A writer should be an active reader.

I don’t mean that s/he should simply read a

Talking back to bell hooks
Talking back to bell hooks

lot or often, which is also good advice. What I mean here is that s/he should engage with the text in not only a passive appreciation of a good story or informative read but also in rigorous examination of how the text is constructed, either logically or aesthetically.

One way to do this is marginalia — those penciled in exclamation points and question marks or comments that agree or disagree with the author. In the photo, I’m relating to hooks’s assertions in her essay “Engaged Pedagogy”: “Duh,” “This is what my workshop did,” “I do this!” “I’ve always said this!” Later in the book, I will argue with her.

I also frequently write down words I don’t know or questions I have in the back of the book with the page number of the corresponding passage so that I can return to it later. Of course, this builds vocabulary and helps integrate what the book is imparting so that it is uniquely meaningful to me.

Another way I read actively is by looking for patterns or interruptions of patterns. Maybe there was an idea repeated or a repetition that was broken, which is usually done to wake the reader up and emphasize something.

We see this, for instance, in blank verse, which has regular meter but no rhyme. Often a poet will interrupt the meter — usually iambic pentameter, but not always — in order to highlight a word or idea or create a caesura (a break that allows breathing space ) or to mirror the emotional instability being expressed in the lines.

Without belaboring the point by digging up some passage — Shakespeare is especially good for this — and giving a lesson on poetic meter (spondee, trochee, iambic, anapest, etc), I am simply asserting that a good writer  uses patterns and when  s/he breaks them its done purposefully.

Reading actively like this helps us as writers. Such analysis provides us with an awareness of the tools at our disposal and often inspires us to try them, too.

Breaking down the introductory poem to Galeano's Mirrors
Breaking down the introductory poem to Galeano’s Mirrors
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2 thoughts on “A writer is a reader

  1. At the end of his life, while he was writer in residence at UVA, Faulkner said of The Sound and the Fury, which he’d written many years earlier, “Writing this book, I learned how to read.” I think that’s what you are talking about here.

    PC (haha!)

  2. Thanks for bringing that up, PC! I was addressing the writing-reading connection from the other direction, but Faulkner’s statement shows us how the two activities really work together. Writing makes us better readers, and reading makes us better writers.

So whaddya think?

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