Reading as a Writer

New York City.

We were watching a movie last night, (Man on a Ledge, not that it matters for the purposes of this blog) and it occurred to me that other than a few places I’ve lived, I’ve probably seen more of New York City than I have of any other place on the earth. Movies and TV shows and documentaries and books and books of photos. Boxes of comics books. Maps and satellite images in the time after 9/11 when I was attempting to understand a bit more of the geography. All told, I’ve seen hundreds of hours of exposure to NYC.

Reading as a writer is like learning the ins and outs of an unfamiliar city: it takes a focused, systematic effort to first deconstruct, then apply the knowledge gained.

And I have no real idea how New York works.

I know there are boroughs, but I don’t have a clue how they relate to each other. I don’t know where any of the main streets are compared to other main streets. I can’t comprehend (without calling on my Google Lifeline) where the Met is in relation to Yankee Stadium compared to the location of the Empire State Building. I know there is a complicated transit system, and it might as well be the arterial system of the fetal pig we dissected in High School. Can someone walk from Times Square to Central Park?

All of the exposure I’ve had to New York, and I really know very, very little. I have the big picture: The city that never sleeps, the crowds, the attitudes, postage-stamp-sized apartments, traffic, noise, excitement, and the gritty reality of most residents contrasted with the decadence and opulence of the privileged elite.

But plop me down anywhere in the city, and I’ll quickly be relying on the good graces of some native (or, at least, resident) to find my way around.

What occurred to me, as I considered my relationship with a place I’ve never visited, was this is an analogy for the difference between reading for pleasure and reading as a writer.

I’ve been a casual observer of New York. It has served my purposes to just know the basic details of the city. I’ve never had to really study a map or consult the chart of transit line spaghetti to figure out how to get where I need to be by the time I need to be there.

And that is how we often read books. We get the big picture. We enjoy it, or not. We don’t lay the story in front of us like a map and try to understand how we could, if necessary, get from that opening scene with the house on fire to that final scene where the arsonist is frozen to death.

But, when we read as a writer, we dig in deeper. We try to figure out how the dialogue helps not only flesh out the characters, but builds tension. We attempt to figure out all the places where the author gave us hints about the protagonist’s spouse’s true nature, we pick apart images and scenes looking for foreshadowing and theme. We deconstruct the book so that we can better understand how this successful author accomplished her work, and hopefully find ways to improve our own writing.

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2 thoughts on “Reading as a Writer

  1. I can relate to this because I watch films as a filmmaker, with an eye toward technique in terms of camera, editing, etc. One thing I often wonder is whether this approach enriches the experience or ruins it. Or both? Sometimes it’s a relief to turn off the critical mind and just enjoy the movie.

    • Exactly. It’s a mixed blessing, I think. I can still read for pleasure, most of the time, but even then, little things can really throw me out of the flow of the story. It’s probably easier when it isn’t a story in my genre/area of interest. But not always.

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