By Katey Schultz
During a craft lecture at a residency for Pacific University’s low-residence MFA program, faculty member and fiction author David Long took to the podium and announced: “You are responsible for what you don’t read.” He then shared a list of “the 100 most influential books.” Needless to say, it was an intimidating way to begin my studies. Twelve years have passed since then and I’ve found a happy medium between the impossible task of reading everything and the achievable task of reading like a writer.
Understanding how a story comes together and impacts the reader is a scientific process. Settling onto the couch with a good mug of coffee in one hand and a book in the other is not too terribly different than a lab assistant readying the scalpel before dissecting a fetal pig. If we want to write well, we have to be able to identify the muscle and bone, so to speak.
Francine Prose, in her classic craft book Reading Like a Writer, offers keen advice: “With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But, in fact, it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” I’d add one suggestion to Prose’s tip on reading slower, and that is to re-read.
OK, more than one suggestion. Read slowly, re-read, and read out loud. Of course, we should all be reading our own work out loud (you’re doing this, right?). But don’t stop there. Let another writer’s words fill your mouth. Feel the weight of those syllables as they tumble forward. Do they flow? Do they tangle? Are the sentences breathy, or breathless?
Rather than take on an entire book (or 100 books), I suggest that my students practice reading like a writer by finding those places they think a story achieves its greatest impact. Then, get your scalpel out. Is the writing employing sensory detail? Metaphor? Repeated imagery? What about choosing the right detail at the right time — maybe that’s all it is, all it needs? Perhaps there’s a combination of craft features waving their hats all at once in the same sentence. Find that sentence. Cut it open. Look at its inner workings in terms of word choice, punctuation, and rhythm, as well as its outer workings in the context of the paragraph around it or the story elements that come before and after. Then get even bigger if you want — consider cultural context, time period, physical setting. How does all of this work in concert to indicate the exact right word, at the exact right time?
There’s that question again: How? Not what. Not why. HOW.
We have to slow down enough, as Prose suggests, in order to have a conversation with ourselves. We have to ask: How did the writer achieve this impact? In what ways could I use those techniques to help readers make meaning of my own work? After all, we can’t “control” how a reader will respond to our work, but we can imply certain outcomes by our very careful use of exactly the right words at the right time. Furthermore, focusing on the how and the impact helps us make decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out, and why a particular story or essay may or may not be working in terms of effective impact on readers.
Learning is an organic, unending process and is full of invisible, small victories that keep writers going much more sustainably than public accolades or awards. This is true for first-time authors, bestsellers, and hobbyists alike. I believe this so completely, that I created an online community for writers based on this principle (it’s called Airstream Dispatches and you can get the full story here). And while we’re not talking “rocket science” for writers, we are getting real about those tiny moments that propel our imaginations further.
Because reading like a writer — even one sentence or paragraph at a time — ultimately paves the way for writing like a writer. The point of reading slowly, re-reading, and reading out loud is to strengthen our foundations and create helpful habits so that they become second nature. If we can read like writers every time we read, slowly but surely, we’ll also write like writers every time we put pen to page. In this way, what at first feels technical, eventually feels easy. It happens without effort, without our even knowing we’re doing it. And in that freedom comes more brain space. More ease. More cellular and spiritual energy becomes available that we can put into writing new works of our own and writing them well. Writing them like writers.
Katey Schultz’s story collection, Flashes of War, was named IndieFab Book of the Year and received a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America. She has won more than half a dozen flash fiction contests, been awarded writing fellowships in eight states, and is currently seeking a publisher for her novel set in Afghanistan. Her newest online program, Airstream Dispatches: a worldwide book club for writers, brings together a group of dedicated creatives who want accountability, craft-based instructional writing prompts, and the community of other writers to feel supported and “seen.” Explore her online classes, e-courses, and writing at www.kateyschultz.com.