Six reading tips for writers (another guest blog post for 49 Writers)
“I leaf through now one book, now another, without order, and without plan, by disconnected fragments,” wrote Michel de Montaigne, father of the essay, claiming, “If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention.”
Last week I made a similar admission, wondering if my hurried, compulsive reading habits make me less effective when it comes to reading like a writer.
I vowed to read more deliberately, then proceeded to research for this blog post the way I usually do—a frenzied skimming of fourteen library books on reading plus a few more from my own bookshelves, going through sheets of sticky notes the way our four-year-old does when he gets ahold of them. Here are a few ideas worth remembering:
In Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want To Write Them, Francine Prose recommends close reading, comparing the technique to watching someone dance and later, secretly trying out a few steps in your own room. “Skimming just won’t suffice if we hope to extract one fraction…of what a writer’s words can teach us about how to use the language.”
Her advice is to “stop at every word to ask yourself what sort of information each word—each word choice—is conveying.”
That sounds a little tedious, but maybe close reading could help temper the writer’s despair brought on by reading something so good you’re crushed you didn’t think of it and convinced you never will. Instead of envying the lyrical beauty of Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds, I could reread the book and ask of each page—why this white space, why this phrase, why did she build the passage this way?
Read like a carpenter, that’s my new motto.
In The Creative Habit, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp suggests that we can mine more out of every book by “reading fat…not only reading, say, a novel, but reading related texts surrounding the novel, which may be books by the writer’s contemporaries, or commentaries on the novel, or a biography of the writer, or the writer’s letters.”
I think this kind of connect-the-dots curiosity comes naturally to most writers. After Phillip Lopate published half a dozen autobiographical books in several genres, he felt he’d used up the material of his past. So he chose the New York waterfront as his next subject, taking frequent walks there and reading everything he could find related to the shoreline—history, literature, marine biology, urban planning—to create his next essay collection.
For memoirists, immersive reading can add “social, political, geographical, and cultural context,” says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. “In order to ground your story in the world that surrounded it, you will have to be willing to extend your examined life beyond the purely personal.”
Read to emulate
When you recognize a weakness in your writing, seek out works by authors who write in the same vein, only brilliantly. Then try not to get too depressed. I’ve heard of writers physically copying out sections to get the feel of a writer’s style.
When I struggled with voice during my MFA program, I studied writers whose voices I loved—George Saunders, Mary Roach, David Sedaris, Brian Doyle. As I read I noted when they appeared on the page, how they translated information and presented their observations, and then I tried applying their techniques to my writing. I also wished I was funnier.
Read to borrow
To study the art of borrowing from science and natural history, I like reading essays by Annie Dillard and Anne Fadiman. For such writing, research and note taking are a way of stockpiling details and sentences that might someday provide the seed of a story idea, the perfect epigraph, or a needed metaphor.
“What a good artist understands is that…All creative work builds on what came before,” writes Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist.
The poet Stephen Dunn uses notes from his reading as a source of inspiration. “I like being surrounded by snippets of pithy thoughts or beautifully balanced sentences. I often imitate or depart from them as a way of beginning a poem.”
Read like your readers
Insight and feedback from a trusted reader can be incredibly valuable—revealing what you left out because it was familiar to you, or the questions you’ve avoided answering. Having readers may be the most helpful feature of an MFA program.
Roland Barthes said that as we read, we rewrite the text of the work within the text of our lives. It’s sometimes surprising and humbling to learn what readers bring and take from your writing.
Believing that there is a reader who needs your book can give you courage to write bravely, and to keep writing through the self-doubt we’re all familiar with.
It’s why, when I read something that I love, I try to send a note or an email, knowing how heartening it can be to hear from a reader. Last week I found a great, new-to-me Alaska blog: Hooked, thanks to a message from Tele Aadsen about the 49 Writers post.
Read craft books, even if they can’t deliver the secret to success
As a teacher, I appreciate craft books for writing prompts and lesson ideas. I’ve also found that reading craft books outside our genres can be useful when a piece isn’t working. Screenplay manuals can help with pacing and dialogue. Fiction writing techniques can improve plot or character development in nonfiction stories as well. And a poet’s toolbox might lead to better description and word choice.
I’ve heard craft books disparaged for being too formulaic or too encouraging. But I take hope wherever I find it, even in triumph-over-repeated-failure stories like Steven King’s wall of rejection letters, or Alexander Fuller’s story of sending her agent a 9th novel (after 8 others had been rejected) and hearing back that maybe writing was a waste of Fuller’s time, and representing Fuller was a waste of the agent’s time. Fuller sat down and wrote the bestselling memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight, which sold to publishers within days.
Sometimes I read craft books just for such stories. And I read for truths like this one:
“If you accept that writing is hard work, and that’s what it feels like while you’re writing, then everything is just as it should be. Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat. It’s a sign of engagement…
The difficulty of writing isn’t a sign of failure. It’s simply the nature of the work itself.”
It’s good to be reminded that writing is about persevering. The wonder of reading—because there is magic in opening a copy of your first book, in falling for a writer’s work, in holding the worn favorite of a late parent or of a child, now grown—is only magnified by a writer’s knowledge of how much faith and tenacity brought that book into the world.