Rebecca Rider: Writing is art

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 21, 2016

When I was a Junior in college, my writing professor changed my view of writing and literature in five minutes. One afternoon, about mid-semester, he leaned against a desk near the end of class and explained a simple concept that somehow, no previous teacher thought to mention: writing is a form of art.

We discussed some detail: the difference between books written to be entertainment and books written to be art. How writers choose themes and echoing images and scenarios like an artist chooses a color palette, how words become brushes and characters a landscape. And then we listened to a reading of a short story, “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff. Listening to that strange, golden story I understood. Writing was art. Writing was no longer something I simply enjoyed, it was something intentional and meaningful and beautiful.

I left that class wishing that one of my middle or high school teachers had taken five minutes — because that’s all it took — to talk about art and writing. I remember being incredibly frustrated, particularly in high school, reading books I did not understand, being asked to pick apart themes and symbolism I did not understand and being asked to infer the author’s intention. How was I supposed to know why an author kept referencing the color blue — and why was it important, anyway? What did it matter?

It matters because a book is a form of art, and a literature classroom is a museum — it’s where you go to learn about the masters. What had I missed because no one told me where I was walking, or what I was looking at? An art teacher once told me that asking someone with no knowledge of art to critique art is like asking a third grader to solve a calculus problem — they do not have the knowledge, or the tools. I was that third grader. I had the tools, but I didn’t know how to use them and I didn’t understand their purpose.

I thought back on all of the books I’d been asked to read in high school, and felt robbed. What did books such as “Things Fall Apart,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God” or “The Odyssey” have to teach me? That same semester I read “Great Expectations” for the first time. It was a book everyone else I knew read in high school, but was dropped from my syllabus. My friends in the grade above me complained endlessly when they were asked to read it. I didn’t know anyone who thought Dickens was an artist.

But he was. I felt like I’d never read a book so beautiful. Not one sentence, one description was out of place. Nothing was there that shouldn’t be. It changed everything.

I began reading all the books I’d missed out on. I reread books from high school, and found I quite enjoyed stories people mentioned with dread. I spent a summer reading “Ulysses.” In the middle of my busiest semester, I read “Paradise Lost” to unwind. When I studied “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for class I discovered it was the most beautiful book I’d ever read — and I read it with the knowledge that without that five minute conversation I would have found it utterly miserable.

I didn’t like every book I read — just as I don’t like every painting I see — but I could understand skill when I saw it. I could understand it, and I could learn from it. And that was more valuable than anything else I’d been taught.

I don’t know why my teachers in high school didn’t talk about writing as art — about literature as art. I had plenty of teachers who were passionate about both. Perhaps their teachers didn’t tell them, either. Regardless, I think it’s an important conversation that every student should have when they walk into an English class. Perhaps if they understand, they’ll find a new love for literature. Or perhaps it will just save them a headache — it did for me.

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