On Not Being Able to Read like A Reader

Through the recent blur of life-changing days and endless logistical matters, I’ve been reading John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. I’d read a few other books by John Irving, and had seen the film adaptation with Charlize Theron and Tobey Maguire a few years back. The movie was good, but the novel is magnificent. I love the way Irving makes such giant, meandering, sub-plot digressions without ever making any of it seem tedious. His characters are so quirky, and richly developed that I didn’t mind being taken away from the main action every so often. By the end of the book, I found myself rationing pages so that I could stretch the story out as long as possible, not wanting it to end. Best. Feeling. Ever.

Like most writers, I spend the majority of my reading time doing research for one writing project or another these days, and very rarely get to read a regular old novel just for fun. I read dozens of memoirs and self-help books for almost eight years while I wrote A Real Emotional Girl, crying my way through one grief book after another. I would have been remiss had I not considered that the research material for a prose novel would be a bit easier to digest on a daily basis, and that this part of the process is a huge part of the story-telling endeavor. Doing some supplemental research reading for the novel I’ve started working on actually sounds fun this time around.

But I find that even my pleasure reading has transformed into something else now. It’s nearly impossible for me to read anything like a reader anymore, without looking to discover writing techniques and the internal scaffolding holding each piece of literature together. I can no longer just bliss out while reading; instead I must always be looking to say, “Oh—I see what you did there.” Now, I read like a writer.

My former short-forms professor at the Whidbey Writers Workshop, Bruce Holland Rogers, taught me to recognize every little writing technique, make note of it in an ongoing and elaborately detailed compendium, and find a way to make it my own for use in my own future writing. Perhaps at some point, every writer learns to make the most of their reading time, so that in essence a writer is always working. Even when we are not actively writing, we are constantly seeking inspiration, ideas, suggestions, and guidance about the stories, lines, and words we create. Being a writer is, in this way, simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. I hope and suspect that as I get older and continue on in this profession, I’ll learn how to access the ON/OFF switch a little better.


The one piece of writer’s advice I wish I’d been told earlier and try to mention to every just-starting-out writer I meet is, TO JUST READ EVERYTHING. I mean it, everything. All genres, all styles—the more the better. One must decide what she likes to read before writing what she likes, right? Some things we are born with, some things we are taught, and some things we have no choice but to go out and learn on our own.


One thought on “On Not Being Able to Read like A Reader

  1. It’s funny, I read your blog regularly, but missed it over the break from school. Now I look at it, and I swear I just had a conversation with an old friend about rationing the pages. Good to know that doesn’t end even if you take on writing as a career. 🙂

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