18 – Reading Like a Writer

This was another Ideas Tap feature that was mostly an excuse to interview a handful of my favorite people — dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson, another beloved writing friend Nick Lezard, and the man who saved my life during my writing Master’s, course director and prolific author Michael Schmidt.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Want to be a writer? The best way to start is by reading. But how can you make sure you reap the benefits in your own work? Cila Warncke asks writers Paul Hendrickson, Nick Lezard and Michael Schmidt for tips…

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including, most recently, Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of the forthcoming The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slowreading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadly

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savouring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

In Focus: Writers’ Recommended Reading:

  • UlyssesJames Joyce
  • To The LighthouseVirginia Woolf
  • A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
  • Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
  • New York Review of Books

Holiday Reading 2017

Having been bludgeoned with Christianity from infancy, I’m over the away-in-a-manger stuff. Books, though, are one aspect of childhood Christmas I revisit with joy.

Christmas was prime new book time. The rest of the year my siblings and I got what books our parents could afford, which is to say, we went to the library. December 25th was one of the rare occasions we could count on one or two new volumes for our personal collection.

This year, my holiday reading echoes the old pattern. One library book (digital now), one Kindle purchase, and one old-fashioned paperback from a charity shop in Crouch End.

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale came courtesy of the library. I don’t get Atwood aesthetically in the same way I don’t get, say, Thomas Wolfe or D.H. Lawrence. Her politics are admirable though. Astute women are writing and talking about The Handmaid’s Tale so it seemed like something I should have a first-hand opinion on.

Which (not that you asked) is that the novel puts Atwood perilously close to being the Ayn Rand of the left. Admirable politics, yes. But cardboard characters prodded around a stage so ripe with Symbolism that I wanted the whole damn wooden set-up to burn. I see now why it is being hailed as visionary: it’s dumb enough that even people who didn’t see Trump coming can grasp the Badness of the Bad Things that happen in it.

What’s disappointing is that Atwood can be a fine writer. (I realise, writing these words, that all hell would break loose if anyone read this blog. She has won a thousand awards and sold a million novels. Who the hell am I to criticise? Just a reader.) Her novel Cat’s Eye is rich and absorbing. The Handmaid’s Tale is pure bully pulpit blather, though. She (a woman of intelligence) didn’t trust her readers with anything subtler than a sermon.

dark is risingTo my delight, Susan Cooper didn’t make the same mistake in The Dark is Rising. Full confession, I’d never heard of it till reading a Guardian column that sang its praise. Normally, I avoid fantasy and children’s books in equal measure, but sometimes it’s good to bend the rules. The Dark is Rising reminds me of many of the books I loved as a kid: The Lord of the Rings, The Hounds of the Morrigan, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is pastoral, charming, and very very English. I blazed through it.

That treat consumed, I picked up Breakfast At Tiffany’s. This is maybe the third copy I’ve owned. It is one of those books I buy, give away, then buy again. I started with the final story in the slim Penguin Modern Classics paperback, “A Christmas Memory”. Capote’s evocative account of his boyhood Christmas made me weep, even though I know the ending. IMG_20171226_182805

Then I flipped back to the beginning and reread Breakfast at Tiffany’s, marveling at his use of language, description, and the curious fact that leggy, stuttering Mag Wildwood is given the full name Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood. In 1958, when the book was published, Thatcher was an up-and-coming Tory politician. A Capote in-joke?

IMG_20171226_182814

Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the perfect starter for a Flannery O’Connor short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The eponymous opening story is deliciously agonising. O’Connor’s genius is that she doesn’t tell you anything. She just lines words up on the page and you hurry along, captivated by their perfect inscrutable order, until you crash face first into the gruesome conclusion.

O’Connor is the anti-Atwood. Nothing in her writing suggests she cared if her readers got it. She wrote. I know which I prefer.

What did you read over the holidays? Share in the comments.