Reading Like a Writer

In October, I discussed the benefits of using imitation to learn and inspire new material
for our own writing projects. While I’m not following Hegi’s form as
strictly as when I first began drafting the novel, I’m still referring
to it for every chapter and weighing the strength of her creative
decisions against their impact in the novel overall. It boils down to
“reading like a writer,” a phrase I use when I teach and, also, a phrase
my grad school buddies and I tossed around for years.
you read like a writer, you’re reading for intent and impact more than
literal content. This post includes some long excerpts, but if you can
bear with me, I hope you’ll see just what I mean by this…and maybe
even feel inspired to read like a writer from your own favorite works,
using imitation as a starting point in something you’d like to write
about as well.
This excerpt is from Chapter 8 of Ursula Hegi’s fabulous novel, Children & Fire. The children are talking to their teacher, Thekla Jansen, in the classroom:
“We plant stiefmutterchen–pansies on my Oma‘s grave every anniversary of her death,” says Walter. Crooked teeth but the part in his hair always straight.
“The anniversary of when my cat died,” says Wolfgang.
“Please, Fraulein Jansen raises both hands. “Can we please talk about anniversaries of celebrations?”
sister’s wedding,” Andrea Beil offers and flattens the cowlick that
juts out above his left ear. Like a tusk, his sister teases him, calls
him Rhinozeros.
“The anniversary of when my aunt became a nun,” says Franz.
“My aunt is a nun, too,” says Walter, who likes to draw pictures of Jesus.
“My aunt eats lunch with us every Sunday,” says Franz.
“But my aunt stayed with us when my Oma was sick” says Walter.
“My uncle is a priest in Oberkassel,” Jochen says.
Thekla steps toward the boys, away from the chill of the window, she
can see how exhilarated they are to pull her closer with their words,
with the proof of their devotion. All boys are men. And all men are
boys. If you treat them all like ten-year-olds, you’ll get their
adoration, but you don’t have to acknowledge their power. Because for
that power to display itself, it needs your acknowledgement of it, too.
Bruno looks away from her, the skin below his eyes smudged from lack of
sleep. She must speak to his parents tonight, make them understand how
the uniform would help him to be accepted by his classmates. It does,
whenever he smuggles it to school and wears it in the classroom. But
that has become complicated now that his mother picks him up for lunch
and walks him back to school…
I read this scene like a writer, I see how Hegi is using the classroom
conversation to convey how much the boys adore their teacher, how
frequently they interrupt each other, how innocent and unique each boy
is, and how memory works for children. By including positive and
negative memories of anniversaries, the content is
interesting–yes–but, more importantly, the reader is jostled back and
forth just like Thekla Jansen is by the emotion of each anniversary the
boys mention. We are meant to feel a little forlorn hearing about the
anniversary of Oma’s death and also a little tickled hearing about the
boys whose aunts are nuns. This is to help us, the reader, understand
why the teacher Thekla goes into her head the next moment and thinks,
All boys are men…etc. Additionally, the teacher has an unresolved
romance and so her interior monologue addresses that, adding a layer to
the scene that the boys are unaware of but that readers can readily
experience. The final strength of this excerpt is the turn Hegi makes
when she writes, “But Bruno looks away from her…” and we are given a
picture of a slightly disturbed boy, a boy in need of help, a boy who
Thekla should probably do more for but can’t. Not right now. This is a
profoundly important seed that Hegi plants in this moment, and it will
sneak up and bite readers on the head at the end of the novel when sweet
Bruno commits suicide before Thekla can have the conversation she had
hoped to have with his parents.
I study a passage like this for use in my own work, I ask myself
questions such as: What kind of banter might occur between soldiers?
Mine are riding in a convoy on their last mission at the end of a
9-month tour. Also, what concerns would their leader, my protagonist
Sergeant Nathan Morris, have for his soldiers? And finally, who among
them is the most in need of help right now, the most volatile? Once I
consider these questions for a while (this is most often when the
unnecessary consumption of excess chocolate occurs), I find that I can
imagine my own content laid over the top of a similar structure.
Structures are invented and shared and reinvented for all of time. They
can’t be copyrighted and, actually, they are viewed differently
depending on how a particular reader reads like a particular writer on
any given day. So here’s my take after studying Hegi’s efforts and then
modifying my own.

Maybe my guys look a little like this…

[Head’s up: this happens to be a rather intense moment in my novel, so
don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all macho swearing, but also please
stop reading if bro-bra gives you great offense. This is first draft

klicks to Imar,” Reynolds announces from behind the wheel. He wears
silver Oakley sunglasses with mirrored lenses that reflect the desert,
making it double back on itself.

reaches for an MRE stashed between the seat and the door. Outside, the
brown world rushes past. The sun sits straight overhead now, pouring
relentless yellow heat like syrup over a stack of pancakes.
“Dude, if you get the jalepeño cheddar sauce, I’ll trade you for half a pack of Camels,” says Folson.
“I don’t smoke.”
“That’s all I’ve got left. Half a pack.”
tears into the package and finds the fixings for a high calorie meal.
Lemon pepper tuna and a few fixings. He reaches further into the bag and
pulls out the dessert. “Oh shit.”
“What?” Nathan asks.
shit shit shit shit.” Huang drops his chin to his chest and bites his
lower lip. In his fist, he holds a package of Charms hard candy.
down, you pussy,” Folson says. He grabs the Charms and tosses them onto
the front dash. Reynolds and the sergeant glance at each other. “There.
Outta sight. Now, eat your breakfast, champion.”
loosens and tightens his grip on the wheel a few times. “It’s the
Marines who think Charms bring bad luck, Huang. Not the Army. You don’t
have to sweat it.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Huang says and shakes his head. “It freaks me out. Big time.”
lights a cigarette and takes the first drag. He points the filter at
Huang, gesturing like a bully. “Here. Take this. You need it. Your
superstitions are a fucking liability. They’re wearing me out, man, do
you hear me?”
“I don’t smoke.”
hell you don’t,” and that fast, Folson locks Huang into a sidearm
headlock, the kid’s scrunched-up, brown face an inch from Folson’s
crotch. He moves the cigarette to Huang’s lips, forcing the filter into
his mouth. “It’s easy, Cheech. You just suck. Don’t you know how to
sergeant turns around and faces his men. “Gentlemen—if I can still call
you that—I need you both to sit up straight and shut the fuck up.” They
look at him, Huang with a sideways grimace that, as the tail of smoke
rises from the cigarette in his mouth, makes him look like a gangster.
“And Folson, put that goddamn cigarette out before you kill us all.”
turns around and settles back into the passenger seat. He looks out at
the desert, its length exaggerated in the bleached light of high noon.
When the light gets like this, it’s as if the desert stretches out like a
gigantic palm, offering Spartan Platoon up to the gods. Nathan can feel
how even this small scolding has startled the Humvee into silence. All
men are the same. If you keep their respect, they will do anything to
avoid letting you down. But you have to allow for their individuality.
Because if you let them figure out they have something to give, they’ll
constantly work to give that thing again and again.

But Folson
sighs loudly, like a moody adolescent. His shoulders crammed stiffly
into the backseat, his jaw jutting his face into a frown. Such an
oversized soldier compared to Huang, but still, so frequently
child-like. The sergeant must pull him aside after processing, before
they all fly back to their separate lives. Folson’s got to learn to
relate with less aggression. A little roughing up might work here, with
men who have bigger bones to pick in the middle of a war zone, but too
much of that back home and people start to talk. Family gets scared off.
And Folson’s daughters—what would they think of their

What readers don’t know yet is
that Folson will later die, just at the moment he moves to make a
tender connection and change his ways. Likewise, Huang is gay and
silenced by the military’s (then) Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy. The over
sexual nature of Folson’s taunting is terrifying to Huang for these
reasons. And finally, Sergeant Nathan Morris thinks to himself that he
needs to make sure he allows for his men’s individuality so that they
know they have something to give, but little does he realize when he
returns home after his tour he’s going to be the most in need of hearing
his own advice…and whether or not he is capable of doing so will
remain to be seen.

It’s a lot of intent packed into a little
scene, but that’s what imitating Hegi has taught me. By writing flash
fiction for so many years, I taught myself compression and precise word
choice and the power of leaving things unsaid. But I didn’t know about
how to pace myself for the long haul of the novel and still gain the
level of urgency any plot requires…and by urgency I don’t mean high
drama, I mean the tiny needles of story that accumulate into a rich,
long, full ride into meaning. Here’s hoping I’m on the right track…

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