Faye Rapoport DesPres

What does it mean to “read like a writer?”

If you’re interested in learning more about creative writing, or writing creative nonfiction, but don’t have the time or money to take a course, follow my blog this fall — I’ll be blogging about some of the basic concepts I teach in both adult and college courses.

One of the first things we talk about at the beginning of a writing course is this: What does it mean to “read like a writer?” One of my own writing instructors, Michael Steinberg, often talks about the importance of this skill. But what does it mean, exactly?

When most of us read an essay, a story, or a book, we are hoping to learn something or be entertained — or both. We tend to focus on our interest in the content of the text and what we can learn from it, on how we understand or react to its over-arching messages or themes, and on the author’s ability to transport us out of our daily lives and into another world (or, as John Gardner calls it in The Art of Fiction, into the “uninterrupted dream”). This type of experience is what could generally be described as “reading like a reader.”

One of the skills that helps students learn to write — or learn to write better — is to alter their reading habits so that instead of reading as readers, they begin to read as writers. The difference is in the focus of the reading. Instead of allowing one’s self to simply be drawn in or transported by the text, the writer reads it with the goal of determining not just what the author achieved, but how the author achieved it. In other words, what writing techniques did the author use to craft the text and create the desired effects?

Let’s try a quick, if somewhat obvious, example. Below is perhaps the famous of Shakespeare’s sonnets — Sonnet 18. Now be gentle with me, because as much as I love Shakespeare, I am not a Shakespearean scholar:

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

You’ve read this sonnet or heard it before, right? — at least that famous first line. To read it as a reader, we simply enjoy the rhythm of each line, the sonnet’s message, and the sound and flow of the words. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” has become one of the most recognizable lines in the English language. We…well, we like it. It’s great. It sounds nice. We understand it — most of us have been infatuated or in love and know what it feels like to compare the object of our love with something almost universally considered beautiful, like a summer’s day.

Reading the sonnet as a reader, we pick up on the rapturous feeling of the writer in the first few lines and appreciate the way he answers his own question by comparing the object of his love to the elements of summer. We enjoy the rhythm of each line and the sounds of the words if we read them out loud, and perhaps we identify with the writer’s wistfulness at the brevity of “summer” (and beauty, and life). At the end we might get an “a-ha” moment when we realize that in writing the poem, the writer has turned things around by making something that is mortal, immortal.

To read the sonnet as a writer, however, we have a lot more work to do. First, of course, we must identify what a sonnet is, and understand how carefully it is crafted to highly specific requirements (number of lines, rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter, usually a volta, or “turn”). Then we examine how Shakespeare used the form to achieve his goals in this particular piece. We might ask questions like these: Why does he start the piece with a question? Does the iambic pentameter and/or the rhyme scheme drive or pace the piece? Do these techniques “program” the words or the theme into our brains more readily than a non-rhyming passage might? How does Shakespeare use his main metaphor? We thought, as readers, that he was just saying that his love is as beautiful as a summer’s day, but in fact, he says his love is “more lovely” and “more temperate.” What specific words, then, are used to describe summer as more extreme? (“rough winds”, “too hot”). What other literary techniques are discoverable in the piece? How about the repetition of certain sounds…”sometime too hot”, “every fair from fair”, “by chance, or nature’s changing course”…how does this technique affect the flow or feel or sound of the piece? Does the rhyming couplet at the end contribute to the air of finality of the ending statement?

These are the types of questions we would ask ourselves if we were reading the sonnet as writers, because we would want to explore not just what Shakespeare achieved, but how he did it. Then, we could play with those techniques in our own work, to see if we could use them in ways that might help us craft our own texts.

I’ve used a sonnet as an example, but reading like a writer works equally well with prose. When you read a personal essay or memoir, some “writerly” questions you might ask yourself include: Is the text long or short, and why? Does the writer use any basic literary techniques such as similes, metaphors, or alliteration? Why and to what effect? Are the sentences short or long? Is the text rife with description or does it lack a sense of place? What kinds of words does the writer use? Why is there white space between sections? Are there flashbacks? Are the sentences rhythmic? What is the “voice” of the piece, and how is that voice achieved?

Overall, you want to know how the techniques used by the writer add or detract from the experience of reading the text. Could any of those techniques be of use in your own work?

So, we’ve started our semester with a first try at reading a creative piece like a writer.

Next week: What is creative nonfiction? (As if there’s a right answer!)