Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reading as a Writer

Alice Kuipers joined us this week, with an interview about writing, her books, and the process of figuring it all out. She also talked about reading fifty pages a day, and her habit of buying a book a week in her chosen genre.
These are important habits for a writer. The simpatico between reading and writing cannot be overstated. I've noticed over the past year or so, that my reading material has changed in some interesting ways. I'm reading Ibsen's dramas, sixteenth century plays and poetry, literary anthologies (those clonky honker books you were forced to buy for your Introduction to English Literature class), sociology books, history, and short story. I have so many books on order at the library I have my own shelf in the "hold" section.

This is unusual for me. Often, I have two books at a time on the go, a fiction and a non-fiction. I very much like to keep up with current releases, and I follow some of my favourite publisher's releases (yes, I have favourite publishers).  So what's going on with my reading selections? I've made a list of my observations about my reading that I think might be useful to other writers.

1. Reading sometimes takes us where we're going, not where we are right now as writers.
     The unusual assortment of classic literature, plays, and poetry piled by my bedside isn't an attempt to appear cultured (the pile is in my bedroom, the only people who see it is me, my husband, and our kids. And the dog, but she only likes the comics). I'm not trying to be a smartypants, I'm hunting for something. I don't even know what it is I'm looking for, but my brain--which often operates independently of me--knows where I lack as a writer, and has decided that the answers lie in pursuing dense literature. My only hope is that when my brain figures out what it needs, it will tell me and then we'll both know.
     I'm not implying that I intend to write dense literary novels. What I hope is that, one day, I will produce a novel of substance. Something enduring because it hits the right human notes. The more I read diverse, dense literature, the closer my brain gets to figuring out how I might accomplish this.

2. Enduring literature (classics) deserve our adult attention.
     I'm ashamed to admit I don't own a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. That's just wrong. I further admit that I merely skimmed The Grapes of Wrath in high school. The Old Man and the Sea numbed my sixteen year old mind so thoroughly I avoided Hemingway completely until I was over thirty-five. These, and so many other novels, endure because they are important, yes, but also because they are the perfect blend of right-now culture, human struggle, and culturally transcending truth. I need to learn this. I need to erase the prejudice from my youth, and embrace these novels as an adult. Whatever I think about them is wrong. I need to discover them anew.

3. Reading plays sharpens skills for creating plot.
     Ibsen was a complete failure until he was a smash success. Once he ditched the idea that his plays should be written in rhyming couplets, he allowed plot to take the wheel and he produced plays of such shocking humanity certain countries forced him to re-write the endings. Plot revealed completely through dialogue. Mastering such a skill promises boundless possibilities to the novelist. It is my vow to study as least three plays a month.

4. Poetry is nonnegotiable. 
     I was dumb for too long, believing all that smugness about good poetry versus bad poetry. Intimidated, I avoided the question entirely for years. Believed I could live without poetry, that I wasn't missing anything important either as a reader or as a writer. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
     Happily, my brain, which was, once again, acting without first consulting me, caused me to pick up a collection of poetry complied by Garrison Keillor. I began to read. I rummaged in the basement and found old collections, thick with dust. I am converted. I now turn to poetry as I do the Psalms. Writer, read poetry. Period.

Share with us a bit of your reading life. Has it changed recently? What are you learning about how and what you read?


Eric W. Trant said...

I do the same thing. I read modern authors and classic authors alike. You learn why they are classics, and why they endure.

You also learn that many of our no-no habits of today, were perfectly acceptable in the past. Summary scenes come to mind, as do head-skipping and purple prose. Done properly these things still work.

Haven't thought of reading plays. I may do that, now. Certainly would sharpen up dialogue to advance the plot!

- Eric

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Ah, books. They truly make me happy. I'm not to be trusted in a bookstore.

I read all kinds of different literature. I've learned that there are some books that just aren't worth finishing (I'm looking at YOU, sparkly vampire). But I've also learned that some books that don't grab hold of me right away can become books that change who I just takes a little patience.

Now, here's a question for all of you: Do any of you find yourselves editing a book as you read? Figuring out how it could have been? Or what you would have done differently? I'm finding that, as a novelist, I read very differently than I did when I was a playwright. Anyone else?

And, Bonnie, The Grapes of Wrath is my favorite of all time. I hope you do give it a second chance. :)

Patti Hill said...

Susie, if I edit as I read, I put the book down. I want to get lost in a story and red-lining tends to make me too self-conscious to enjoy the story.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I read all over the map. Fiction, nonfiction, lots of memoirs and usually more than a couple books at a time. I get it in when I can. Goodreads has influenced some of my reading habits as well.

~ Wendy

Marian said...

I enjoy reading the classics because they do that "culturally transcending truth" thing so well.
The author plants a "truth" inside the story where I discover it and realize there must be more. It's like uncovering a vein of gold in a nickel mine.

Jan Cline said...

Okay, I'm encouraged about the poetry thing. As a writer I always felt guilty for turning my nose down at it. But I do know it is a valuable genre and I should read more of it!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Patti, true. True. I was reading a novel a few months ago and actually wondered how the editors let so many "no-no's" slip. I'm talking big ones. Grand Canyon plot holes...if you know what I mean!

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

I totally agree with you that some classic books shouldn't be tackled in our teens... I first read Dickens when I was about 14 or 15 and didn't like him. It took my university English professor to help me fall in love with him. Now I try to read a Dickens a year. (I think I'm behind this year.)

As for poetry... I know that I should read it, because I've come to realize that's what my writing is lacking. A sense of language, of the poetical, of words that just go together or create beautiful pictures. But I haven't found much poetry I like. Maybe I should dig out my old English anthology, like you, and reread the ones that I did like. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Eric: So true about learning what used to work (and how we modern writers might use that knowledge to our advantage!), and be able to puzzle out the changes and why they matter.
If you're looking to pick up some dramas, let us know how that goes. I was a student of theatre before I was a writer, and I think those years of script reading has informed my writing in lots of subtle ways. Reading scripts aloud might be useful too.

Susie: I only edit as I read if it's my stuff. I am the perfect audience, I suspend disbelief and let the story take me where it will. If I'm editing in my head, I put the book down.

Patti: You are my reading soul-mate. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy: Goodreads is so dangerous, isn't it? So many great recommendations. I love it over there.

Marian: I adore those books that cause me to lay the book on my lap and stare out the window, lost in thought about the nugget of truth I've just uncovered. Marilynne Robinson does that to me page after page.

Jan: Seriously, poetry is nonnegotiable. Keep rooting around until you find stuff you like. I can't tell you how profoundly poetry has changed me. And I don't mean only as a writer. Poetry is foundational to who we are as a species.

Bonnie Grove said...

Koala: Let me recommend two books that started me back on the poetry path, maybe they will spark with you, too: there are two collections compiled and edited by Garrison Keillor: Good Poems, and Good Poems for Hard Times.

Order them from your library and see what you think. Don't overlook reading Garrison's introduction (it will help!). And DO let me know what you think of them, k?

Julia M. Reffner said...

You know I haven't read any poetry since college, but I think I need to START doing so again. Same goes for plays. Great post!

Bonnie Grove said...

Julia: YAY!! Thrilling to hear that. Please, do let me know your thoughts/reactions to this as you go. Comment on the blog, or find me on Facebook.

Cynthia Ruchti said...

Ooh, the Garrison Keillor poetry collections moved ME, too! Exceptionally rich. I think I'll go dig them out again. Thanks for these insights, Bonnie.

Bonnie Grove said...

Cynthia, there's just something good about our friend Mr. Keillor. :) Thanks for stopping in today!

John said...

I'm a little late to the party, but here goes. As of a couple of years ago I'm trying to read as much as I can of a single author's work. I've read just about everything Annie Dillard has written; she's a peach by the way. I've read everything Jim Harrison has graced the planet with. And I'm currently chipping away at the late great John Updike. Each of these authors writes/wrote in a variety of genres, so I'm learning the nuances of one voice in several different forms - make sense? I'll stick pick up something that catches my eye, no questions asked, but that's the bones of how I'm reading these days. And as for the poetry, good for you, Bonnie of Grove.