Creative Writing Rant: How Writers Read

From Richard Katrovas: My rants are off-the-cuff mini-lectures on topics relevant to students of both fiction and nonfiction writing. When I teach “hybrid” writing workshops–classes that meet only six times in the classroom over the course of a semester–I send these ephemeral ditties to my students as follow-ups to our spirited, if infrequent, class discussions. The ones included here are general enough to make sense, I hope, to folks who were not privy to the conversations that spawned them.

It would be presumptuous as hell of me to suggest that I know how good writers read, or that, indeed, there is a single way that good writers read. However, over the years I’ve learned that most writers do have common reading habits, or what I call habits of mind.

  1. First of all, most of the good writers I know never forget, as they read a story, say, by the great Franz Kafka, that the writer, a skinny, weird little guy named Franz, sat before a blank page just as every writer must, and that he proceeded to fill up that page by virtue of a process of decision making. But here’s the deal: a writer, at the beginning of the storytelling process, makes decisions that she or he doesn’t necessarily, or immediately, understand. Why is “The Metamorphosis” cast in third-person and not first-person? Why does it begin at the moment of waking and not, say, the previous evening? Would it, could it have been as effective a story had it begun the previous evening, or even earlier? What if we spent an entire working day with Gregor Samsa, witnessed him lying down to sleep, experiencing “anxious dreams” and then awakening as a bug? Most of the good storytellers I know query even “great” stories in that “what if” manner. “The Metamorphosis” actually begins in quite similar fashion to how a fairytale begins, with very little fanfare regarding the supernatural.Good writers ask “what if” questions as they read any story; doing so may result in a clearer sense of why the writer made the decisions that resulted in the story being successful. 
  2. Most of the writers I know read aggressively rather than passively. For example, when I read “The Conversion of the Jews” the first time I immediately recognized that the title echoes a line from a famous poem by Andrew Marvell, “To My Coy Mistress,” in which the speaker of the poem argues, hyperbolically, that he would praise his woman’s beauty “until the conversion of the Jews” if they (he and the woman he’s trying to seduce) “had but world enough and time.” A passive reading may note this allusion, but an aggressive one recognizes the dark humor of an adolescent boy, a Jewish American boy who was probably born as WWII was ending and who grew up in the midst of the revelation of the Holocaust, questioning the efficacy of the Jewish faith from the midst of an allusion grounded in gross exaggeration, one in which “until the conversion of the Jews” means the same thing as “never.” An aggressive reading is one in which the reader, herself or himself also a writer, interrogates a story to figure out its structural and tonal tricks, to figure out not what it means, but how it means!
  3. A writer never forgets that a story is the product of human activity. Well, this sounds pretty stupid, right? Who would argue that a story came into being by anything like natural circumstances, that it fell from the sky or got dictated by a burning bush? But we do indeed forget the human connection too often. We forget that a writer sequestered somewhere with a blank page (or screen) and made a series of linguistic, ethical, and structural decisions that resulted in that page/screen getting filled, more or less, with words in their written forms. Even trained scholars, it seems, from time to time, become bedazzled by an author’s name—Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Keats, Roth, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Carver, Singer, etc. etc.—and forget, or ignore, the essential fact that all writers are human and all humans require sustenance and hydration and as a consequence of consumption indeed must excrete waste. Yes, Shakespeare very likely wrote “To be, or not to be,” and had to pause, put down his quill, wipe the excess ink off his purpled fingers (probably on his pants…really), and go outside and urinate on the lilies before returning, sitting back down, and finishing, “…that is the question.” We must imagine Shakespeare peeing on the lilies if we are fully to appreciate the dire, terrifying implications of “to be, or not to be: that is the question…” 

Well, that’s a start. Stay focused on your stories, and don’t ever forget that the writers you’re reading are your teachers! Just as good students are proactive regarding their relations to their professors (as in, “Hey, Katrovas, what do you mean by ‘proactive’ in this context?” or “Richard, I really like ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, but I’m not sure I can sustain an emotionally complex story primarily through dialogue. How does Hemingway pull it off?”), so good writers are proactive in their reading/study of successful stories. 

A final bit of dubious wisdom: Good writers trust their instincts but are not ruled by them. Ronald Reagan (I’m a squishy liberal and, needless to say, did not vote for Reagan!) famously said, regarding the Soviet leadership shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, “trust but verify.” We writers should have the same attitude toward our unconscious minds, our Dream Factories: trust, but verify!