Katie Kitamura observed recently that “…it’s useful to be reminded that reading is part of my job as a writer, and that it should be taken as seriously as the act of writing itself. There are very few good writers who are not also good readers.”
I have learned to read several times: first, as a child connecting letters with sounds, pictures with words; then as a student, analyzing simile and metaphor and ferreting out the deeper meanings in Shakespeare, Hemingway and Steinbeck. In college I majored in French and started the whole process again, this time with a language not my own, in an effort to decipher Balzac, Camus and Proust. I did fairly well with the first two; the third was a tougher go. Finally, after decades of reading purely for pleasure, I picked up the pen myself and began an MFA program. Soon enough I realized I would have to learn to read again. This time, as a writer.
My first workshop instructor urged me to work on my reading. He told me that writing begins with close reading, which, when successful, is more than inspirational: it often leads to borrowing. Writing, it struck me, might be a kind of thief trade. I imagined myself studying the greats like an aspiring Dodger at the knee of the Academy’s Fagin, trolling the boulevards and side streets of literature, sizing up each mark, always on the lookout for a telltale pocket bulge or low hanging bag ripe for the taking – an idea, a structure, an image, some key that would unlock my own particular voice and style.
I found myself in good company. For Ulysses, Joyce borrowed structure and theme from Homer. Julian Barnes, in Flaubert’s Parrot, references Madame Bovary which itself pulled from Don Quixote. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres re-imagines King Lear. The opening scene of Stuart Dybek’s short story “Tosca” evokes Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as well as many other works of literature, visual art and the titular opera. Can we even begin to count the number of stories taken from the Bible?
By reading for craft, I learned not only how to write, but also how not to. I’ve spotted writing tics in other people’s work that I later notice in my own. When a time shift or word choice takes me out of a story, I try and think about why this is and make a mental note to check my own writing. Other times, I’ve read fifty pages of a story before I remember to focus on the nuts and bolts, and so I start over because these are the writers who have mastered the craft to such an extent that I don’t notice the gears turning at all.
I’ve also found that reading can be the best way to blow through writer’s block. When the words won’t come, or the story won’t gel, I close the laptop and open a book. Sometimes I reach for something new: an author I’ve never read or a different form—essay, poetry, or a play. Other times, nothing beats the old favorites: Wodehouse for humor, Welty for authenticity, Flaubert for sentence structure, and Joyce for…well, I still don’t really know. But if I ever figure out what that man was doing and how he did it, I may finally be the “good reader” Ms. Kitamura mentions.
Source of Kitamura quote: (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/reading-is-part-of-my-job-and-more-writing-advice-from-author-katie-kitamura)
W. S. Winslow is a writer, essayist and editor whose work has appeared in Bird's Thumb, Yemassee and Punchnel’s. Her MFA is from NYU. She recently completed a short story collection and has begun work on a novel. You can reach her at https://wswinslow.com.
Read Winslow’s short story “Trinity” here.