in a while, a story of no more than a typewritten page can be all of these and more.

My students are all people with far more pages in their own Books of Life than there are yellowed pages left yet to skim. But for them, happily, there is much left to write – of summer days and winter nights gone by.

Which takes us back to my reader, Carli, who felt queasy reading what she perceived to be my private papers. Well, she was right. I was giving her a peek into what I care about – my values, my passions, and a small, pale sample of my visceral secrets.

Just today, I read an article by Greg Gutfeld who laments the loss of “mystery” in people’s rush to make themselves famous on Facebook, if only by doing a selfie snapshot with their seafood salad. Granted, there may be a hint of narcissism in one’s urge to write. But throughout history, for many seasoned veterans of life’s battle, the impulse has been to carve a message on a tree for anyone who may care enough to read it. In its loftiest presumption, the inscription might represent a sort of legacy. Done well, whatever the intent, the act of writing can enrich both the writer, as words hit the page, and countless unknown readers yet to be born.

So slow down. Read with care and with some feeling for the author’s voice.

As always, good reader, this one’s for you.