Practice the Art of Slow Reading

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Practice the Art of Slow Reading

Reading, for writers, is like breathing. We can hardly do anything else without it. When I’m trying to get in the mood for writing, I read. And it’s not really procrastination—it’s an active process of priming the pump.  A couple of years ago the Department of Writing and Linguistics hosted poet Rick Moody, who said that when he wants to write a poem, he takes his books to his study down the path out back of his house, and reads. He reads, he says, until he has something to say; he fills his tank to overflowing, and then he writes. Reading gets our juices running.

But reading, for a writer, is more than inspiration. It’s instruction. When writers read, I mean read, they follow Mortimer Adler’s advice: they read like they’re in love. That’s when, he says, we read closely. Any writing by the beloved, we read slowly. We read carefully, with attention to nuance and possibility. We pay attention to each word, to the spaces between the words, to the punctuation.  We read what’s there and what’s not there, what might have been there. And we become aware of the effect those black marks on the page have on us as readers.

Reading like a writer is different from reading for enjoyment or even inspiration. Reading like a writer means that you become aware of craft and construction, of subtleties on the page. It’s an analytical process. How does Chekov deal with violence? How does James Joyce handle crowd scenes?  How about Hemingway and dialogue? Salinger and characterization by gesture?  (Take a look at “Franny” for a master class on that–) Reading lets us have a tutorial by the masters—they’ll talk to us if we listen.

So, how to we do that listening? For me, I choose work that is at least tangentially close to my idea. Right now  I’m thinking about travel writing, about walking the camino, and I’m reading Robert McFarlane’s Old Ways, his account of walking thousands of miles on several continents. Well, I certainly didn’t do what he did,  but I can read about how he framed his account, and see how he approaches some of the tangles I’ve encountered.

How does he keep it from being so self-centered? Ah, we meet some characters, and let them carry the load a bit. There’s the retired ship captain who lives in a falling down house peopled with strangers who stop by. (Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways) I linger over his images, like a tailor smoothing a fine wool fabric with a careful hand.

Like Moody and others, we read for inspiration. And yes, we can read fast, and sometimes do. But like so many things that are enhanced by slow, close attention (like eating, a friend of mine says, and writing), reading done slowly brings benefits beyond enjoyment. It lets us look up from the page when we’ve been moved by a word or line or passage, and wonder, “How did she do that?”

Get really close to good writing. Slow down and pay attention. Annie Dillard says, “The writer studies literature, not the world.” Settle in and see. Take your time.

Announcing New Study Abroad Program in Italy

Italy Ancient and Modern

Italy Ancient and Modern is a 5 week summer study abroad program that will bring you to some of the most important historical and archeological sites in Italy.  We will be based just outside of Rome, in the medieval village of Monte Compatri.  Your five weeks of study in Italy will earn you six credit hours towards graduation.  The program offers four courses (Food and Travel WritingWorld CivilizationAmerican Encounters with Memory and Identity in Italy, and The Ancient Roman City); you can choose the two courses that best fit your personal and academic needs.
This program is unique in that we will be working and building relationships with our local hosts (musicians, journalists, anthropologists, and students like you) as we tour some of the most important historical and archeological sites in the country.  All participants will share a common core of activities that allow you to explore two distinct but related cultures — ancient Rome and contemporary Italy —  as well as to discover your connections with each other and with our own American culture and society.  Subjects that you can study include: ancient history, popular culture in Italy, archaeology, food and culture, art history, travel writing, historic preservation, memory and identity, and ancient and modern urbanism.
For more information, visit the website or contact:

Six Things Amelia Earhart can Teach Us About the Writing Life by Sarah Domet

Dr. Sarah Domet

Mary Heaton Vorse once smartly observed, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” I couldn’t agree more. But that said, inspiration is still important—and sometimes we find it in the least likely place.

 

For me, that place is Amelia Earhart. I have a framed portrait of her above my desk, and I look to her from time to time when I need a dose of inspiration. Earhart wasn’t only the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she was a strong-willed, daring individual and a cultural icon. So here I present to you six things Amelia Earhart has taught me about the writing life.

 

  1. Don’t listen to what other people say.*

 

This was certainly true for Earhart—a woman who threw convention to the wind. She was a woman working to set records in a male-dominated industry, a woman who didn’t care—or at least didn’t listen—to those who criticized her for not conforming to the traditional roles set for women in the 1920s and 30s.

 

This is true for writers, too—and I’m surprised by how many of my students’ perceptions of their own work or self-worth in writing comes from something someone else has told them at some point—maybe an English teacher from high school or a peer during a long-ago workshop. I failed high-school English, so might say. Or, my life’s just not that interesting to write about, other say. Or maybe it’s the devil on your shoulder telling you that you could never write something good enough. Don’t listen to this.

 

Amelia Earhart says, “The most effective way to do it is to do it,” and I think she’s right. If you have something to say, say it. If you have something you want to write, write it.

 

* Though, students, you should listen to the sage advice of your professors. J

 

  1. Pay your dues.

 

Many people know that Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, but I was surprised to learn that on that first trans-Atlantic flight she was actually just a passenger. Earhart herself claimed she was little more than luggage on her first flight. Earhart didn’t become a world-renowned aviatrix overnight—even she knew she had to pay her dues, work hard for her successes. I think we have a tendency to think that success comes easy for the successful. This is rarely the case.

 

The same holds true for writers. So many times we get caught up in wanting to produce the most profound, accomplished, polished piece of work the first time we sit down to write. And it’s this unrealistic desire for perfection that stunts even the best-intentioned writers among us. Sometimes when we sit down to write, we write…crap. We write something sloppy. Our characters won’t do what we want them to do; we’re bored with what we’re writing; we can’t get the scene or the memory just right. But we’re paying our dues every time we sit down to write something.

 

Writer and social scientist Malcolm Gladwell might refer to this as the 10,000 hour rule. He claims that it takes 10,000 hours for someone to become an expert at anything. This might be depressing news for some—10,000 hours converted into a 40 hour work-week would put you at almost five years of writing, if you took it on as your full-time job. I don’t know that I believe in the 10,000 hour rule for becoming an expert, but I do believe that the most successful writers are those willing to pay their dues, those who write every day, those who understand that habit is every bit as important as inspiration.

 

  1. Worry Less.

 

Amelia Earhart once said: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.” Earhart was certainly a woman who set high goals for herself—she wanted to accomplish what others before her hadn’t. Behind every one of her successes, though, was a series of failures. It’s how she rebounded from those failures that mattered.

 

Earhart’s daring spirit can serve as a model to writers, of course. She once said: “Decide whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying….” In general, I think writers can use this sound advice: write more, worry less. Worry less, write more. Enjoy the writing process as its own reward.

 

  1. Always have a map.

 

Clearly, this was a misstep for Amelia Earhart, as some claim an inaccurate map led to her ultimate demise.

 

Writers must have maps, too—and I don’t simply mean outlines. I mean a general idea about the direction of their writing projects and/or an idea about their writing goals. If you don’t know why you’re writing or what you wish to say, how can you expect your reader to know these things?

 

  1. Be willing to go down with the plane.

 

Nobody knows just how willing Amelia Earhart was in those final moments as her plane went down in 1937—but she was certainly aware of the risks of her trans-global flight. She did it anyway. She was driven by her passions and most would agree that she died doing what she loved.  She once said: “Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it.”

 

I apply this general logic to writers only in a metaphorical sense. If you’re not writing about something that holds your passion, you’re not going to care, really care. And I’m talking the kind of care that rubs off on your readers with contagion. Be willing to go down with the plane. Don’t waste time writing what you think you should write or what is popular. Write about what matters to you. Write something that you’d stick with, even if it veered off course. Take risks in your writing. Take some chances, even if it might embarrass you if your parents ever read it.

 

  1. Have fun.

 

Earhart once said, “Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.” For her, the benefits outweighed the risks. At the end of the day, she just really, really loved to fly.

 

If you want to be a writer—it needs to be worth the price for you. You have to love it. You have to love playing with language and creating new world. You have to have fun with it. Life is short, and writing is a lifestyle. Stop caring so much what you should be doing or should be writing. Write what you want to write, if that’s what you want. And if you don’t enjoy it, or don’t enjoy it enough—do something else: pick up the guitar, learn to juggle, became a master saucier. Or, better yet, take a flying lesson.