A delicate balance

I have always been a big reader. Most of us who become writers are, I think. But the way I started reading changed when I started writing - as I became more interested in the wizardry that went on behind the curtain, I lost my ability to read from the front of the stage. I started reading like a writer, instead of like a reader.

It's hard to explain exactly how this works. When we're taught to read in school, once we get to the point of actually being able to perform the alchemy that turns the marks on the page into comprehensible words, we're taught to read for plot - what happens in the story. Then, we read for character - who were the people in the story, and what kind of people were they. Later, we learn words like alliteration and onomatopoeia, and we read for those things as well. We learn about simile and metaphor, theme and archetype. We learn those things well enough to answer questions about them on our Lit 101 finals, but usually, it stops there. And for most of us - and I include myself in this "most of us" - when we read for fun, we didn't do so with the same analytical rigor as we read when we were reading for class.

When I started writing, I started wanting to know how things worked. Not just the alchemy of turning marks on the page into comprehensible words, but how to turn words into a comprehensible story. And once I became competent at telling a story that looked like a story, I wanted to learn how to use metaphor and simile, and character and dialogue, and language and even plot. The best way I found to do this was to pay attention in a different way as I read - to ask myself why I liked the dialogue or the character, or if I hated the ending, whether it was because I didn't get what I wanted, or because the ending hadn't been true to the story.

Becoming a writer has made me a lot less forgiving of a reader, and some days that makes me sad. I remember distinctly one day, reading a book by an author that I had read regularly, someone who wasn't a favorite, but who had always been a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and noticing three uses of the same adverb within one paragraph. Reader, I broke up with her. But beyond that, there are very few times any more where I can turn off the gears in my head, and just lose myself in a book. Comprehension matters, of course, it does, and so does the need to see how the clever trick worked.

But so, I think, does that moment of delight when story is just story, when it is wonder on the page, and we can allow ourselves to be caught up in it.