Learning from the best and the worst

Stephen King, in his memoir, On Writing, made an excellent point in the section I read today.

He talks about learning about how to be a good writer not only from reading really great writing, the kind that makes you “fill up with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy, the ‘I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” kind.

But he also mentions he’s learned a good deal from bad writing, as he says, “one learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose…(it can be) worth a semester at a good writing school…” It makes you think, “I can do better than this…heck, I am doing better than this!”

He mentions some books that inspired awe in him (The Grapes of Wrath) and some of he feels are major duds (Flowers In the Attic, Bridges of Madison County). Writing that makes me feel jealous to become a better writer is anything by Jane Austen and the short story I read a couple months ago called Throwing Stones. A book I am sludging through right now (which I am determined to finish since I’m trying to read memoir) is called The Middle Place.

What are yours?

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dayner
    Jul 16, 2010 @ 10:15:28

    Oh wow! Where do I start?
    Most inspiring is absolutely Twilight- Yes, I finished it and knew for sure I could do better. That’s inspiration for you. 🙂
    One of the worst books I’ve read would have to be Lisa Jackson’s Malice. Awful.
    I just finished Empire Falls by Richard Russo. It was great for character study. I enjoyed it, although, I think the story could have been written is a lot less words.
    My all time favorite would have to be Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice. The variety of characters is incredible. Like Natasha mentioned, the contrast between Mr Collins and Mr Darcy alone are admirable. And don’t forget Sir Lucas.
    I’ve read a lot of press about The Middle Place, sorry it’s not working for you. I’ve picked it up a couple of times in the book store but it never appealed to me.

    Reply

  2. Parrot Writes
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 21:15:09

    OK, now I know I’m not even remotely CLOSE to being in you-all’s league. The list of gooduns I have read include The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (Tolkien), Up Island and The Colony (Ann Rivers Siddon), Beach Music (Pat Conroy) and anything by Susan Wiggs, Sue Grafton, Debbie Macomber, the number series by Janet Evanovich , and yes, Nora. Oh, and “The Ring Bear” by David Michael Slater. I have made an attempt to start reading books that have been mentioned in various posts by blogging friends and put the list of the top 100 books on my “to do” list.
    I think I’ll just go sit in the corner now.

    Reply

  3. Natasha
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 20:23:12

    Anything by Haven Kimmel. The first 3/4 of Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. When I first read Garp, I thought: Oh — you wrote this for ME and ME alone. I was mesmerized and totally sucked in… Beware of the undertoad.

    P.D. James for breathtaking characterizations in 25 words or less. Carl Hiaasen for being so freaking funny and for making sure his characters get what they deserve. Jane Austen for sitting next to the harpsichord in those delicious frou-frou dresses (they couldn’t really be as clean as they are on A&E, could they?) and coming up with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley. And even Mr. Collins. And of course all of the Bennetts.

    Those were a couple of the good ones. Yeah, and Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, too, for poetry and using ONLY the essential words, nothing more or less. (I’m on my second glass of wine. I could keep going here. 🙂 )

    I read a lot of bad stuff too, and I definitely think it’s possible to learn as much from that (or almost as much) as from the good. So far, I draw the line at Nicholas Sparks, who is North Carolina’s biggest cash crop this year. I’ve tried, but just picking up one of his books and trying to read a random page is torture. I suspect Twilight might be the same but I haven’t tried as I really don’t like vampires.

    I haven’t read the Middle Place but I watched a couple of her YouTube videos reading essays about life (I think) a while ago and they were actually a very pleasant way to spend 10-15 minutes. I can’t remember her name even but I liked her from the videos — she came across as someone I’d like to sit down with for a cup of coffee and maybe even tell her some stuff I don’t usually tell folks and she’d know — so you might want to look at those to see if they would bring more life to the memoir and take it out of the slogging category. I know that, based on the videos, I thought I might read her memoir some day. Just sayin’.

    And I don’t think I’ve commented yet on your new blog design, which I like very much.

    Oh, is there supposed to be a picture on your post? I see a white box, very minimalist.

    Reply

  4. Shaddy
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 18:44:07

    Presently, I’m getting a big kick out of reading Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS. His humor and writing excellence are a treat for the discerning reader.

    Reply

  5. darksculptures
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 17:00:11

    Oh Wow! What a complicated question. There are so many that have inspired me by different degrees and by different means. I think I have to narrow this down before answering the question. How about I narrow it down to the best and worst books I’ve read since the first of the year! LOL

    For depth in character development and literary style – Rand’s, Atlas Shrugged.
    For clarity and accessible writing – Lowry’s, the giver.
    For honesty in writing – McCarthy’s, The Road
    For OMG this is abosolutely aweful – Koontz’s, Demon Seed.

    For overall value, inspiring me to write, and most memoriable fiction I’ve ever read there would be a tie between Orwell’s, 1984 and Bradbury’s, Fahrenhiet 451.

    Reply

  6. Shaddy
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 15:43:58

    I’m enjoying Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS presently. He makes me laugh outloud besides showing me how to write with excellence.

    Reply

  7. John S. Duffy
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 13:24:23

    The Grapes of Wrath was the first book that made me want to write.
    On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, gave me the feeling that maybe, one day, I could do this writing thing.
    The World According to Garp, by John Irving, showed me it could be fun to work this hard at creating an alternate reality that smells like the current reality.
    Choke, by Chuck Palaniuk, reminds me how bad can be good, good can be bad and really the whole shooting match is guesswork.
    The Twilight Saga, by what’s her name, is by far the most inspiring pieces of fiction every written. If that drivel can be accepted, published, marketed, and paid for by a willing public…there’s hope for all of us.

    I don’t know how to place underlines under book titles on here.
    All apologies to Strunk & White.
    -John.

    Reply

    • Kathan Lewis
      Jul 14, 2010 @ 14:06:06

      LOL – I am sure S&W will be OK with your lack of underlining or italics, John!

      I’m assuming you meant that Twighlight was the most “uninspiring?” I’ve never read any of them. I find that I often stay away from the best-sellers list (unless I know something is terrific), because usually it’s not very good. Is that ironic? I love the classics because they’ve stood the test of time and they’re still considered good writing. Which is a completely obvious statement, but that’s what I tend to read.

      I’ve heard of all your fave books (saw G of W and Garp movies)…and I am thinking I might want to add a couple to my reading list…

      Reply

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