Better writer, better person?

change conflict morality Apr 14, 2022
 
The truism that reading makes us better people is well explored, but does writing make us better people? I argue yes. Here’s why.

I’ve been reading George Saunders’ terrific collection of essays about Russian short fiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It’s a book about what makes writing good with an interesting limitation, which is that the work held up for analysis is offered in English translation and Saunders doesn’t speak Russian. 

Saunders notes the shakiness of the project when he describes the day a Russian scholar visits his classroom to explain how the tale currently under examination reads in the original Russian. 

Saunders and his students are flabbergasted to confront just how much of the author’s intent has been lost to them. The jokes! The wordplay! The voice! None of it survives intact. The version of the story they’re scrutinizing for clues about good writing technique is a pale imitation of what Gogol actually wrote.

Yet still they find value in the exercise, and so do we. 

Writing is not just about words, after all. It’s about what happens, and what the writer means us to feel about what happens. Do we care or not care? Do we approve of how things resolve, or are we outraged? Have we, as readers, been led outside our comfort zone and customary way of thinking to consider fresh possibilities? Are we changed by what we’ve read?

Elsewhere Saunders notes that he finds his writing self to be an improved version of his actual self. What a striking idea! The notion that reading makes us better people is well explored, but does writing make us better people? Do the stories we write change us, too?

Those of us who devote a chunk of our precious time on earth to writing will surely find this question intriguing. What impact does our work have on us? Is that even something we ought to think about? That’s the topic of today’s talk. 


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