Reading like a Writer

I’m sure you’ve heard one or both of these before:

If you want to be a writer, you need to write.

Writers write.*

You may even be familiar with what Malcolm Gladwell reported in his book, Outliers: in order to become successful at something you need to clock 10,000 hours doing it. It’s a no-brainer that writers should write, but I believe it’s only half of what is needed to hone your craft. The other part of what makes you a good writer has to do with being a reader – a reader of a special kind.

When I started my Master of Fine Arts, I was told that I would never read the same way again, and honestly, I didn’t know what that meant. I could already identify themes, images, symbols, metaphors, similes… I could already tell you who the protagonist was in a story, who the antagonist was… I was not sure what kind of reader I would be when I finished the program, because I didn’t know there was any other way to read.

Then, in my first semester, I opened the book How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. I remember reading along at a very steady, carefree pace until I hit this paragraph, about a hundred pages in, and everything changed. I found myself reading frantically. My heart raced, and my eyes couldn’t scan the page fast enough.

I stopped.

What was this? What just happened?

Turns out, that’s exactly what you have to ask yourself in order to read in a different kind of way. To read like a writer. You must become aware of your personal response to a story so that when something changes in you – when you feel something – you stop and take notice. Then, go a step further and teach yourself something from that experience and you’ll become a better writer.

You’ll want to train yourself to become aware of all sorts of things. The pace of your reading. Feeling like you want to skip over sections. Feeling angry, sad, happy… the whole range of possible emotions. Feeling like you know exactly what’s about to happen. Feeling lost. Train yourself to notice both your positive and negative reactions to a story. Then, use this awareness to teach yourself something about the craft of writing. Ask yourself: what was it about that paragraph, that sentence, that word, that led to this reaction in me? How did the choices the writer made (or failed to make) lead me to this response? Don’t move on until you have at least a little bit of insight.

Learning to read like a writer is essential because the writing of a story is only half of the experience of a story. The other half of the experience comes from the reader – from their response and engagement. It’s important to know how to “craft” that, too, as far as it’s in your power to do so.

In the next few blog posts I’ll deconstruct some passages to give you an idea of what reading like a writer looks like. In the meantime, write, and read, fiercely. Perhaps Gladwell will let us get away with 5,000 hours of each…

* Perhaps you’ve heard the second part of that, too – “Writers can’t NOT write.” I could go on and on about how absolutely unhelpful this statement is, and I will – but I’ll save it for another post.

Hope and Cinderella

Yesterday I read an interpretation of the Cinderella story that intrigued me. It went like this: Cinderella is in denial. She is treated poorly by everyone in her family, wears dresses the birds made for her out of scraps, and has to work day and night. Yet she sings, “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream you wish will come true.” The author went on to say that Cinderella was an extreme idealist, and that she needed to face her pain and losses. That if she didn’t, she would continue to be swept away by the “Prince Charmings” of the world and would be further wounded because they would never meet up to her idealist notions.

At my core, I am a hopeful, hope full, person. I do my best writing, and living, when I own this. When I forget this – when I stop dreaming – bad things happen. I let myself be corrected, chastised. I let other people’s experiences carry more weight than my own, and I spiral downward. I am smothered, extinguished. I become passive.

Sometimes, out in the world, my hopefulness gets sideways glances. If I am not on guard, I find myself feeling small, like a child who doesn’t really get it. Give her a few more experiences, I imagine people thinking, and she won’t feel like that. But I have had my share of experiences.

In my writing life, the same kind of thing happens. This time, though, the correction, the chastisement comes from myself. You don’t know this story well enough, I tell myself, becoming my own antagonist. You need to plot more, think more, be more. But the story is in me, and this kind of thinking locks me right up.

For me, hope is active. It has goals, it has a direction. Hope is both necessary and valuable. It is not naïve, because it is not waiting. It is seeking.

And so, when I start hearing those chastising, correcting voices, I put up a sign to remind myself of my hopeful core. In my life, the sign says, “Your experiences are just as valuable as those of others,” and right now in my writing life, the sign says, “You can trust yourself to get Norah out of there.” This keeps me going.

I know that in my heart I sing Cinderella’s song. But unlike her, I am not waiting, I am seeking. It is only when I lose my hope that I will be swept away.

Write Fiercely.