Reading like a Writer

If you want to be a writer, they say, you first have to be a reader.

And it’s true.  We learn our craft by emulation, observing those who came before us and patterning our works on theirs, taking what they’ve left us for our foundations and building new structures out of our own material.  But before we start reading as writers, with one eye always turned toward observing how the thing is done, we read purely as an audience, as most people who are not themselves writers read — and we lose this, I think, once we learn to read as writers.

Mark Twain knew the phenomenon, though he first encountered it in his days as an apprentice riverboat pilot.  In Life on the Mississippi, he writes of observing a beautiful sunset on the river, and then of watching the same sunset as a pilot would see it:

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.

What he had gained in knowledge, he had lost in the ability to see the river as a naive observer.  Writers suffer a similar loss; it makes us tend to admire technical virtuosity, or the ability to carry off what we know is a difficult effect, or a piece of well-managed complexity, and keeps us from experiencing the text in the same way as a non-writing reader would experience it.

Which wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that those non-writing readers, in most cases, are the audience that we’re writing for.   So we need to keep firm control of the temptation to play complicated games with our text for the sake of amusing and impressing our fellow writers; or if we must play games, we should remember to give the rest of our audience value for money as well.

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