Q&A with William Cane

Tell us about your new book.

I wrote Write Like the Masters to answer a simple question, one that puzzles a lot of contemporary writers, namely, “Why can’t I do what Hemingway, Faulkner, and Salinger did? Why can’t I write a great novel?” The answer is that you can. But you need to realize that these great writers – Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Balzac – they were all educated very differently from you and me. The long and the short of it is that writers today have been denied an opportunity to reach the heights that great writers have reached because they (the modern writers) have been woefully shortchanged by their education. And I say this being an educator myself. (I have taught college English for the past two decades.)

So, modern writers been shortchanged by their education?

The fact is that one of the greatest tools of the writer is the art of rhetoric. This art was studied and perfected for more than two thousand years. But suddenly over the past eighty or so years it has been phased out of American education. This is why great novels are not being written in America (as a general rule) but they are still being written in Europe.

What is the single most important aspect of rhetoric in your opinion?

There’s no question that the single most important aspect of rhetoric is imitation. And I think that judgment will be upheld over time when we see the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. The science of memetics will come into its own and will reinforce the idea that humans learn primarily through imitation. This is as true today as it was two thousand years ago when Aristotle was talking about the value of imitation in The Art of Rhetoric. But American education moved away from teaching imitation. Our English departments are to blame. They have focused on the adulation of the canon to the exclusion of teaching students how to write. They try to teach them to write, but they’re using all the wrong methods. I see it every day, and have seen it every day for more than two decades.

What do you advise writers to do?

Forget what you learned in school. Writing is not a process. It is a product. It is a book. You need to look at the books that the great writers have written and dissect them. They contain all you need to know. (Of course I exaggerate slightly. Writing certainly is a process on some level since we all form ideas and then do first drafts and rewrite. But to focus on that is to waste your time and miss the point.) The point is that once you look at writing as the creation of a product, you’re more open to looking at the craftsmanship of other writers. Faulkner was famous for comparing himself to a carpenter who used simple tools to create his books. Learn the technique of imitation and you will set yourself free to do the kinds of things Faulkner did.

So how can a writer learn the art of imitation?

Most writers teach themselves. But that’s because they have to. There are so few teachers of the art of writing today who know what they’re doing. My book opens a door to a way of seeing that is almost unique in this century. It is an old was of seeing, a time-tested way. It invites the writer to learn from Balzac and Dickens and Hemingway and Salinger and all the other masters. With these writers as your models you can’t go wrong.

What’s the first book you ever read?

The first book I read was Tom Swift and His Flying Lab. I was seven and it made a big impression on me. At the time I was convinced that after I finished it I, too, would be able to build a flying lab and travel worldwide. I planned to build one in my cellar in the Bronx.

What book made the biggest impression on you as a youngster?

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, which I read when I was thirteen. It was something I picked up in a department store. In those days they had literature near the checkout aisle. I didn’t know it was literature, though. I just knew it hooked me from the first sentence to the last. It turned my world upside down. I thought to myself that here was a book that had thought in it, that was filled with deep ideas. It was exciting and inspiring.

What did you read when you were in grammar school and high school?

After the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys series, I read almost everything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. “Doc” Smith. I devoured science-fiction. I started reading more widely in high school. Some of my friends introduced me to Nietzsche. I became a big fan of playwright Eugene Ionesco. I also read Sartre, Kierkegaard, Camus, and avant-garde novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. But undoubtedly the biggest influence on me at the time was the thinking and the energetic German style of Nietzsche. I used to carry around a copy of The Will to Power, the paperback edition with the black cover, telling my friends that it was my Bible. They used to kid me about it. Everyone knew I was into Nietzsche. The first gift I ever gave a girl was a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra. She said, “Why are you giving me this?”

Who’s your favorite writer and why?

Franz Kafka. This may sound silly but what first attracted me to Kafka was the way he began his stories. At the time I had been reading a good number of weighty classics that took forever to get to the heart of the matter. But with Kafka it was – bang! – sentence number one, you know what the story is about, who the protagonist is, and what his main problem is going to be.

So, first and foremost, Kafka is a different kind of writer. His style is unique not only because his stories are different but also because his prose is different. His stories are dreamlike and baffling allegories that keep readers guessing until the end. What is less understood is that his paragraphing presents a bold new stylistic approach to dialogue. Most writers today break out each character’s speech. But Kafka usually groups conversations into larger units separated by rather infrequent paragraph breaks. To my mind, this is a brilliant strategy – not as easy on the eye, but in many  ways more intellectual than the usual Hemingwayesque practice. You have to immerse yourself in Kafka’s paragraphs to enjoy them. I find it an exciting and seductive style.

You also wrote a book on birth order. What drew you to that topic?

My father is a psychologist and when I was in high school my sister used to subscribe to Psychology Today. We used to tease her about it, but one day I picked it up and read a fascinating article on birth order by Walter Toman (December 1970 edition). That sparked my interest in the subject. It’s something I’ve been researching for more than three decades. I was fortunate to meet Walter Toman in 1991. A few years later, in 1996, I also met Frank Sulloway. Those guys are the real heavyweights in the field of birth order. I’m definitely a lightweight. They totally disagree with each other. But I loved what both of them were saying. And I wanted to write a book that summarized their thinking in a way that was accessible to everyone.

You also went to law school is that correct?

I was suffering from the delusion that after graduating you automatically become another F. Lee Bailey. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you go in as a hotshot litigator, like he did, you come out at the bottom of the heap. You then slave away in a law firm for many years. I hope I don’t sound cynical. To be fair, many of my classmates are very happy and wildly successful. So I don’t want to knock the profession. Especially since Kafka went to law school.

Learn more about Write Like the Masters

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