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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like A Writer
Blog Entry No. 2

1

At a writer’s conference a few summers ago, I witnessed the following scenario: After his reading, the poet Gerald Stern was conducting a Q and A. Someone in the audience asked, “How does your reading influence your writing?” It’s the kind of benign, well-intentioned question that writers often have to field in public forums.

Stern paused for a long beat and then, partly tongue-in-cheek, he said, “All writers are full-time readers. That’s our job description. When we have some free time, we write.”

Exaggerated, maybe. Still, it’s a pretty accurate description of what practicing writers do. And when Stern refers to writers as “fulltime readers,” I think he’s including reading like a writer as part of the mix. By which I mean, the finely tuned awareness of the techniques and tactics that writers call on in order to better craft their work.

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Reading like a writer isn’t the same as reading for enjoyment, appreciation, or self-enrichment, all of which are important pleasures to those of us who love books. Nor is it like reading the way a critic does, which is, of course, how many of us, especially those that were English majors, have been taught. As critics, we’re trained to look for themes, symbols, and ideas in literary works. And in some instances, that’s a useful pursuit. But it doesn’t help us identify and better understand how other writers’ work was made. It’s the difference then, between interpretation and exploration.

Here’s a quote from Margot Livesey that speaks to that distinction:

“Read everything that is good for the good of your soul. Then, learn to read as a writer, to search out that hidden machinery which it is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend. Read work that is less than good, work in progress, to see that machinery more clearly. Learn to read your work as if it were the work of another. Admit your judgments. We know our strengths and weaknesses, even when we strive not to.”

I want to further explore what Livesey means by the “hidden machinery which it is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend.” And by “apprentice”, I include experienced as well as novice writers.

III

Let’s assume that you’re reading an essay or memoir, or a piece of literary journalism or cultural criticism—be it narrative, lyric, or graphic. To get yourself out of your analytical head, I recommend that you resist the initial impulse to look for things like recurring themes, symbols, and ideas. Instead, try identifying particular strategies and tactics that other writers seem to be employing with some purpose. Things, for example, like the narrator’s stance and voice, how and when he/she uses exposition and information and mixes narrative with dialogue and scene.

What you’re trying to understand is how these particular strategies are serving the author’s intent, and the ways in which they’re contributing to the work’s shape and design.

You can’t of course expect to immediately recognize how a given writer weaves all these elements and strands together. But you can be alert to specific techniques and strategies along the way, and at the same time, be speculating about how these particular matters of craft might apply to your own work-in-progress.

Here then, are a few exercises and suggestions I hope will be useful.

IV

Note: Once again, to get yourself out of your analytical head, try writing your comments and impressions in the first person, preferably in the book’s margins.

1. What do you think is the writer’s overall intent in this selection? Can you cite a few craft-related examples, such as how the use of narrative persona, voice, language, and especially structure, convey (or fail to convey) the writer’s intent.

Even in literary journalism or cultural criticism, the writer’s intent and/or the impulse behind the work, doesn’t always evolve from a conscious decision to investigate a subject or examine a topic, idea, or theme. Often, (especially in writing personal essays and memoir) it starts as a feeling that the writer can’t articulate or otherwise explain.

Nor does the writer’s intent necessarily have to exist before the writing can begin. In the best-case scenario, you, the writer, will hopefully discover your intent through the writing itself.

2. Choose a writer whose work you believe is compatible with your own. Given that writer’s intent, ask yourself what specific strategies and approaches you can adapt (or steal) for your own writing. Whenever you can, look for examples of how and in what ways that writer uses these strategies, in addition to how and in what ways they can serve your own work. Then do the same thing with a writer whose work is much different from your own. What strategies, if any, appeal to you? And why?

3. Compare whatever you’re now reading to other work you’ve recently read. Look for examples of tactics and approaches that seem common to several different writers. Consider if/how these can benefit your own work in progress.

4 After reading a given piece of writing, go back and examine each paragraph more carefully. Next to each one, write down some notes and impressions that simply describe what you think the writer is doing—what he/she seems to be aiming for. Then, write similar paragraph-by-paragraph margin notes on your own drafts in progress.

5. After you've read a self-chosen selection, quickly write down your thoughts and speculations about things like controlling idea, theme, symbol, and so on. Put those notes aside. Next, reread the piece and write craft notes that focus on how the piece was written. This exercise will help balance your analytical/critical responses with your personal/critical impressions. Adapt it however you’d like.

V

These are only a few ways to train yourself to read like a writer.
You’ll find your own tactics along the way.

But, and I can’t stress this enough, I’ve designed these exercises to help you look for connections between what you’re reading and what you’re currently writing,

For those who don’t intuitively work this way, learning to read and think like a writer is an acquired habit. And like any other habit, it takes time and experience before it becomes an organic part of a writer’s thinking.

A brief afterword: In response to the recurring question, “doesn’t reading like a writer alter your reading habits?” the answer is yes. Shifting back and fourth between reading for pleasure or for information and reading like a writer is a bit like having different pairs of eyeglasses; one for distance, another for working on the computer and watching DVD’s, and a third for newspapers, magazines, and books.

And yes, it can be disconcerting. Since I’m not very good at compartmentalizing, sometimes, when I’m reading a book that I want to savor and immerse myself in, I’ll unconsciously underline key passages and make margin notes about the things I’d like to apply to my writing and/or teaching. When that happens, and it invariably does, I know I’m disrupting what John Gardner calls “ the fictional dream.”

But I also know that I’ll probably be reading that book twice: the first time as a curious, engaged reader, and the next for what it can teach me as a writer.

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