Writing Reflection #3: Reading Like A Writer

I started teaching in the heyday of the Writing Process.  It was all about having Post It notes accessible when you came across a great word.  I was teaching Grade 2 with many students learning English as a second or third language.  It was mostly about words and vocabulary development when they marked their books with post its.  However, I designed lessons around predictable pattern books.  The standard 5 frame evoking the five senses and sometimes feelings:

I see…

I hear …

I smell…

I feel …

I taste …

It went with us while I read inside, outside, and on fieldtrips.  Paying attention to the language and paying attention to your sensory experience was taught. Closing your eyes and imagining went hand in hand with this.  We would cut off the stems and be left with some impressive poetry.  Even my youngest kindergarten students were reading like writers in the very beginning stages of learning to read.  

When my daughter was learning to read, she was masterful at memorizing text and using her imagination to go where the author was taking her.  I brought up with her teacher that she wasn’t actually decoding text.  She was completing the pattern the author had established.  Her writing was fraught with spelling errors, but the ideas and length of the stories was far beyond what was expected.  I got the big eye roll and the sigh.  I was lumped into the category of another parent with too much background knowledge and unable to celebrate her child’s success.  The MA in Reading was helpful in giving me the knowledge to ensure that she got the testing required to pinpoint the remediation that was required for her to develop into a voracious reader and continue to develop her writing skills.  I did sigh with relief that we exist within the age of spell checker.

My daughter had learned along the way to read like a writer.  She dismisses that a well-developed vocabulary and a facility with language are indicators of intelligence.  She strongly asserts, it is a product of the environment that they grew up in.  However, stepping aside from that ongoing debate, she is a voracious reader with well developed writing skills.  That process started long before she was able to read or write independently.

In her book, Bird by Bird, the author discusses how the great power of writing is that it changes the way you read.  It got me to thinking.  The other day I was lending out books to a friend.  He laughed when he commented on the number of posts it notes in the books.  The books by Ibram X Kendi, all have been instrumental in my thinking and writing about race, antiracism, belonging, otherness, inclusion, and how we create welcoming and racially diverse places of learning, worship, and work.  

Back in secondary school, I remember learning the art of highlighting.  As with many of my peers, whole articles would be highlighted.  It didn’t indicate that we knew how to pick out the main ideas, only what colour highlighter was our favourite.  This carried on until I took history and political science courses at the University of British Columbia and York University.  I found that highlighting was limiting because the key ideas would change according for the point you were trying to make.  Anyone who has read the bible can attest to the fact that text can be used to prove any number of points and perspectives.

What I realize now is that my lessons about reading like a writer have been mostly focused on the reading of non-fiction text.  I suppose this is because most of my writing has been for professional purposes.  Reading fiction like a writer, is a different beast.  My tendency with fiction has been to sit down and read without attention to the writer’s craft.

I recently finished reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman.  I found it a tough slog, but I am a believer in finishing the book.  Greatness could be just around the corner.  When I deliberately started to read like a writer, I discovered that my disdain was not for the writing.  The author had been able to create a character that I truly disliked.  Vacuous and self-absorbed.  At that point I was able to consider how it was done.  She revealed Nate through his own thoughts and choices rationalizing his actions.  I finished the book with a far greater appreciation of Adelle Waldman.  She had portrayed many of the “boys”, I had encountered at university frat parties.  

I want to write fiction.   In the review of Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel, The Plain Dealer comments “Martel has once again demonstrated that nothing tells the truth like fiction.”  I completely agree,

Now when I read, it isn’t just about getting immersed in a good story, identifying with a great character, or thinking about something from another perspective.  It’s about thinking about how the author brought me into that story, or created the character, or made me stop and reconsider.  I wonder if I’ll start using post it notes when I read fiction?