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.