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Monday, May 27, 2002

Learn to write better by reading the experts


By HISASHI UNO

"My dear Professor," reads a note I received about two weeks ago, "I've found your Japan Times editorial-page commentary most interesting. You say writing good English is more craft than art -- a craft that anyone can learn. But I don't think it's always the case." In the first place, continues the three-paragraph appraisal written in Japanese by a student, this is a country where many don't write English with ease. "We may write badly because we don't know how to write well. While in school, we usually aren't taught how to write English. I can hardly recall a single Japanese teacher of English who speaks and writes."

The young man reminded me that I had said "the best and easiest way of writing is to write the way you speak." He quite understood what I meant, but came up with a rather logical question: "How do you think one can write well when one cannot speak properly?"

In reply I admitted he made a point. My counterpoint, however, was that if he couldn't speak well it was still fine. He must remember he could read instead, that was helpful, too. A well-written story -- if he ever read it aloud -- should sound good to the ear and "flow smoothly," as I said, "past the tongue and the eye."

From reading, too, as from speaking, one can learn a lot about writing. It doesn't mean one should imitate word for word from somebody else's writings. One can learn how to choose words, how to attain rhythms and how to work out ideas, styles and plots.

Many great writers have their models in mind, and have learned tremendously from their masters. Hundreds, or even thousands, today have learned, for example, from Ernest Hemingway, one of modern literature's greatest storytellers. Hemingway himself is said to have been influenced by more than 30 writers and once remarked: "It would take a day to remember everyone."

John Updike, speaking of himself, also says he reads "not to come and judge, but to come and steal." It is neither from Harvard nor Oxford, where he studied, that he has learned writing. Most of it has come, as he admits, from stealing from others.

"Read, read, read," said William Faulkner, like Hemingway a Nobel Prize laureate. "Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write."

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner said, "Man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he, alone among creatures, has an inexhaustible voice but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

Faulkner is indeed immortal and still prevails, having influenced hundreds of writers worldwide and inspiring thousands more, who listen to his voice and try to steal.

This sort of stealing is no crime.

Joan Didion, once a feature editor for Vogue and now a professional writer, recalls her girlhood days. In her teens, she typed out Hemingway stories and learned how the sentences worked. No question, she is widely acclaimed for her laconic style -- gained from her master.

Peruvian-born novelist Mario Vargas Llosa says he has read Faulkner "with paper and a pen, trying to decipher the structures."

The best known passage of Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg address (Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth) stems obviously from Daniel Webster's Senate speech in 1830. He said: "The people's government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people . . ."

John F Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, called on his fellow Americans: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." Even this may have been borrowed from 19th century poet-essayist Oliver H. Holmes, who wrote: "We pause . . . to recall what our country has done for each of us and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return."

Who would dare to blame these two American presidents for theft?

A month and a half into the new academic year, young men and women in Japan daily struggle to learn how to write from the way they read, if not from the way they speak. They are coming the long and hard way -- inch by inch or page by page -- toward their intended goal lying ahead, still too far to reach.

May time help them get inspired!

Hisashi Uno, a former AP newsman and until 1993 United Nations editor in chief for development issues in New York, is a professor of social development in Asia and the Pacific at Kansai University of International Studies. He also teaches advanced classes of English.


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