Anne Lamott warned us this would happen. In Bird by Bird, her classic book about writing (and living), she says:
Becoming a writer can profoundly change your life as a reader. One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with writer’s eyes.
Carolyn and I have both remarked about this experience of reading differently now that we write as part of our day-to-day existence. I have been reading like mad lately, urgently trying to understand just exactly how it’s done. I want to expose the magic that writers conjure to make me care about their characters and to anticipate what will happen next. I read now as more of a scientist, a dissector of the parts and pieces that make up the writing. It’s thrilling to read this way, watching the whole thing happen as if I’m breathlessly observing the writer in the wild.
You notice how a writer paints in a mesmerizing character or era for you, without having the sense of being given a whole lot of information, and when you realize how artfully this has happened, you may actually put down the book for a moment and savor it, just taste it.
Exactly! Take the opening of A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel:
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.”
Let it roll around in there. Do you get the sense from these three sentences that you’re in for a rollicking good time? There are no big words, only small, familiar ones. Each word is perfect, though, and has textured meaning. The sharp images tell me this character is odd and endearing and condescending all at once. I want to read more about him. Immediately.
How did Toole do that?
The best I can decipher from my scientist-reader perspective is that it has to do with layers. There’s the point being made. Next there are the words you choose to make the point. Then there is the feel of the thing, the colors and sounds and smells that drift around and on top. And underneath all of it is a value or belief or greater truth that the writer is sharing through his or her voice.
Which is to say, it truly is magic. There is no formula, no code, no exact way to do this thing called writing so that it becomes great. It’s about a writer’s individual truth and being authentic to it.
Lamott explains why this matters as only she can:
Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths…our buoyancy is restored.
Read with awe and reverence the ones who blend the layers seamlessly. Write because it matters, to you.
Leah and Carolyn
Writing Exercise: Read Bird by Bird if you haven’t already, and read it again if you have. Nothing will cure writer’s block or restore one’s sense of self quite like this honest accounting of what it takes to live and write authentically.