Reading Like a Writer

Over the past week I read a book entitled “Reading like a Writer” by Francine Pose.  I bought this paperback at our local bookstore because it offered to help me do exactly what I needed to do from now on.  Not only that, but, as a bonus feature, it promised me a list of all of the “Books that Must be Read Immediately.”  Exactly!  That’s exactly what I needed! 

What led up to this epiphany is very clear in my mind.  I was sitting at my desk, reading my blog, when I experienced a brief but profound moment of enlightenment.  I suddenly realized if I wanted to maintain this blog for the rest of my life, while posting pieces on a frequent basis, I needed help.  Other blogs focus on specific topics, like politics, or crochet, or making Julia Child’s recipes, or roaming around on a motorcycle, or even discussing the local sports scene, all of which seem well-intentioned, well-written, and, well, let’s be frank, quite do-able on a continuous basis.  However, my blog, I realized, went everywhere and nowhere at once.  In my illumination, I realized I lacked two essential ingredients that the other blogs seemed to have: quality writing and continuous inspiration. 

Deciding to tackle that “continuous inspiration” thing next month, I resolved instead to work on the quality of my writing. This was something I could manage, couldn’t I?  After all, it’s about mechanics, and, anyhow, didn’t that one blog say I could crochet better by actually crocheting, and didn’t the other blog say with proper training and a rod and tackle, I could learn to fish, and how hard is it anyway to cook from a recipe, even if it is Julia Child’s?  I decided right then and there, if others can improve on their passion, I can too.  In fact, that very day, I decided I would enhance my writing skills by becoming a better writer (eureka, what an idea!).  Rather than read a grammar book, I would learn by osmosis – that is, by reading more to see how others have achieved their “quality-writing” success.  

This, of course, brought me to the bookstore late that afternoon.  I needed a good book by a good writer that was not too difficult to read and didn’t have too many pages.  Clearly, with monthly installments on my blog, I didn’t have time to get bogged down.  Oh, and I needed a book with a font size that was not too tiny either.  (I hate it when it takes forever to turn the page, and if there are too many pages to turn, the truth is, I’m doomed!)   Most importantly, as a blogger with more than a year under my belt, I needed this to work.  I was alone and desperate, but, in my favor, I had total access to all the books in the store.  Two hours later, my new dedication began with four good-but-different books tucked under my arm: “Reading like a Writer” (not exactly what I came for, but, clearly, this could save me a lot of time), “Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places” (A theme of mine, you have to admit, given my “Notes from the Field” over the past year), “Blogging for Dummies” (Yes, I agree, what the hell am I doing?), and the curve ball of the day, “Chi Marathon” by Danny Dreyer (Did I mention I like to run?  After a year of semi-serious training, I am desperate for some improvements in this area too.  In fact, everything I do seems symptomatic of this problem – oh, never mind, let’s save that thought for a later essay…).

At my desk back home with my four new books by my side, I picked up “Reading like a Writer.”  Skimming the back cover, I noted that the author, a Ms. Prose, was an avid, life-long reader and just as critically, especially for the authority she was projecting in taking on this idea, an author of several works of fiction.  Wasn’t this proof positive she was exactly who I needed to improve my blog?  Most importantly, I read, she was also a creative writing teacher of many years. This, then, was a book letting me in on what she had gleaned from her readings, writings, and teachings.  I had hit the Holy Trinity!  Already I could feel my blog improving!  

That night, I began my quest.  After all, aren’t I a writer of a year-long blog?  Aren’t I more than a klutzy, knock-kneed runner, or a traveler to distant shores (but usually just our own shore), or a dup that buys books for Dummies (especially when it comes to blogs, Spanish, Excel spreadsheets, auto mechanics…)?  I simply needed a path, and with my new book, my strategy came together:  I would to learn how to “read like writer,” skip the actual reading of any other books, and go directly to improving my blog.  (What a plan!)

In point of fact, I soon discovered Francine (I call her Francine now because of our one-on-one relationship) employed snippets from literary classics to convey the importance of “writer reading.”  This was perfect, I realized, with Francine’s guidance I could cover quickly the world’s great literature, killing two birds with one stone!  Forget the easy books or the picture books with lots of white spaces.  “Writer-reading” was exactly what I needed to be well-read!  Oh, and don’t forget that list in the appendix that Francine lovelingly hands out to her oblivious students, that list she’s willing to share privately with me now that we are so intimately acquainted, that list of classics to be a great writer.  The secret was finally MINE, and I figured, given the limited time I was operating under (what with my monthly deadline) and given I only wanted to be a great blogger anyway, simply skimming the list would be sufficient.  Smelling it, even, and I could be well on my way!

This past week, night after night, chapter by chapter, I read the book slowly but surely (and ignored the lack of pictures) and learned to focus my writing on the importance of “words” (good idea!), “sentences” (that’s cool!), “paragraphs” (yes, I know, I need them!), “narration” (hmmmm, really?), “characters” (these too?), “dialogue” (“What?” he asked.), “details” (ugh, not details!), and “gesture” (like a “high-five?”– okay, got it!)  All of these important mechanics employed in good writing, I realized, could go directly into my blog, and, someday even, somebody might annotate my writings and discover all the centuries’ old works that led to my pithy dialogue, spine-chilling characters, descriptive – yet tight – narration, and colorful, scintillating details.  Could I be someone’s dissertation?

Finally, I finished the book and, as my last act that final night, I turned to the appendix.  There it was: the list – all of the books to be read immediately if I wanted to be a great writer – a list, perhaps, of one hundred to two hundred incredible books.  It included titles of every major writer from most of the continents of the world going back centuries: the Russians, the British, the French, the Americans, the South Americans, the Africans, and the Asians.  (Fortunately, not one of them had a blog!) 

It turns out, I actually had read three of the books!  (Yeaaaa!  No wonder I started my blog!)

In studying the list, however, soon I felt a knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach.  The truth was, not only had I not read most of the books, but I hadn’t even heard of many of the authors!  I realized Francine was, in reality, my old, white-haired, heavy-set, literature professor in disguise calling me out just like a dog, just like back in college – I was totally inadequate as a writer, as a person, as a human being.  I was a charlatan slinking around in blogger’s clothing!  “You will never be a great writer if you don’t know the literature,” he would grumble at me in his stuffy old office of dead and dying books and wilted stacks of papers, handing me back my paper, bleeding red from his pen with another “C” emblazed across the top corner. Ugh!  But, wasn’t it too late to know the literature?  I would have to start reading — like now (!) – and then, even then, wouldn’t they be dumping unread books into my grave to take with me to the hereafter?

Worse yet, to my dismay, I discovered a typed sheet of paper that was lodged in the back of the book.  (Where did this come from?)   Francine or someone like her had included a second appendix for me to ponder.  It was another list, but this one was titled, “Horrible Books Never to be Read by Anyone with Half-a-Brain.”  Wait a minute.  I recognized these titles.  Most consisted of books on my bookshelf!  I had read them from cover to cover at one time or another and some several times over.  Oh no!  At the bottom of the list it even warned syphilis, early dementia, and death was inevitable if you read them all.  (Whew!  There was still one or two I was missing.) 

Looking up, I realized in another epiphany (or was it the same epiphany from a week earlier? – No wonder I have a headache), not only did I need to lift my reading to new level, but I had to stop reading junk!  All of these horrible books, magazines, articles that filled my time and were on the list of “no brainers” had to go.  I decided, right then and there, enhancing the quality of my reading would be my primary goal from now on, or, at least, starting next year, along with losing twenty pounds, as a key part of my New Year’s resolutions.  In the meanwhile, this whole inquiry I had embarked upon this past month, this journey, in fact, ending with “Reading like a Writer” epitomizing how far I had gone, was depressing me thoroughly!  Forget improving my writing – blog or no blog!  Forget Francine and my old prof, merging together and separating apart, forget being a great writer.  I decided, rather, this year with the limited time remaining, I would focus, instead, on being a world-class runner!  Yeaaaa!    

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Categories: Essays

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