Reading is like eating seven-layer dip.
At first salivating glance, you see piles of gorgeous green guacamole. A mountain range of avocado-salsa blend contained between four walls of Pyrex. It is easy to be emotionally overcome by the beauty of the guacamole, thinking that, from this angle, the dip is nothing but guacamole.
But if you maintained this perspective, and someone asked you to recreate the seven-layer dip, you’d be content to mash up 13 avocados, stick them in a bowl, and shove them proudly at your party goers with a grin that says, “I made dip.”
To successfully make seven-layer dip, you have to understand that is has, y’know, seven layers. Beneath the obvious top-guac hides delicious cheese and olives and sour cream and beans. The dip itself is kind of complicated. The flavor comes from a combination of foods, all working together to create a single unified taste.
This is the problem with reading casually, only paying attention to the events of the plot and the overall story. You’re only noticing the top layer of the dip. Sure, you’re learning about story telling and enjoying yourself in the process, but you’re missing out of the other layers of literature that make a story robust and complete.
To recognize the layers, stare through the side of the Pyrex dish. Cross-section, not bird’s-eye. Think of it in a whole bunch of parts and techniques sandwiched together to make an engaging story. Think of it in layers.
Things you’ll need:
-A brain (I’ve found that the one inside your skull is easiest to access)
-A book (preferably something with some literary merit)
-A beer (optional, I guess, if you hate all things that are good)
Step 1: Recognize what you should be recognizing
A lot of scholars have attempted to sum up what makes something “literary” (which usually results in a list of 10/15/18/22/25 “things”). There is a lot of grey area. There is even more debate. Some aspects of literature are forehead smackingly obvious, others…not so much. I covered my take on these a few months ago.
It’s up to your inner Sherlock to decide what tools an author used in writing her book. Which means you need to be paying close attention while you’re reading. Which means you can’t just flop onto a beach chair, plow through a Robert Patterson novel while mutating your melanin, and expect to come out a better writer once you reach the satisfying, bolded, 16 pt, “THE END.”
Therein lies the jerk chicken rub. A lot of us read to relax. It’s our escape from the hellish realities of our grey, damp, corporate dungeons. The last thing we want to do while we read is analyze. I get it, I really do. I’m right there wanting to read for leisure with you.
But I’ll play messenger and deliver the bad message even if it means the king will behead me: you need to turn yourself into an analyst. There’s nothing glamorous about it. If you want to write like the authors you’re reading, you have to study the writing.
Start recognizing when an author like Jennifer Egan uses structure and odd timelines to enhance her narrative. Make notes when you see someone like Erik Larson using dueling narratives and foreshadowing to build tension even when we know how the story ends. Start recognizing that these are deliberate choices made by the authors, not just magic leprechaun luck that innately comes from being born during a significant astrological event.
Good writing is the culmination of a ton of intentional choices that are transposed into words and onto the page. Start learning what those choices are, and why they were made. When you learn them, you can emulate them, and your writing will transcend.
Step 2: Recognize what’s missing in your own writing
Talent is weird. It’s like we’re forced through the water sprinkler of talent as kids. Where the spray of talent-juice hit our brains, we’re awesome. Where it missed, we’re clueless.
Some of us are great at playing with language, turning phrases, being grammatically devastating Others are amazing at building tension through dialogue and scenes. Others can use structure to arrange a story in such a way that it is fresh and unexpected to the point where the reader yells, “no effin’ way!” at the book in disbelief.
It’s good to know what you’re good at.
It’s even better to know what you suck at.
If your stories seem one-dimensional, notice how great authors use back story, probing dialogue, and action within scenes to enhance without being all up in your grill about it. Study the latent symbolism in a work and learn how that helps connect the reader to the story in a more universal, approachable way.
Read authors who are great where you are terrible (also admit that you are terrible at certain things). Learn how they do it. Eat it, process the calories, make that technique part of your physical being. The only way to learn what talent didn’t give you is through mindful application of a stubborn will.
Step 3: Take your time
Unless you’re involved in some sort of underground reading death challenge (and yes, I’m fully aware of what the first rule is), the stakes are pretty low. No one except maybe your book club peeps or that one annoying friend (who really only wants to talk about the book, so her intentions are good) really cares how quickly you read something.
It’s not the Daytona 500 with little paper cars with words on them. You can read at your own pace.
Actually, no. You should read at your own pace. Take as much time with the words as you need to understand them. Reread if you’re really trying to internalize a specific technique, or figure out why something was so effective.
The book or essay or whatever won’t self-destruct after five seconds. You’ve got plenty of time to read. Take it.
Step 4: Take Notes
If you can’t seem to dive deep into the creamy nutrient filled sub-layers of literature, force reading to be more active by gluing writing to it.
If you’re like me, writing in the margins of a book is painful (reading is the closest thing I have to religion, so marking up a book feels sort of like defiling a sacred relic). But sometimes, to remember certain spots, commit the best parts to memory, it is necessary. With the help of our new computer overlords, we can at least do this without taking ink to page.
Open a Word doc or keep a notepad nearby when you read. Write down the stuff you find interesting. Ask questions. Try a certain technique to see how it’s done.
By writing while you read, you’re engaging more than just your eyeballs. You’re introducing your fingers and possibly ears to the dance. The more senses you use, the harder your memory works and the more points of reference it has to build a permanent structure in your brain. It’s science, bitches.
Step 5: Read good shit
Sorry about the “bitches” thing. I got carried away.
None of this fancy advice matters if you’re not reading stuff that is well done. Not that everything you read has to be a timeless classic, but it should at least be worthy of your time.
The old saying is, “You are what you eat.”
In our world, “You write what you read.”
The books and essays and memoirs and news stories and shampoo bottles and billboards and waffle iron instruction manuals will seep into your unconscious. Each one makes up part of the synaptic web of what we understand to be “writing.” Each has it’s place and it’s purpose and teaches us something (even if that thing is what color dye is used in peach-scented Alberto V05).
If you’re going to read, read well. Read up. Spend your time with things that will make you smarter. Challenge yourself and strengthen your writing web.