Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gathering Magic: How to Read Like a Writer

A few days ago, I was frantically looking for this little post so that I could pass it along to a student after we had a very involved conversation about what it means to read like a writer. I also suggested that she read Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer.

 I wrote this post back in the old MYSPACE days and I posted it rather hurriedly when I cam back from teaching a "How to Read Like a Writer" workshop at the Indiana University Writers' Conference.

The conference will be held June 5-10 (in case you are interested) and this year you can study with Patrick Rosal, Dan Choan, Lynda Barry, Tony Ardizzone and others. The (still unedited) post appears below:

Lynda Barry self portrait
 Gathering Magic: How to Read Like a Writer
by Crystal Wilkinson

If you are a would-be writer and are looking for the magic, something to propel you forward like nothing else, the answer is simple. Pssst--come closer. Here it goes: “Write and read. Then read and write.”

I make my living as a professor and creative writing workshops and creative writing courses produce great embryonic writers but I content that those writers who develop their own sense of the worlds they invent and pull the reader so deftly in are able to do so because they have spent time studying writing. Not in a classroom but in the comfort of their own spaces—carrying copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God (or whatever the source of their muse is) around like the bible; cuddling and coveting words and the worlds they admire in every way possible.

I must admit that my lust lies in the world of books. I return to the books that I love the most time and time again—sometimes searching for a passage for hours and hours.

Every time I teach, I learn.

Every time I read, I become a better writer.

I have just returned from teaching a class entitled “How to Read Like a Writer” at Indiana University’s Writers Conference. During these four days, I walked the participants through some of my favorite stories which included:

Snow Angel by Stephanie Vaughn

Bones of the Inner Ear by Kiana Davenport

Big Me by Dan Choan

Kudzu by William Henry Lewis

Pet Fly by Walter Mosley

Between the Pool and the Gardenias by Edwidge Danticat

The 5:22 by George Harrar

Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason

Weight by John Edgar Wideman

Live Life King-Sized by Hester Kaplan

The pulse for the class, a heart for the love and power of words, began each afternoon with the question “How did reading this story make me a better writer?” While, I told the participants what I most admired regarding craft, scaffolding (structure), and or language, diction/syntax and why I thought these decisions made by the writer made the story not only just good but left a haunting in your soul—they responded equally about what they most revered (most often honing in on the element that they had the most problems with as writers—too much description/dialogue that doesn’t move/scenes where nothing happens, etc.).

Each story we read was a banquet to be devoured and once the participants looked for the “lesson” in each story, they found a myriad of them. Each writer, honing in on their own strengths, weaknesses, shortcomings or haunts and through the eyes of these published writers becoming better writers. A.J. Verdelle (author of The Good Negress) describes learning to write as an autodidactic process and she’s right. You may be nurtured along by a good workshop or a good creative writing class but when it boils down to it. Learning to write well is as insular a process as writing itself. And speaking of A.J. Verdelle, not only is she a genius when it comes to being a writer but she’s also a hellified teacher of writing. When a craft book written by her pops up or if you have a chance to work with her in a workshop DO IT, don’t walk run

For our class, I compiled a list of 10 ways to Read Like a Writer. But the ways to read a book and learn from it are many. So think about it and come up with your own.

10 Ways to Read Like a Writer

1. Ask yourself “How did reading this novel/story/chapter contribute to my education as a writer”?

2. Look for the construction of tension (Where’s the rub?)

3. Identify the MAP of the story/novel.

4. Type up passages or entire stories of those you admire.

5. Examine the seams—read a writer’s first works. Or read them in the order in which they were written.

6. Circle the verbs. (follow the movement of the story).

7. Dissect the writer’s attention to SCENE.

8. Does the ending loft the READER up to the next level of understanding? How does the beginning get at the pulsing heart of the work?

9. Don’t just enjoy the ride! Climb into the head of the writer.

10. What do you see if you actually copy the passage and dissect it with scissors? (We did this paying attention to how scene and transitions work in George Harrar’s The 5:22. but you can do it with anything that you wish.

And below are writers that I’ve learned a lot from. Who would you put on your list?

Toni Morrison

Gayl Jones

James Baldwin

Michael Ondaatje

Ha Jin

John Edgar Wideman

Of course my list is much longer but these are the writers I return to again and again.

Happy reading!

Happy writing.

Write me and let me know what your 10 ways to read like a writer are.


  1. What a wonderful way to start my morning. I'm going to get started on my lists right now!

  2. Crystal, I will certainly take note of this.