On Selfish Reading

May 30, 2016 § 6 Comments

By Anna Leahy, adapted from the forthcoming anthology, What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing:

Anna Leahy

Anna Leahy

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose talks about reading as part of how writers learn, perhaps the most important way we learn such things as “the love of language” and “a gift of story-telling.” Of course, a writer must write, but Prose says, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential.” That ability is cultivated by reading.

“I read for pleasure, first,” Prose goes on to say, “but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. […] I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made.” The ways we learn to appreciate and understand texts sticks with us.

That attentiveness to craft in the process of reading, even when it’s done for pleasure, is what I’ve long called writerly reading. Students learn and practice it in my classes but also, I hope, carry it with them beyond the end of the semester. Writers need—many of us crave—this sort of reading.

As writers reading, we practice reverse engineering in our minds and explore how and why—not the writer’s intentions, but the writer’s decisions—even more so than we analyze the what or meaning of a text. I ask my students to read in this way, too, and it’s often new and fun for them, a relief from worrying over theme. In talking with students and literature colleagues, I’ve realized that many don’t embody this trust that craft—how it’s written—creates what it means. Richard Goodman, in his book The Soul of Creative Writing, puts it this way: “Reading, for a writer, is a practical matter. How do you know what can be done unless you’ve seen it done by others?” Writing is doing; we read for what has been done.

41OiiPqJZVL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_As we were constructing the conversation essay about writerly reading in What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing, Suzanne Greenberg challenged me—all of us—to think of reading as guiding our students to fall in love with writing. Never before had I thought of matchmaking between writer and book (or individual poem, story, essay) as a fruitful way to view teaching.

Do other writers care about writing, about language, and about certain texts (though not the same texts) as much as I do? Do I care enough myself? In the collection Creative Composition, I wrote about perseverance, about grit or the ability to stick with the poem through drafts or through the writing life over the long haul. I quoted Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson, and Angela Duckworth, who talk about cultivation of talent over time. Maybe I didn’t dig deeply enough, though, didn’t think beyond the intellectual to the emotional, as Greenberg asks. For underlying those arguments is the idea that, to pursue something over time, you must love what you do. A writer, then, must love something that has been written in order to love writing enough to stick with it. When I read a good essay, that’s proof that a good essay can be written, that it’s possible for me to write a good essay.

Writerly reading, then, is selfish: getting something out of a text, taking something into oneself as a writer. Fiction writer Richard Bausch suggests that writers should ingest others’ work so that it becomes part of us and should know great work by heart. He may mean that we should know work word for word from memory (as he knows many great works), but, as a writer, I like to think he means that we each love certain works.

When writers read the work of others, we are greedy, but selfish not merely out of self-interest (or at least not for very long, if we are to pursue writing on its own terms) so much as out of the need to immerse ourselves in written work. Reading greedily diminishes no one else’s experience. Books are not cake—you and I can devour the same book, and there it remains for us and others to devour all over again.


Anna Leahy‘s book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and her latest chapbook, Sharp Miracles, is out from Blue Lyra Press. She has two edited collections about pedagogy and the profession from Multilingual Matters; the most recent is What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing, due out in July. Her essays and poems appear in The Southern Review, The Rumpus, Crab Orchard Review, The Pinch, Gravel, and more. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, and co-writes the Lofty Ambitions blog.

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