Learning to Read like a Writer

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Reading and writing are akin to inhalation and exhalation. Technique can be taught, but the essence—the art—of writing is not a one-to-one transferrable skill. It takes so much of who we are, what we have experienced, to make writing that resonates. It is deeply personal. An internal probing of our own experiences and sensations.

So, how do we learn to get better at the essential art of writing?

The first way, which cannot be understated, is to write. Write often, in every mood, in any circumstance—badly or beautifully, slowly or quickly, painfully or joyfully. Write.

The second is to read. Read widely and voraciously. Most of us do that. Otherwise, we would not have come to writing. Children learn to read before they learn to write. It is the love of books as a reader that first ignites in us the desire, the need, to write.

So what does a novelist need to read?

Allow me to trace my own evolution on the subject. I wrote my first draft while reading only nonfiction. Truth be told, I have read mostly nonfiction for the last couple years. I have always read in cycles—nonfiction or fiction predominating for periods of time throughout my life.

The alternation depends on what I need. Sometimes I need hard facts, new ideas, theories and postulations, mega structures to fit the individual pattern of my life inside. Sometimes I need to witness specific human experiences, to cultivate empathy and connection, to make deep soul-sense of my life and recognize my own humanity. These needs are served for me by nonfiction, and fiction, respectively, with very little overlap.

When I began my first draft, it was with the fear that I might unintentionally steal from another work of fiction. Therefore, I thought, I needed to restrict myself to reading nonfiction. (With the occasional poetry thrown in to maintain contact with beautiful language.)

I was wrong.

When I finally started picking up novels again—still interspersing them with works of nonfiction—I realized that what they gave me was not temptation, but inspiration. What they revealed to me was the depth of my own creative impulse, the strength of my desire to write. A reminder of the importance of the novel in the literary landscape.

Fiction touches a place in me that nonfiction simply cannot reach.

And I discovered something else—my ear had been attuned by the process of writing, and so I was no longer reading in the same way. Rather than ruining fiction, which I was afraid could be an outcome of trying to write it (no one wants to eat sausage after they see how it’s made), what I gained instead was a new appreciation, a deeper recognition of the elements at work in good fiction.

Reading fiction gave me back the music, the playfulness of words, their transcendental power. The nonfiction I read had helped me be precise and more comprehensible in my writing. (This was especially true, of course, of books explicitly about the craft of writing.) But, the fiction was rewilding me, giving me license to play, to experiment, to explore unknown corners of my mind and my work. To more easily access my intuition—the birthplace of creativity.

Reading fiction reminded me of the purpose of creative work, the purpose of art, the way in which, as Picasso said, “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Isn’t that, after all, what we’re trying to do?

Agile Writers, let me know, do you read mostly fiction or nonfiction while you are writing?

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. . . and Where?

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On to the question of place. Much like time, place is an under-examined element of creating a compelling and intelligible story.

I, for one, was not sure how to get my character’s bodies gracefully around the space of my fictional world. There was a lot of walking into rooms, and climbing into cars, and other mundanities in my first draft. Some of that is necessary. After all, nothing loses a reader faster than an inconsistency in the hard rules of time and space. (Unless of course, that’s your thing. Sci-Fi writers, you may be off the hook on this one.) If your character walks in through a slapping screen door, she can’t suddenly walk out of the same door and have it be squeaky sliding glass. The mirage is broken. And your reader will likely stop reading.

So on the micro level, both varying these specific transitions, and paying careful attention to their consistency are of paramount importance.  But there is a macro level of place which I also struggled with mightily in my first draft: where are my characters on a map? Where do they live?

Some novels have a very strong sense of place—so strong that it functions in the story like another character. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts could not exist anywhere but India. Similarly, Pat Conroy’s works need South Carolina, and Rodes Fishburne’s debut novel Going to See the Elephant can’t be separated from the city of San Francisco. These authors began with the question of place, it seems, and built a story around it.

But there is an alternative to this model. One can create an entirely fictional place. Stephen King is the master of the fictional town(s)—having created three of them situated within the state of Maine to act as backdrops for various works. They borrow heavily from the reality of Maine, with which King is intimately familiar, but they do not exist. They are no-doubt composites of real towns and the artfully imagined.

This was the most appealing of the options to me. I wanted a fictional place. Much of my novel draws from my own life experiences. But it is fiction and I didn’t want to tie the book to the factual locations of my life, lest someone confuse it for a memoir or even creative nonfiction. It is decidedly not those things.

The problem is that I didn’t make that decision until midway through the second draft. In the first draft, I refused to commit. I waffled. Do I set the book in Virginia? In Richmond? In an imaginary town? What should I call my imaginary town? Should I have the secondary characters live in real towns? Imaginary towns? In Virginia or another state? On and on I circled, not knowing. The result was a decided absence of place. I, who love novels that embrace place as their very fabric, had written a first draft with no notions of place.

Correcting this problem later has proven difficult. But, I think writing the first draft served to answer some of those questions, too.

How have you handled place in your novel, Agile Writers?