There’s reading for entertainment, of course, and reading as a writer. The first is fairly straightforward. The second can be a kind of frantic act of pure desperation – more like trying to read an old-fashioned, accordion-folded, gas-station map in a convertible on I-95 while in labor trying to make it to the hospital for the birth of your first child. What I mean is, reading as a writer isn’t a simple act.
And there’s a longstanding argument that the more books you read, the stronger writer you’ll be. I disagree. In fact I’ve found that some of my most thoroughly read students – the ones who devour and love every book they come across – are some of my hardest to teach. I believe that how one reads is essential. And if you don’t master reading as a writer, sheer quantity will be of little use. To boot, blind sweeping adoration is an impediment. (Despising the works of a few giants of literature is good for emerging writers.)
Some MFA programs in creative writing teach courses in reading as a writer, as opposed to a student of literary criticism. They tend to treat the published work more as a young engineer would the innards of a clock. The professors – practicing writers themselves – take the works apart with the students to see how they operate. I do this too; it’s good practice.
But, this fall, I’ll be starting to teach a different kind of reading as a writer – things I’ve never heard discussed in a workshop. Because as much as I balk at the idea of volume as some secret coding that will magically turn a voracious reader into a writer, I still find reading to be the closest thing to magic when I’m stuck in the middle of a work-in-progress.
Let me try to define a few of the kinds of reading that I’ve found helpful.
- Blueprint Reading. So, ironically, I confess that sheer volume has one real advantage. Blueprint reading is cumulative. The more you read the larger the number of solid architectural structures you hold in your head. This is the kind of reading that can be done quickly with an eye on overall shape – sections, chapters, scope, sweeping character arcs, etc. Is the structure a journey, a should-or-stay-or-should-I-go-now, three acts or five, an internal structure of images or deftly woven multiple point of view layering and if so, how are the points of view balanced … There, if you’re a sheer volume proponent, I concede.
- Territory Reading. I have a memory of reading a Rosellen Brown essay – or was it an interview? — in which she described the process of reading as sometimes making her think, “Oh, you can write about that, too.” I can’t find the essay. It’s possible that I’m completely wrong. But I’ve come to call this Territory Reading. It can be an incredibly small territory. A novelist uses a kite in a metaphor and it suddenly it strikes you can write about kites. That’s it. When I pick up a book of poems, I generally read the table of contents first. I’m looking for territories. A poet writes about conception. I’ve thought of the moment many times, but never thought to write about it. I write my poem before reading the poet’s poem.
I generally have these moments in life all the time. I’m struck by something. I jot. It surfaces in my writing. As Nora Ephron’s mother – a well-known screenwriter in her own right – taught her as a child, “Everything is copy.” But reading other writers is often a provocation. The question I hear is, “What’s your take?” And sometimes that opens up an entire line of inquiry for me. Sometimes just a sentence.
- Language Reading. If you opened the books piled around my computer and beside my bed, you’d find some battered pages. I dog-ear. I write long passages in the opening and closing spare pages. I circle and underline like mad. There are some books, however, that are almost only filled with circled words. Singular word after singular word. And when I’m reading those pages, I’m really only reading for words. It means that I’ve found a writer who feeds me on the pellet level – which is one of my favorite levels. Just one morsel at a time.