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Blueprint, Territory, Language, Portal, Singular Lens: 5 Ways to Read as a Writer

[1]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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.

And I use these words when I’m stuck. For example, I recently knew a scene I had to write. I didn’t know my way into it, however. I picked up a book and saw that I’d circled the word solarium. That was all I needed. I relied on that sideways entry, that one word’s imaginative engine, and I wrote from there. Some of these writers – Mary Morrissey, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many poets – have exquisite language and much of it is concrete – objects, stuff. Seriously, reread the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude and be amazed at the sheer volume of things – all shoved together.

  1. Portal Reading. This is the hardest to explain. It’s transcendent. It’s truly about walking through the curtains of language and finding the world of your own novel, whispering back to you. Some of you – just from that brief and odd description – might already know what I mean. For those of you who don’t, how to break it down?

Like this. I have multiple copies of Michael Cummingham’s The Hours, each uniquely mangled. Here’s the deal. For whatever reason, there are certain novels that I begin to read and I fall into a strange trance. My eyes keep edging across the lines. I’m taking it in, but a shift occurs and I’m no longer fully in their scene, but I’m now somewhere within my own novel. It might be a part I’ve already written or one that I haven’t yet reached. But I’m there and I know how my character really feels. I know what they want. Lines start to emerge. And I jot the lines down in the novel I’m reading or I rush to the computer and start to write.

I say trance-like purposefully. This is more likely to occur at night when my conscious mind is too tired to bully my thoughts. And my subconscious mind is more likely to be allowed to prowl freely.

I often scribble all over the books. When I wake up, I forget what I’ve written. I sit at my computer and then run to my bedside table and pick up the book to find the notes that my subconscious mind wrote to my conscious mind.

These are the greatest gift my reading life gives me, the weirdest of magic…

  1. Except perhaps when it comes to Singular Lens Reading. Singular Lens Reading is how you look at the world around you when you’re so deeply involved in a project that everything you encounter gets filtered through that one lens. People say things and the writer in you first wonders if it’s something a character could say. Your kid tells you her dream from the night before and you immediately mine it. But this also goes for reading, and it promotes the idea to read wildly and seemingly randomly.

When I’m really into a project, I go to the library and new and used bookstores, and I move erratically through the stacks. I’m not looking for the novels that everyone else is reading. I’m wandering through fiction into science, technology, biography, graphic novels. I’m picking books for their covers, their weird titles, their shapes, and I open them randomly. Is this going to give me something I need? If I think it might – no matter the subject – I bring it along. As a younger novelist, the books that helped me the most were in the same genre, tense, and point of view. But I also rummaged around and read what no one else seemed to be reading. I read these books through only one lens – the book I’m writing. This seemingly random far-flung reading – this reading-what-others-aren’t-reading – has dug me out of more blocks than I can count. It feels random, but through the Singular Lens, nothing remains random for long.

Can these various kinds of reading be taught? (Are they “kinds of reading” or more like shades of reading?) Can one teach another writer how to look for and enter a portal? Can one teach another writer how to be so consumed by a project that the world is edited through a singular lens? I don’t know. As I head into a new semester of teaching graduate-level writers, I intend to first make all of my own shades of reading known, to air them for discussion. The students can reject them, use them, or, hopefully, add their own variations of light and color.

How do you read as a writer? Which books have taught you the most, and how? Over to you.

About Julianna Baggott [2]

Julianna Baggott [3] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [4] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [5] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [3].