Writing like a pilot

Glorious clear days mean flying.

cessna-172-skyhawk-flying-aviation-private-pilot
Cessna 172 Skyhawk

Chris is building pilot-in-command hours. There is a ridiculous number of categories and designations of flying privileges, starting with private pilot. The common denominator is each level requires more time in the air, so he gravitates towards Cessna 172s whenever winds are calm and visibility good.

He bought me a Bose noise-cancelling aviation headset to match his. It’s the sweetest and least-likely gift I’ve ever received, and the most useful. Without it, I’d be as deaf as a newel.

The first time we flew together was in Ann Arbor. Bouncing around in the choppy air, I kept reminding myself that at least we’d die together.

I’m braver now, though it still takes real effort to not grip his arm in panic when we hit a bump. Don’t mess with the hand that controls the trim wheel.

The last two days we logged five hours and I’m starting to get a teensy bit hooked on it. Chris is patient with my incessant (in-Cessnant?) questions: What’s that gauge? What does it mean when the controller says that? What happens if you push that button?

flying-bose-aviation-headset-noise-cancelling-private-pilot
Ready for take-off

Piloting is intensive, but not in the ways I thought. Most of the Cessna 172s at the rural Mississippi airport Chris flies out of date from the 70s. They remind me of VW Bugs. The instruments are basic. Some of them run off gyroscopes which whir away after the engine is off, like bees running out of buzz. Flying a single-engine plane is mechanics and talking. Before we even get in he does a full circuit, checking the fuel, oil, tyres, struts, air intake, and assorted bits of which I have yet to learn the names.

Once we’re buckled in and have our headsets on he reviews the controls, oil pressure, engine heat, fuel mix, lights and so forth. Laminated checklists guide every step from pre-flight to taxi to take-off to flying to landing. Chris also carries a little clipboard with notepaper to scribble down weather information and radio frequencies. These are the single most important thing once the engine kicks over. Radio navigation is the fundamental tool for getting from point to point; it’s what keeps planes from colliding in midair; it’s how lost pilots get found, and planes come safely through clouds.

aviation-charts-gps-maps-flying-private-pilot
Flight charts

Flying seems like magic but all it requires is the pilot understand and abide by simple standard practices. Check the equipment, know the frequencies, listen, trust the instruments: you’ll get where you’re going. Writing is the same.

Good writing may look like sorcery but it has patterns, structures and guidelines. Different types of writing have different “checklists” but even wild free verse or stiff academic prose follow basic rules of logic and language.

If you write beautifully by ear you can still learn
a huge amount (and gain courage) by understanding the principles of good writing. Before you know it, you’ll be flying.

Stay tuned for some of my favourite guidebooks… and share yours in the comments!

 

 

How to read like a writer

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor boatat the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of Thenovel Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

 “You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Tbitteraught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slow reading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadlyfarewell-arms

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

 5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    stein

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”ulysses

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savoring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

lighthouse

Writers’ Recommended Reading:

Ulysses – James Joyce
To The Lighthouse –Virginia Woolf
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
New York Review of Books