Studying the masters…

Last week, at my writing class, our teacher brought in a friend and former colleague of his, Jeff Leen, who is the Investigations Editor for the Washington Post and has won several Pulitzer Prizes. I’m not normally star-struck – and I honestly hadn’t heard of him before meeting him last week – but he’s obviously very, very good at what he does, so it was exciting to have him in our class. He talked a little bit, and then we did what we always do, which is to read our assignments out-loud and then critique them, briefly. Mainly, he shared advice for writers which he finds true, a lot of it advice he himself picked up from writers before him: William H. Gass, Tom Wolfe, and so on. What was most interesting to me is a little insight he gave us into his own writing process. In the advice he gave, one piece was to study the masters, another that structure is the area that needs the most work from struggling writers. So a student asked him who are today’s masters, especially regarding structure. He said that he’s working on a book at the moment, about a famous athlete from many years ago, and he said he promised his editors it would be like Seabiscuit. And now, in the middle of researching and writing this book, he’s going back to Seabiscuit, teasing it apart, trying to figure out what makes it such a well-written book, to the point that he actually counts the number of words per sentence, figures out the ratio of reporting-type sentences to more lyrical sentences. To me, this is fascinating. Here’s this accomplished, award-winning writer and editor looking to the work of a much younger author, Laura Hillenbrand, as one of the modern classics, and studying her work as a text to emulate, and with such a microscopic focus. It’s not the age or experience piece that matters most – good writing is good writing – more the constant process of learning, of learning through imitation, of learning so deliberately.

If you were going to pick one author who’s work you want to understand not only in terms of content but in terms of what makes the writing work, who would you study? Why? What piece?

A good deal of my writing these days is going into a little red notebook, and from there, onto this computer, and then, to class.

That makes two excuse posts in a row.

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3 Comments

Filed under blogging, randomness

3 responses to “Studying the masters…

  1. Don DeLillo.

    The man writes the best sentences in the English language. Hands down. Period.

  2. I read Water for Elephants recently and thought it had a really good structure — with two story lines (one past, one present) that alternated. It was the author’s first book and it seemed completely doable. (Ha.) That’s meta-structure, I guess. As far as sentence structure goes, and the rhythm that’s created with sentences of varying length and lyricism, I am a total sucker for John Banville. He has a relatively new book, written under a pseudonym, called Christine Falls.

  3. Ms. Miller

    I’m always impressed when non-fiction authors structure their narratives around the writing/research process itself. The Last Shot by Darcy Frey and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder come to mind. Both authors tend to write in the third person elsewhere, which makes it a pretty interesting exercise in structure.

    “Shattered Glass” is another one. A great Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger inspired the screenplay, but the filmmaker’s choice to restructure the story from Stephen Glass’s point of view changes the tone entirely.

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