Writing Is Harder than Reading (Just Ask Charlemagne)


At Runnymede in 1215, King John of England did NOT sign Magna Carta.  He couldn’t.  He didn’t know how to write.  (He affixed his seal to the document instead.)

The great Charlemagne couldn’t write either.  In his later, post-conquering-most-of-Europe-and-making-Christian-conversions-by-slaughter years, Charlemagne took an active interest in all branches of learning. But after his death, his former mathematics teacher, Einhard, reported that though Charlemagne even kept a tablet under his pillow to practice writing when he couldn’t sleep at night, he never mastered the skill.  Since Einhard doesn’t say that Charlemagne never mastered reading either, I think we can assume that Charlemagne could read—and that, given the size of King John’s personal library, that King John could probably read, too.

I’ve been reading up on the subject, and it turns out that to contemporaries of the two kings, for them to be able to read but not write wouldn’t have appeared at all unusual.

Until quite modern times, it turns out, reading and writing weren’t studied concurrently. Reading came first, and most students left the schoolroom before they advanced beyond that.  Those who continued their education learned first to write numbers, not the alphabet.  To be able to keep simple accounts on paper (or, earlier, parchment) was much more useful than to be able to write words, since there was always a handy clerk or something around who could take dictation.

Only a student who persevered for years learned to write at all; and no one but a scholar was expected to do more than to copy someone else’s words.  (Books of paradigms for letters, and even simple sermons, were widely sold.)  A person was called “literate” who could sign his or her own name*; and to be able to produce an original work was a mark of an uncommon level of educational attainment.

Since I learned to read and write simultaneously (and in my mind, they’ve always appeared inseparable), this seems very strange to me.  After some thought, I’ve decided it’s analogous with the way that most people can reproduce—with voice or a musical instrument—a tune that they hear; some have learned to read other people’s notes; but only a relative few can actually compose original music.

In fact, now that I’ve written that down, I really like the music analogy.  For one thing, as far as I know it’s mine, which prejudices me in its favor; and for another thing, it makes me feel like Mozart.  –Okay, not the Mozart of the “Requiem”, more like in his “Twinkle, Twinkle” days; but Mozart nonetheless.

It also makes me feel better about the fact that the other day I caught myself making an egregious error in simple subject-verb agreement in something that I wrote.  In the past, a mistake like that would have embarrassed me very much.  This time I just said to myself, “Not everyone is born a Mozart!” and let it go.


*Check out this 1867 report from Britain on literacy among the poor, in which “able to read” and “can produce a simple signature” are separately noted; or this 1902 bulletin from the Department of Labor which has columns labelled “Able to read and write,” “Able to read,” and “Illiterate.”

Me & You & Mary Sue

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that how to write must be one of the most difficult things in the world to learn in a classroom setting.  —At least, I never learned anything about writing that way, and I went to school for many more years than the law actually requires, and took a lot of writing classes.  To their credit, quite a few of my writing teachers admitted this.  “The only way to learn to write is to do it,” they’d say.  And if they’d been more honest, they would have added, “But just in case some really pointed and brutal criticism of your efforts is also helpful, I’m going to give you a lot of that, too.”

This was bad while I was in school, since it amounted to me paying large amounts of money to hear my writing disparaged to my face; but it’s been great since I graduated.  Whereas I not only ceased to learn any more mathematics once I got out of the classroom, but actually forgot everything I ever knew including how to calculate a tip in a restaurant, my writing has gradually, steadily, improved.  In school, I wrote every day, and I have continued to write almost every day since; but I only do math when I have to.

People who generally prefer math—e.g., everybody I live and work with—tell me they want to improve their writing, too, but are stopped by the fact that, unlike with mathematics, there aren’t any books full of problems for them to practice on.  They would write, they tell me, if they only knew what to write about. They seem to view plots as analogous to equations, and want a page of them to solve.

There’s something in that viewpoint, I guess.

I admit that I don’t really understand why they can’t come up with as many plots as they want all by themselves, though.  As far as I’m concerned, plots are the easiest thing in the world.  When all I want is some practice writing, I just rewrite scenes from my life—a short-cut that provides me with not only a plot, but also a protagonist and a setting, all ready-made.  Then I can get straight into the much-harder work of describing them.

At first in retelling a story, I frequently succumbed to the temptation to turn myself into a species of Mary Sue*.  There’s nothing wrong with “improving” on reality a little, I guess; but I got bored with being a hero all the time, and now I actually appreciate how my occasional social ineptitude provides me with many excellent opportunities to portray humiliation (self-inflicted), and regret instead.  (Life supplies plenty of material for scenes of hurt and loss without any help from me.)

And it’s therapeutic, too.  I don’t know for sure, but I doubt I would ever say the same about working a partial differential equation.

*For any who don’t already know it, a Mary Sue (as defined by Wikipedia) is “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.”  If you have written a novel in which the protagonist is just like you, only better in every way, you have written a Mary Sue.  Enjoy your work—but do not share it.  Especially do not share it with me.

Writing in the First Person


I’m deep into writing another book—a sequel to Ant-Lands.  This is by popular request.  “Honey, write a sequel to Ant-Lands,” was a popular request of my husband’s.  I don’t usually read sequels myself, having formed an unfavorable opinion of them when I was six years old and wasted a week of my young life on the insipid Heidi Grows Up; but I feel like I owe my husband something for being my most faithful and supportive reader.  He once compared my work favorably to that of Joseph Conrad, his own preferred author, and though I don’t believe for a moment that he really thinks I’m in Conrad’s class, the memory of his heroic attempt to sound sincere when he said it is something I will always treasure.

Just to make a change from Ant-Lands, which was written in the third person, I’m writing the sequel in the first person.  I admit to feeling a certain hesitance about this—not because I don’t like writing in the first person (witness this blog), but because I’m haunted by a remark from a friend concerning the first-person point of view.

Her name was Julie, and Julie had given up reading a novel written in the first person because, she reported, it confused her.  She said, “The book kept saying, ‘I did this; and then I did that’; and I kept thinking, ‘no I didn’t!’”

Now, I have never had this problem.  In the same circumstances, if my brain says anything, it says, “Yeah, I totally did do that, and lots more!”; but are there many Julies out there?  By writing in the first person, am I taking a chance on limiting my future sales?

Julie and I are eager to hear from anyone who has more information on this important topic.

What Sculpture Taught Me about Writing Dialogue

(Photo via Good Free Photos)

The town I live in goes in for public art in a big way, which is very nice except that the piece of public art nearest my home is a statue I don’t like.  Actually, it’s a statue I hate.  This statue is—unusually, these days—representational, and I like representational art.  I should like this statue.  Instead, it evokes an active loathing in my soul.

My daughter—who’s an artist—would probably tell me that this very loathing is the proof that, as a work of art, the statue is a success.  The principal function of art, she tells me, is to make people uncomfortable.  (I think that’s what she said.)  Whether that’s true or not, this statue that I hate has been useful to me.  It’s helped me to write better dialogue.

The statue is of a young woman who looks like she might be waiting for something.  I’ve always assumed she was waiting for a bus because a) the statue is positioned at a bus-stop; and b) she looks a little bored.  Not a lot bored; just a little.  It’s life-sized, which means the young woman is taller than I am because almost everybody is, and she’s dressed very casually in jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie with the hood down and resting on her shoulders.  A light breeze stirs her hair.  Her head is turned slightly to the side, and she stares down the road, watching passively for the bus, which on this particular route runs every hour, seven days a week, except on Christmas and New Year’s when the buses in this town don’t run at all.  Every detail of her face and clothing (her hands are concealed in her pockets) is absolutely correct and in perfect proportion.  Even the aglets on the ends of her shoelaces are visible.  She looks, in short, exactly like a slightly bored young woman of between 18 and, say, 25; casually dressed; who is waiting for a bus—and who has been dipped in bronze.

I’ve lived here for sixteen years, which means (if I’ve done the math right, and allowing for days off) that I’ve driven by the Statue I Don’t Like at least 4000 times on my way to work.  I’ve loathed it every time.  But sometime about viewing #2847, I realized why I didn’t like it; and that the statue had a lesson to teach.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to make characters in my books converse with each other in a way that I considered to be absolutely true-to-life.  Grammar, vocabulary, idiom—I wanted them all exactly those of real people.  Nobody popping off an “oh, very well” in my books, when nobody in real life has said “oh, very well” for a hundred years.  No siree.  And the dialogue I produced that way was the literary equivalent of Bronze Bus-Watcher.  Go to any bus-station and see her equivalent in the flesh; listen to the conversations going on around you and hear my characters’ dialogue.

So when it comes to statuary and dialogue, I conclude, true-to-life is overrated.  True-to-life is an undistinguished young woman rendered faithfully but soullessly in bronze.  Good dialogue—not the stuff I write; but I’m working on it—is Michelangelo’s David.  One hand is bigger than the other, and his eyes don’t track; but you certainly can’t go down to any old bus-stop and see him.

I’m working now on making dialogue that is untrue to life; but, I hope, more revelatory of my characters’ souls.  I’m big into baring souls.  Souls are more interesting to me than even plots—which is saying quite a lot.  This new way is hard for me; but I like it.  I can make my characters say anything I want them too now, even if it’s something nobody in “real life” ever has said, or would.

So far, they have never wanted to say, “Oh, very well.”

The Devil’s in the Details

fish-GrimmsI may have mentioned that I’m no longer young, but believe me, it doesn’t follow that I’m nostalgic for The Good Old Days. Sure, forty years ago I was better-looking. My skin was smoother and I had fewer stomachs and chins. But I also had only my own hands and brain to rely on, whereas now I have robots to do my work, computers to think for me, and Ebay on which to buy back my childhood.

I’m currently waiting, with all the patience of a six-year-old, for a boxed set of books: Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairy Tales, published in 1945. They’re the versions I grew up with, beautifully illustrated with copperplate engravings, and—possibly because the world seemed an especially harsh place in 1945—honestly and accurately translated from the original languages with no accommodation to a child’s fragile psyche. In 1945, apparently, children’s fragile whatevers were to be hardened up, not accommodated. Sensitive child? Cod-liver oil shots and Grimm’s Cinderella were just what the doctor ordered.

The theme of the Grimm’s Cinderella is basically the same as Disney’s: Abused step-child triumphs. The difference is in the story’s plot details. There’s no fairy-godmother, for one thing. Cindy finds her three ball-gowns (one for each of three successive nights of dancing; even a prince wasn’t expected to pick a wife in only one night) lying on her mother’s grave. Disney either thought a grave was too morbid to mention in a children’s story, or that by leaving open the question of whether Cindy’s mom was absent due to her death or a messy divorce, more children could identify with her. I can see his point. My father died when I was very young, and I had a grave to visit, too. I saw myself every time I looked at the illustration of Cinderella at her mother’s graveside.

I also identified with the fact that she had two older sisters. My own two sisters weren’t step-, and they weren’t (very) evil; but we had our issues. I got a big thrill out of the part of the Grimm story in which in response to their mother’s urging, the step-sisters make their big ugly feet fit Cinderella’s little lost shoe by cutting off their toes and heels. “When you’re queen,” Wicked Step-mother reassures them, “you won’t have to walk anymore.” I was a little disappointed in the prince for being such a dim-wit as to fall for the ruse (twice); but luckily for him, some talking birds nearby alerted him in time to the blood-trails the sister’s mutilated feet were leaving. The talking birds also made sure to peck out the step-sisters eyes once Cindy was happily settled in the castle.

In the Andersen book was the delightful The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, in which a very vain little girl who bridges a mud-puddle with a perfectly good loaf of bread to avoid soiling her shoes gets sucked straight into a Hell that makes the Biblical lake of fire look like Club Med by comparison (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t waste food); and The Red Shoes, in which a vain little girl lies about the color of her shoes to her half-blind benefactress and is danced to death by them (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t lie).

Now, those were some stories!

In contrast, my grandson’s current favorite book is one in which Superman uses his various super-powers to determine that Mr. Grocer’s missing bananas were stolen by a gorilla. Superman gets the gorilla to confess to this transgression by assuring him that he (the gorilla) will feel much better once he’s got the whole ugly story off his chest. (The bananas will still be gone, though. No word on who compensates Mr. Grocer for the bananas.) Same basic fairy-tale-type plot, with Superman filling in for fairy godmother; same basic moral set (lying, stealing, and wasting food are bad); but what a difference in the details! I read Grandson this story at bed-time and then we both fall asleep from sheer boredom. I’m not allowed to read him Cinderella, or The Red Shoes. I’m not allowed to read him The Girl Without Hands, in which a father cuts off his daughter’s hands to escape being taken himself by the Devil. But I’m looking forward to re-reading them myself; and who knows? Maybe one day my daughter will change her mind. Maybe one day she’ll reason, “After all, Mother read them as a child; and look how great she turned out.” Maybe one day Grandson himself will figure out that he’s being cheated, and demand better entertainment. Honest: Grimm and Andersen will harden his little psyche right up.

No cod-liver oil for him, though. That stuff’s just plain nasty.

The Once & Future Character


I’ve read a lot of stories with fantastical elements—magic, time-travel, telepathy, kindly mothers-in-law—and I’ve been dissatisfied with so many of them that I’m about to give up on the genre entirely.  It’s not the fact that they can’t be taken seriously that annoys me, although most of them can’t.  Carefully examined, time-travel (just as an example) doesn’t make sense unless there’s no such thing as causality in the universe, but that’s all right.  I’m willing to believe in time-travel for the sake of a good read.  What annoys me is that, the fantasy elements aside, so many of the stories don’t meet my usual criteria for a “good read.”

Making an incompletely-drawn character a warlock or time-traveler doesn’t complete him.  If a witch is depicted as altering present realities by means of spells and hexes, I still think the author has an obligation to provide (or ideally, to inspire the reader with) insights as to how being able to alter reality has impacted—possibly defined—the witch’s character.  Does she revel in her powers, or does she take them for granted?  And if she’s all “Bwoohahaha-die-my-pretty,” then—why?  A flat character is a flat character.  Even one who has a magic wand, a time-machine, or the ability to read minds needs a good backstory and convincing motivation.

I don’t always want to be reading so-called “literary” fiction.  For one thing, there’s less and less of it being published; and for another, there’s usually not a lot of action in a work of literary fiction.  Mostly, somebody realizes that something isn’t quite as simple and straightforward as they imagined it would be, and though they’ve already spent more than half the pages of the book thinking, they end it by resolving to think some more—only in a new, more mature way.  But please, will somebody recommend something with some real action—a battle or two; maybe a dragon or some werewolves; but not vampires.  I’m sick of vampires—in which the characters have, but are not obsessed with, an actual interior life?  Because so far all I’ve got is T. S. White’s The Once and Future King, and my copy is just about worn out.