Thu 8 May 2014
by Gay Degani
“There are two ways to become a better writer, in general: write a lot, and read a lot. There are no other steps.” – Leo Babauta
So often new writers (and experienced ones too) find themselves hanging out by the refrigerator, flipping through television channels, or cleaning out closets, all because they don’t know what to write or if they’ve starte
d, where to take their stories. Eventually most find a way to break through, but I want to suggest something less fattening than eating ice cream and more useful than Wheel of Fortune. Although I admit these two things might lead to an idea, and I know cleaning closets worked for Eminem, but choosing to study a story you admire is more likely to get your head filled with ideas and ways to make them work than anything else.
Back when I was teaching, I discovered a somewhat old-fashioned essay by Mortimer J. Adler in English 1A textbooks called “How to Mark a Book.” At first I thought students would be put off by the author’s style, yet reading it for the first time, I knew I had to assign it. Adler offers one of the most essential tools for learning: how to have a conversation with the author of any text. Not only did I have to make sure the kids in my class used this tool to learn to write, but I would need to incorporate it into my own discipline.
What Adler professes is that reading must be active, not passive and the best way to do that is to read with a pencil in hand, and underlining key ideas, scribbling questions and thoughts in the margins, using a “star, asterisk, or other doo-dad” to return to paragraphs for rereading, numbering sequences, circling phrases, and using white spaces to outline. He claims that by marking a book a reader becomes an alert participant, his thought processes are triggered, and his ability to remember reinforced.
It’s obvious that marking a book helps students to study, prepare for tests, and carry what they’ve learned with them longer, but how did this help me as a writer? How does it help you?
Writing a story whether flash or longer can be a daunting task. We wonder when we sit down at the keyboard how other writers do it day after day, piece after piece. Adler’s essay gives a way to discover how to find out, how to have a conversation with the author of something we admire.
He teaches us not to deconstruct in the literary analysis kind of way, but in the “how did he/she do that” kind of way.
Let me repeat Adler’s three reasons to question a text.
- Staying alert
Normally when we read—especially the first time through—we read for the story, taking in language and meaning as we do so. This is most often done passively for pleasure, but as students of writing, we need to go back with all our faculties engaged with a pencil or pen in hand, circling this image, that phrase, underlining words that suggest a theme. asking ourselves, how did the author paint that picture, how do I know this character is angry, why do I feel like crying? Questioning “why and how” helps writers to understand what choices the author has used to put us into the story. We need to be alert to do this.
When we are alert to everything in the text, we are thinking, asking questions, wondering. We notice specific words and realize how an old man “shambling” is different from an old man “strolling.” How we can picture exactly a pine or a palm when those specific words are used instead of “tree.” Also more complex issues are untangled. Why do we know one character is conflicted and another one is unaware? We are forced to look at dialogue, adjectives, subtle hints that build to an awareness of state of mind. When we read for pleasure, we may notice these things, but when we underline them, put an asterisk next to a paragraph, and go back through, puzzling and studying, we are engaged in learning.
Memory is reinforced when we are questioning a text. Because we are alert and writing things down, outlining the structure, exploring the dialog, we are aware that these are things we want to remember and the act of engagement boosts memory. Next time we are trying to convey a character in just a few words because the word count is 100 or 500 or 1000, we will remember that word choice is essential, that every word used MUST convey some meaning and consequently, we are less likely to settle on first thoughts. We will remember our pleasure at discovering how another writer stirred us and we will want to create that emotion in our own readers.
In her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose calls this “close reading.” She says this changed for her when one of her high school teachers asked the class to compare the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. “We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision.” (p. 4) Of the experience she says, “I felt as if I were engaged in some intimate communication with the writer, as if the ghosts of Sophocles and Shakespeare had been waiting patiently all those centuries for a bookish sixteen-year-old to come along and find them.” (p. 5)
Mortimer Adler and Francine Prose have helped me become a better writer by suggesting I turn to the stories I love and examine them more closely, that I become an active participant in reading rather than a passive one, assuming with this mindset, I will better absorb the skills needed to write. Some of that, of course, eventually does happen, but why wait? That carton of rocky road will still be in the freezer tomorrow and the television isn’t going anywhere.
Gay Degani has published fiction on-line and in print including her short collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place. She’s had three stories nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her novel, What Came Before, is live in serialized format at Every Day Novels. It’s also available from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.