reading like a writer–part 1

Here’s another one of those odd coincidences: It was January of last year that I did a post on James Salter who wrote one of my favorite novels, Light Years, and who in July of 2004 at the Tin House Writers Workshop told the audience: “I don’t read for pleasure anymore. I read because I want to see how they did it.”

When I heard him say that and again when I wrote the post, I thought how sad.

Although I still think the idea of not reading for pleasure is sad, now I understand.

What they are doing and how they are doing it are two questions at the heart of how to read like a writer.

Writing this blog has made me a better writer because I have learned that just writing, “I like this sentence,” doesn’t tell my reader very much. What is it about the sentence that I like–its use of detail, its word choices, its rhythm? Still, my starting point is generally a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph that I underlined while I was reading.

I knew I was supposed to look at the books I liked to see how those writers were doing what they were doing so I could learn to do it too. I even developed a collection of books–fiction, not craft–that I refer to when I’m writing. I thought I was reading like a writer.

And I was, but I was just beginning to overturn the stones…

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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light years


Life is weather.
Life is meals.
Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled.
The smell of tobacco.
Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.

James Salter, in one of my all-time favorite books, Light Years.

I met James Salter in Portland in July of 2004, and I asked him why he didn’t write another book on marriage.  Referring to Light Years, he said, “Doesn’t this say it all?”

It is one of my favorite books.  I’ve read it three times.  What he says he says brilliantly and poetically.  But I believe there’s more to say.

first day of fall

September 22, 2008–the autumnal equinox–fall at last.  My favorite season. 

And it felt like fall this morning.  Canada geese flying over.  The first leaves changing color.

It’s no surprise that in two of my all-time favorite books, the authors write of fall.

In Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton wrote of a September day, “The sun is out.  I woke to lovely mists, dew on spider webs everywhere, although the asters look beaten down after the rain and the cosmos pretty well battered.  But these days one begins to look up at the flowering of color in the leaves, so it is easier to bear that the garden flowers are going one by one.”

In Light Years, James Salter wrote, “In the morning the light came in silence.  The house slept.  The air overhead, glittering, infinite, the moist earth beneath–one could taste this earth, its richness, its density, bathe in the air like a stream.  Not a sound….Autumn morning.  The horses in nearby fields are standing motionless.  The pony already has a heavier coat; it seems too soon.”

And then there’s Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth:  “The afternoon was perfect.  A deeper stillness possessed the air, and the glitter of the American autumn was tempered by a haze which diffused the brightness without dulling it.  In the woody hollows of the park there was already a faint chill…” 

That’s what we had in Columbus this morning, a faint chill, presaging the lovely fall days ahead.  Only one hundred days left in the year.  Here they come and there they go.  Catch as many as you can.