Reading as a Writer

July 31, 2007
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READING AS A WRITER

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

August 2007

"Books that I would have gone through in a blink, I now stared at for hours, trying to learn just how the author created his magic."
—Shapiro

As a kid, I carried home such an armload of books from the library that I could barely see over the pile. A crossing guard once reported me to my mother.

“Your daughter will be run over if she keeps reading those many books.”

It was more like I was overrun by books, but quite willingly. Books were life to me. They were so much more interesting that anything anyone around me had to say, including my teachers.

Throughout my adulthood, I read voraciously. At all times I kept a pocketbook in my pocket in case I had to stand on a line or get on a bus or do anything else that might open a window of time to reading. I read and ate. I read and took a bath. Sometimes, depending on whom I was speaking to, I read and talked on the phone at the same time.

But in my thirties when I began to write, the pace of my reading screeched to only a few pages an hour. Books that I would have gone through in a blink, I now stared at for hours, trying to learn just how the author created his magic. I’d look for certain specific things, and when I found them, I’d really take note. I’d underline, highlight, write comments in the margins, and fill up all the blank space between chapters with copying whole passages from the book. A book became a lesson plan for me, my teachers, my guides.

"From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view; and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts"
—E.M. Forester

 

Here are some of the things I write down in a notebook and, when I’m ambitious, copy into my hard drive.:

1. Quotes important to themes of my work.  
 

For example, having grown up in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., I tend to have it as a backdrop of stories and poems and essays. I found this quote in the first chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick which I’m determined to use in some piece of writing, but so far, have only found a home for it here:

“Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach?”

2.  Passages of beautiful description:
 

This one is from page 97 of E.M. Forester’s A Room with a View

“From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view; and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting in pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam.”

(Isn’t that a knockout?)

   

 

"All this in a novel that takes place in one night!"
—Shapiro
  This quote is from Ghost Sea by Ferenc Mate:

“The sea was broken by loaf-shaped islands to the west and great mountains to the east, under whose vast, steep, wooded slopes along the fjords twisted and vanished in the continent.”

3. I check to see how a work of prose is organized.
 

For example, the quirky and deeply sad short story, What You Pawn I will Redeem, is the quirky and quietly sad story of a Native American’s struggle to get back his heritage, is told passages that take place over two days of the narrator’s life. Each section is headed by the time frame in which the action occurs. Sherman Alexis begins with Noon, goes to 1 P.M., 2, P.M. and so forth, ending the story two days later at noon.

Ian Mc Ewan’s latest novel, Chesil Beach, revolves around the honeymoon night of a sexually inexperienced couple. The author casts his net back to each of the character’s childhoods, years at the university and their most recent pasts—the time they met and how they spent it. And after the honeymoon with its surprising outcome, it leaps forward in the narrator’s mind to his future and then a look back at what could have been. All this in a novel that takes place in one night!

   

 

"Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Raab is a series of short stories, many of which had been published separately"
—Shapiro
 

Mate’s Ghost Sea is made up of chapters headed by quotes by writers, scientists, anthropologists.

Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Raab is a series of short stories, many of which had been published separately, woven together into a novel with each chapter heading a quote from such far flung sources as Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, et. al, each having to do thematically with that chapter.

Taking note of how works of literature are organized in terms of time sequence and structure can give you inspiration for what to do with your own piece. Sometimes, an idea is floating and won’t get grounded until you have a structure.

   

 

"Gesture—The physical actions characters take to show how they are feeling. "
—Shapiro
4. Gesture—The physical actions characters take to show how they are feeling.

It might be something as simple as “She scratched her head,” to show confusion or “he turned his hands up in his lap,” another way of saying, hunh? Hearts can’t always be pounding or fluttering. You have to observe people (and other writers) to see how they express emotion without just saying, “He was confused.”

   

 

"Once you begin reading as a writer, you’ll find your own list . . ."
—Shapiro

Once you begin reading as a writer, you’ll find your own list, often based on what your weaknesses are, what you need to learn.

One of the assets is that you will never have to lend your books again. No one would want them.

And don’t forget what Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous stripper said. “Anything worth doing well is worth doing slowly.”

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/

 

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