Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reading From the Inside Out

When I got to my first residency for my MFA, one of the things the other students who had been in the program would tell me was that I would never read the same again. I had no idea what they meant, but not wanting to show my naiveté, I nodded as though I knew what they were talking about. Then I went on to complete four semesters and five residencies that made clear
 what they meant.

At some point during late high school/early college I taught myself how to speed read. I read an article about how to skim a page in certain patterns to grab the main points and connect them in half the time it takes to go through line by line. That skill helped me get through the 1,000+ pages of my business law textbook in one semester during my undergrad years, and I figured it would help me get through the 12 books per month I had to read during my graduate program. It took my first packet to realize that I was very wrong.

My reading was not meant to determine what the book was about. I was expected to read to determine how the book was written. If I began to write about what happened in the book, I didn't read it correctly. That meant that I had to read slowly to identify techniques that the author used throughout the book, and try to determine whether the technique was successful. It took a long time to understand what that meant. In the process, I learned that I had been very forgiving of most writing. 

I didn't care if authors did an info dump to tell me about a character or event. I wasn't looking to be shown what was happening, I was OK if the author told me. Characters and books evoked feelings in me but I was fine when a book merely entertained me for a while, even if I forgot all about the book the second I finished reading it. There's nothing wrong with reading for pleasure and not giving a rat's ass about how the book is written, but that wasn't going to cut it for this degree. I had to re-learn how to read.

Re-learning how to read was frustrating. My advisors gave me many tips and I read tons and tons of books about the craft of writing to try and learn what techniques writers used and what effect they had on the reader and the telling of the story. I learned terms I had never heard before, like objective correlative, and terms unique to my peers, like "cheese sandwich" moments. It was comforting to know that in some cases, I was already using the techniques in my writing, even if I didn't know what they were called. On the other hand, I was learning new ones that I wanted to try. But, I didn't always identify those methods. Sometimes I read a book and nothing stood out to me. That didn't mean it was poorly written, it just meant that I wasn't experienced enough to figure out what the author did to tell the story. That also meant that if I couldn't identify a learning in the book, it didn't count in my monthly quota of books and that was beyond stressful. 

As the semesters drew on, I got better at understanding what authors were doing well in their books, ways that I would have worked the plot differently, and how different approaches could be beneficial to my work. Reading became more of an analysis of writing than entertainment. Now that I've read over 200 books in the last two years, I completely understand what my peers told me about how I would never read the same again. 

Now when I read, I look for what the author is doing with her words and how she presents them. I try to determine her goals in choosing certain writing elements and I pay attention to my reactions. Books that I would have enjoyed and thought nothing of before my MFA, are now examples of how I want to write, or techniques I want to avoid. Knowing the incredible amount of work that goes into writing a book, I don't feel it is fair to knock any writer's effort, so I won't bash any books, but when I see books that fall short of their potential it makes me sad and I wish I could go back to reading like I did pre-MFA. But, as far as I know, I may never be able to do that again, so I constantly remind myself that reading from the inside out is the price I pay for writing from the inside out.

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