Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A delicate balance

I have always been a big reader. Most of us who become writers are, I think. But the way I started reading changed when I started writing - as I became more interested in the wizardry that went on behind the curtain, I lost my ability to read from the front of the stage. I started reading like a writer, instead of like a reader.

It's hard to explain exactly how this works. When we're taught to read in school, once we get to the point of actually being able to perform the alchemy that turns the marks on the page into comprehensible words, we're taught to read for plot - what happens in the story. Then, we read for character - who were the people in the story, and what kind of people were they. Later, we learn words like alliteration and onomatopoeia, and we read for those things as well. We learn about simile and metaphor, theme and archetype. We learn those things well enough to answer questions about them on our Lit 101 finals, but usually, it stops there. And for most of us - and I include myself in this "most of us" - when we read for fun, we didn't do so with the same analytical rigor as we read when we were reading for class.

When I started writing, I started wanting to know how things worked. Not just the alchemy of turning marks on the page into comprehensible words, but how to turn words into a comprehensible story. And once I became competent at telling a story that looked like a story, I wanted to learn how to use metaphor and simile, and character and dialogue, and language and even plot. The best way I found to do this was to pay attention in a different way as I read - to ask myself why I liked the dialogue or the character, or if I hated the ending, whether it was because I didn't get what I wanted, or because the ending hadn't been true to the story.

Becoming a writer has made me a lot less forgiving of a reader, and some days that makes me sad. I remember distinctly one day, reading a book by an author that I had read regularly, someone who wasn't a favorite, but who had always been a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and noticing three uses of the same adverb within one paragraph. Reader, I broke up with her. But beyond that, there are very few times any more where I can turn off the gears in my head, and just lose myself in a book. Comprehension matters, of course, it does, and so does the need to see how the clever trick worked.

But so, I think, does that moment of delight when story is just story, when it is wonder on the page, and we can allow ourselves to be caught up in it.


7 comments:

  1. Interesting. I don't feel like I read differently than I used to, unless I consciously turn on the writer-brain. I may be kidding myself.

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    1. Maybe you're just lucky enough that all the thinking goes on under the surface.

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  2. Not to mention how politics change the way we read (http://karapassey.tumblr.com/image/17857832011). But I refuse the "ignorance is bliss" discourse. I believe that being able to see more layers in a text only increases the reading (or listening, watching, eating) pleasure, never spoils it.

    To use an old simile, one can spend a lifetime enjoying the details of flowers and leaves, but it's even better when one learns to zoom out and admire the tree. Or the forest. Which doesn't forbid inspecting a petal detail again, keeping in mind that it fits in the forest.

    PS. Congratulations on getting bak to fencing. Have you managed that hip/shoulder problem?

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    1. I don't believe ignorance is bliss, and I hope I didn't give that impression. But I miss being able to just read, to enjoy the book for the sake of entertainment without picking apart everything that went into it. It's very hard for me to do that anymore. I am certainly a more knowledgeable reader, but I would not say that makes me a better one.

      The hip and shoulder problems are always going to be there. I have a good coach, and a high pain tolerance. I'm happy to be training again.

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  3. Yes. This. It is sort of sad, but I don't know that I can pull the curtain back and hide the man behind it---send Toto in reverse. Bad endings make me crazy. Abrupt POV switches make me dizzy. *But* when I find a writer whose work I sings for me, who does not do frustrating things, I read that person obsessively and focus on everything: what works, why it works. It may be more critical reading, but it is also, I think, a more complete and ultimately satisfying experience.

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    1. One thing I will say is that I definitely have more appreciation for writers who do things well, I think because I have a better idea of the work that went into that. Especially when they make it look easy.

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  4. Turning off the 'writer's brain' is a tricky business, but should be required learning for all of us.

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