Friday, September 10, 2010

Reading to Write

If you’re a writer, resist taking your favorite book to bed with that cup of cocoa unless amidst the feathery softness of the pillows you won’t get mindless and drift off to sleep without remembering what you read ten minutes before.

That great story that’s twisted in the sheets with you contains all the reasons you need to be wide awake and focused when you’re reading. It’s a page-turner with well-drawn characters and a narrative smooth and pleasing to the eye and ear. The story emotes.

In his essay, “The Hanging,” George Orwell writes about a Hindu prisoner being taken to the gallows. The man is guarded by four warders: two holding rifles at his sides; two gripping him by the arms and shoulders. When the death procession is forty yards from the gallows, the prisoner sidesteps to avoid a puddle. This single detail becomes a crucial turning point for the narrator, a magistrate who has witnessed numerous hangings. Only now, seeing this particular prisoner attempting to keep his feet dry minutes before being hung, does the magistrate experience a moral revelation and realize the injustice of killing a man when his life is in “full tide.”

Reading is a great influencer as demonstrated so beautifully in Orwell’s essay. It’s the studious writer who sees authors such as Orwell position details from life in their stories in the most unique context.

Below are three key guidelines to help you read with a critical eye and get the most out a book in your hand that’s not your own.
  • Settle into a comfortable place, but not so comfortable as to invite the possibility of dozing. If you have a room of your own for writing, moving away from your desk helps to shift your mind from your current project (and from the seduction of checking your e-mail, facebook or twitter accounts). Staying in the same room alerts the mind that you are still working, just in another mode; cozying up in an easy chair is ideal. If your bed is the ultimate spot in the house where you do your best reading, sit up straight, preferably using a bed-lounger of some kind. Comfort is important so you are not distracted by aches or cramps. Because you are removed from your writing area, remind yourself that reading is part of your job, albeit from your nest of cotton sheets and down-filled quilt. 
  • Equip yourself with a highlighter for underscoring specific phrases or passages and a pen for making notes in the margins. Oftentimes another writer’s words inspire ideas for your own writing. Note specifically how an author expresses a commonplace action or familiar sentiment or scene in an innovative way. For example, in his novel, The Old Man and the Sea, Hemmingway writes of the scars on Santiago’s hands that were “as old as erosions in a fishless desert.” Readers are well aware that a desert is without fish, yet the adjective, “fishless,” makes the description smart and unique, since the story is essentially about an old man who hasn’t had a catch in eighty-four days. Keep a notebook and be on the lookout for the following things: vocabulary that strikes you and you’ve not used before; descriptors: words or phrases to use as models to create your own version; unconventional sentence or paragraph structure that works especially well; dialogue that is especially suited to the character. Add things of your own, and while you are supplementing your notebook, analyze why these literary devices make an impression.
  • Reading fiction out loud cannot be overestimated. Reading with the senses speaking the words, hearing the words, seeing the words, feeling the words will help you quickly take note of what makes the writing memorable.
When you speak the words, whether description or dialogue, the very act of forming the words should give you a pleasant sensation; the language should be fluid. Hear the words. Listen closely to the sounds they make. Does the author use alliteration to create the melody? Are the sentences clipped or do they meander? Similarly, when you see the words on the page, are they orderly, or intentionally disruptive as in Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece novel, Waves, in which she breaks all the rules in order to create her own poetic landscape. Most of all, you want to feel the words. Examine how the author uses language to incite emotions in the reader through the characters and/or story. In Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Fair Maiden, a young woman named Katya aids the terminally ill and much older Mr. Kidder in killing himself. He is infatuated with her, and on this, the last night of his life, she poses as his newlywed bride. Oates writes: ‘“Here I am, Mr. Kidder. I am here.’ It was a vow, and a promise. Marcus Kidder would not die an ignoble death. Marcus Kidder would not die except in the arms of his bride.” As the reader, you feel the girl’s love and loyalty at the same moment you acknowledge the extraordinary disparity between her and her “husband.”
Details. They can make the story brilliant. Good details are worth savoring, and highlighting, and entering into your journal for future contemplation and learning. The caliber of the detailsapart from the “empty-calorie expressions” editors scorn for their meaninglessness are appreciated only by the kind of conscious reading you give them as outlined in these few paragraphs.

Read, and be enlightened. Otherwise, you might as well leave the book on your bedstead, turn out the light, and go to sleep.

Award-winning writer Ann Karen Dowd has nurtured a love relationship with the written word since she was a young child when much to her mother’s chagrin she penned verse on the walls of her bedroom with crayons. Embracing education as a path to reach her dream as an adult, Ann pursued her doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Hong Kong.

Ann published her first book, Echoes of the Heart (New York: Leisure Books), in 1988, and won the National Poetry Award from New Millennium Writing in 2004. Today, Ann’s writing reflects her scholarly focus in feminist studies, especially those themes having to do with language, self-identity, sexuality, and motherhood.

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