Reading Like a Writer


I spent a few short days in Boston last week as a guest to the Solstice MFA in Writing at Pine Manor College program. Although I’ve taught students with graduate degrees before, it was my first “official” invite to such a program and therefore my first time teaching an all-graduate level writing course. To my anticipation, the opportunity did not disappoint. During my “Flash Fiction in a Flash” craft class, I found immediately that the students were “reading like writers.” They could engage with the text on micro and macro levels that helped them go deep very quickly. This, in turn, fueled conversation about technique, impact, escalation, and effectiveness in writing.

I also teach an annual, residential memoir workshop for adults (coming up next month at ICCA!), during which we discuss what it means to read like a writer. This skill matters no matter what genre you write in, and is just as important as your skills on the page. Of course, there are some very fine texts out there on this subject already–most notably, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. For me, this concept can be expressed in its most basic terms by encouraging readers to pose questions to themselves: How did the writer achieve this impact? In what ways could I use those techniques to help readers make meaning of my own work? After all, we can’t “control” how a reader will respond to our work, but we can (and should) suggest or imply certain outcomes by our very careful use of exactly the right words at the right time. Focusing on the how and the impact helps many writers make decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out, and why their particular story or essay may or may not be working in terms of effective impact on readers.

Last week also reminded me just how precious, memorable, invigorating, and exhausting the residencies on low-res MFA programs can be. Each time I rounded a corner on campus and encountered another scene–students talking passionately about workshop, faculty debating “tell it slant”–I found myself reminiscing about my own experiences in 2006, when my studies at Pacific University began. How highly I regarded those faculty writers! How in love with my advisors I felt! How much I needed my fellow students, and still remain close with some of them. Community is essential, but at times overwhelming–especially for introverted writers. The low-res model gives the best of both worlds; an abundance of acceptance and challenge a few times a year, cushioned by months of quiet, slow and steady privacy to get the job done.

I’m wishing all those Solstice students the best of luck as they continue (and a few graduate, today) and looking forward to connecting with a new group of memoir writers in a few weeks when #1 and I travel to Michigan. He’s going to fish. I’m going to teach. Afterwards, we’re hiding out in a log cabin in Canada for 4 days. He’s going to fish. I’m going to read like a writer. And write like one, too.

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