By Michelle Barker
A few years ago, I learned an interesting lesson while helping my son with an essay for his university English class. The assignment was deceptively simple. He was to choose one of two poems and write a thousand words about it. No research allowed. But before he wrote anything, he was supposed to sit with the poem and read it. Over, and over, and over again (it was only ten lines long). Read it out loud, the prof said. Read it at night. At dawn. In a boat, with a goat.
“I’ll do it, too,” I said. “And then we can talk about it.”
My son is not a poet. He’s an ex-hockey player turned long-distance runner. He likes craft beer and strong coffee and Sports Desk and binge-watching Breaking Bad. Poetry? Not so much. He was a little panicked about this idea of writing a thousand words about a poem.
But as we both sat with the poem and thought about it, a strange thing happened. It started to steep in us, like good tea. It made us think. We picked it apart. We looked at rhythms and themes and meanings. One morning we had a half-hour spirited discussion about why the poet chose the word “cities.” Seriously.
Note to prof, whoever you are: your method works.
Put simply, we read that poem deliberately, in the spirit of Thoreau, the way it had no doubt been written. Anyone who wonders what it means to read like a writer—that’s what it means.
So Much to Do, So Little Time
But…how practical is this?
Let’s first get out of the way the fact that Thoreau lived alone in the woods. No kids, no internet, no phone. Whereas we live in the age of the blurb—the dust jacket, the book review, the sound bite. Our attention gets pulled away in a hundred different directions at once. We have so much to do, in so little time, that the thought of sitting down to read a book with the attention it deserves—with the attention, that is, of the writer who created it—is almost unthinkable.
In her book The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong writes of both poetry and classical music, “You have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind.” An empty space in your mind: who has one of those? It’s hard enough to find an empty space on my desk.
And yet, if we want to write something of value, it is worthwhile to learn how to read deliberately, to read like a writer.
The Importance of Rereading
It’s not usually enough to read a book only once if you want it to become a part of you. Certainly, it’s not enough if you want to think about how it was written and say something meaningful about it. Whenever I’m editing someone else’s work, I always read it more than once and am astonished by what I missed the first time around.
When it comes to the classics, if you reread them at different stages in your life, they will speak to you in new ways. I stormed through Wuthering Heights for a university literature class when I was eighteen. Rereading it twenty years later, I found an almost completely different story from the one I remembered. It resonated at such a different pitch. I saw Heathcliffe’s dark face in my dreams at night. I reread Jane Eyre nearly every year and am always surprised by what I find.
Slow Down and Pay Attention
In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose urges us to slow down and pay attention to the words. Pay attention to things like point of view and character development. If something is working, think about why it’s working. If it isn’t, think about what the writer has done that irks you.
This is rather different from the Goodreads goals we might set ourselves to blast through sixty or seventy novels in a year. New writers wonder how much a writer should read: maybe we should be thinking in terms of the quality of our reading rather than the quantity.
In an MFA class on novel-writing, our professor, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, had us choose a companion novel for the novel we were writing: a work that was similar in style, genre, or subject matter to what we hoped to accomplish ourselves. Something we could use as a template to learn from. I found that very helpful. I would consider the problems I was facing in my work and then turn to my companion novel to see how the author had solved it.
Write it Out
One of the most useful exercises I’ve ever done has been to choose my favourite novel and write it out by hand, word for word. It forces you to slow down and truly examine the author’s process. Again, whenever I do this, I’m shocked by what I notice—the things my eye has glossed over that my hand now shows me. It’s a wonderful way to both appreciate a beloved work and learn from it.
Reading While Writing
Some writers refuse to read while they’re working on their novels, or refuse to read in the genre they’re writing in. For me, neither of these options is ideal. I want to make sure I’m doing something new and original: how will I do that if I don’t know what’s already out there? And I want to gain inspiration while I work. The best way I know of for accomplishing that is to read the work of others and learn from them.
Writers must read. It’s as simple as that. You cannot develop a sense for how stories are told unless you read them. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Ideally, writers should read deliberately, slowly, savouring the words and considering the craft that has created the magic.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in literary reviews around the world. She has also published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). She loves working closely with writers, both at the developmental level and on finer line-by-line issues. Many of those writers have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.