Reading Like a Writer
One thing I always tell my students is that they have to learn to read the way a writer must if he or she is going to develop a deeper understanding of craft, but what does that really mean? How does a writer read?
I’ll speak only for myself. Years ago, I started reading with an eye for how a writer made a particular piece of writing. What artistic choices did she or he make to create particular effects? I’ll restrict myself to prose, but I suspect the poets among you might be able to apply what I have to say to poetry. Writers should read not only to identify and eventually internalize specific artistic choices, but also to further define their own aesthetics.
It’s important to gauge our responses to the openings of pieces by thinking about the effects they have on us. Openings can come from different aesthetics and have different objectives, but the one thing they simply must have in common is they have to be interesting. We should think about the effects that different kinds of openings have and how the writer creates those effects. A good writer creates his or her ideal audience with the opening and also teaches that audience how to read.
The final moves of a piece are the ones that create the most resonance. Again, we should be able to articulate what the end of a particular piece makes us feel and to think about how the writer created that feeling inside us. What tricks of language, plot, thought, image, etc. did the writer use to give us a specific experience?
And Everything in the Middle
A piece of fiction or nonfiction often moves covertly to an ending that resonates with something we didn’t anticipate. In fact, much of what a writer does involves raising certain expectations in the reader and then reversing them. I’m not only talking about misdirection of plot events here. I’m also talking about some quality of character or situation that’s present from the beginning and that rises to the surface at the end. It’s the pressures of plot—or sometimes in nonfiction it’s the pressure of language, image, or thought rubbing together—that cause this latent energy to rise and to cause something to resonate within the reader once it does. Someone who is reading the way a writer reads will sweep back through the piece after feeling the impact of the ending and find everything in the middle that makes that ending possible.
Line by Line
Writers like moving words about on the page, paying attention to how syntax and structure create certain musical sounds. When we read as writers we should highlight the sentences that make us laugh, make us weep, make us uncomfortable, make us feel at ease, and then think about how the writer created each of those effects merely through the arrangement of words in sentences. We should also think about how those sentences work together to create a particular mood or atmosphere.
And What We Don’t Like
We shouldn’t be afraid to take note of passages that don’t please us. Likewise, we should always be aware of pieces that are made up of satisfying parts but that don’t add up to a satisfying whole. Pay attention to the sour notes. Think about how a writer got off the track. Think about what he or she might have done differently to create a more satisfying piece. Think of other artistic choices that might be more in service of what the piece intends. Start thinking the way writers do when writing, considering this move and then this move, etc. as they go through a trial and error process of determining the choices that will best allow the piece to resonate.
When we get in the habit of identifying choices and effects, we start to internalize moves that we can put to work in our own writing. There’s so much more to say on this topic, but for now, it’s a start. I hope you’ll find this helpful.
Several years ago I read Francine Prose’s book, “Reading Like a Writer.” Your article reminded me of some of her reflections, and I found both helpful. I think the flip side of this practice is that it’s difficult to ever turn the “writer button” off and just enjoy reading for pleasure. I have a son who was in the restaurant business for many years, and now whenever we go out to eat with him I notice he’s hyper critical of the food and the service. Occupational hazard, I guess. One thing I’ve found that helps me switch gears while reading is to use or not use a pen to make notes or highlight sections as I read. I only do this when I’m reading a book I hope will improve my own writing. But even when reading “for pleasure,” it’s hard not to reach for that pen. And of course, most of the really good books that help inform my own writing are also a pleasure to read. Thanks for getting me thinking about this again, Lee.
Susan, thank you so much for contributing another important facet of this conversation. Of course, when we first become readers, we read for pleasure, and we certainly shouldn’t forget that as we become more analytical.
When reading as a writer and reading as a reader, it’s important to exercise a balance between the two. Often I will begin to read in the latter way, as it proves more successful in drawing me into a story (i.e. the milieu the author has created, the personalities of the characters, the presence of conflict, et cetera). At the conclusion of various sections, however, I will go back and re-read them. The second time around, I focus on the choices the author made and arrive at my own conclusion(s) as to why he or she did so.
For example, with what situation does the author begin his or her story? What information does he or she divulge and what information is withheld… and why?
Examples are necessary to illustrate what I mean. Here are two:
Consider your own wonderful novel, “The Bright Forever,” Lee. The first chapter, credited to Raymond R., is comprised of no more than two sentences: “I’m not saying I didn’t do it. I don’t know.” To what act is Raymond referring that he has committed or not committed? Why does it produce such confusion and uncertainty in him? Do confusion and uncertainty actually exist, or is Raymond perhaps pulling some sleight? And what about the manner in which he speaks? So blunt. Is this indicative of his character; is he a no-nonsense, play it as it lies kind of fellow? Is he trustworthy? Or is he altogether something else?
Needless to say, much mystery is presented by this very short passage–which consists of no more than a dozen words–and instantly a reader is intrigued. He or she must read on in the story; the hook is too fascinating to ignore.
After this, you present a chapter, credited to Mr. Dees, in which we’re offered a perspective of the milieu in which the story will take place. It’s a brilliant stroke that Henry Dees is the person to offer us this introduction to Tower Hill, as he is a character whom most people regard, at best, peripherally. Which means he is a character who can stand back, more or less unnoticed, and observe others with little attention being directed at himself. It’s almost as if he’s offering us a bird’s-eye view (wink wink) of this “itty bitty” town, in which we will learn many levels–both seen and unseen–exist. There’s a voyeuristic quality to this, one that will come to serve the mood of the story quite nicely (to say nothing of Henry himself).
In addition, Henry speaks rather obliquely of an “event.” Is it the same “event” to which Raymond might or might not have referred in the novel’s first two lines? And what of Henry divulging the arrival of reporters in the town? Clearly the “event” is of import; it is not merely a local consideration. But what, exactly, is the “event”? And wherein lies the exegesis?
And there you have it: the second chapter in, there’s another hook. This would have been sufficient to keep me reading, but you go even one better by adding a risky (and brilliant) stroke: Henry breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader of the story: “If you want to listen, you’ll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell.” Despite his warning, he succeeds in making the reader continue by implication. As the reader, having been addressed, you’re caught; you’re sucked in; you’re not going to be able to stop turning the pages.
The first time I read your novel, I read it mostly as a reader, though of course there were times when the “writer” part of me could not help but sit up straighter and lean forward, marveling at your craft and feeling whiplashed by it. The second time through, however, that “writer” part of me came to the fore, though the reader was still very present. I couldn’t help myself; again and again I became lost afresh in the story, noting things I had missed the first time around. It’s just what happens when one reads a story that has been masterfully written. It’s like catnip to a cat.
But there are other elements that also come into play. The mechanics, if you will. You start asking yourself questions. What about prose, sentence structure, and syntax? What “voice” has been established that will carry a reader through the story? What does this “voice” communicate to the reader?
Consider Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” It is told in the first-person, said person being an elderly minister who is writing a letter to his young son, whom he, the minister, will not live to see grow into an adult. The minister, John Ames, wants to leave something by which his son can remember him, and perhaps might even utilize these lessons and observations to live a better, happier life.
With “Gilead,” the “voice” is most important; it takes precedence above all else, even the plot, of which there is very little. But plot isn’t so important here. We are, after all, reading a reminiscence. And when it comes to reminiscence, emotion moves quickly to the fore.
Ames’s tone beautifully illustrates this. Here is a good man who, having resigned himself to a solitary life, suddenly finds himself, late in age, married and the father of a child. He must resolve his earlier life and its attendant “lessons” and “observations” with his present one. Being a contemplative person, he sifts through past events and situations, and attempts (or so this reader thought) to arrive at a place of understanding and grace. It is in no way facile (Ames discovers he has observed quite a lot in his many years on earth, and there has been a good deal of conflict, not all of which he has come to conclusions about), and a large part of the pleasure of this novel is its pragmatism. In this story, the conflict lies more within than without, and thus the reading of it must be done carefully and sedately.
All of this is inherent in the prose, which one reads in a tone that is almost hushed. Ms. Robinson succeeds so well at this that it feels as if the reader becomes a silent presence sitting there in the room with Ames as he pens his letter. And throughout the story (a constant undertone) exists the inevitability that Ames, who has a heart condition, will not be for this world much longer. Because he is such a good human being and bears real dimension (Ms. Robinson couldn’t write a shallow character if she tried, I think), the reader wants him to be able to finish the letter, and more, to arrive at a place of peace before the end arrives.
With the two examples given, there is something which connects them. Indeed, it is what the best art does, no matter the medium in which it is presented or the mechanics applied to tell it: both stories remind us how essential it is that we exercise empathy.
The wonderful thing about this? We may then utilize what we’ve learned (or been reminded of) and apply it to our own lives. We’re fuller for the experiences of having read these stories. As readers, we’ve been taken on memorable journeys. As writers, we’ve been given opportunities not only to study the craft of composition, but something to which we ourselves may aspire.
John, I’m honored to be included with “Gilead” in your examples. My former writing teacher, Jim Whitehead, used to say he read something once just to “let it have its way” with him. Then the second time through he started focusing on craft. I think it’s important not to forget to let oneself get caught up in a piece, simply immersing oneself in the world of it. I always enjoy your comments. Thanks so much for them.
Hi – I’m arriving via Brevity, a recently discovered writing resource that has given me not only guidance, but hope that my novice attempts at becoming an essayist/blogger will not be in vain.
I have long ‘read to write’ unknowingly when I ‘read to read’ – recording copious journals of stellar phrases, sentences and even paragraphs when authors strike a chord. Now as I venture to strike chords in my own reading audience, I have struggled to articulate how that occurs.
Having guides like this helpful piece from you provide not just knowledge but hope and encouragement. Thank you for your generosity.
Hi, Sammy! Glad to have you aboard. Brevity is a great resource, and I wish you all the best. To me, reading to write is always a matter of considering the questions of “what is this thing that someone has made from words?” and “How in the heck did he or she make it?” Good luck, Sammy! Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.
Lee, once again (I’m afraid to count how many times) I turn to you for craft advice, and this is just in time for a “reading as a writer” response paper I’ve assigned. I’ll use your word in class next week – and credit them, as I always do. I wonder how I write anything without your guidance.
Ah, Jessica, somehow I suspect you’re doing just fine without my guidance, but I’m glad to know that you find these posts helpful, and I hope your students will, too. Keep doing the good work, my friend!
Very helpful, Lee! When I read, I always have a pencil in my hand. I underline words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that resonate me. I even cross out syntax that does not make sense to me, as if I’m editing the work. I also keep a notebook and jot down my favorite lines. I particularly like your advice to “sweep” back through the middle to understand how the writer arrived at the end. Thanks for yet another informative blog post.
Hi, Melissa. Good for you! You’re a very active reader.