Ten Essentials of Reading for Writers
a talk with Myfanwy Collins
by Randall Brown
“Would you mind taking a look at this?” I freakin’ dread these words. Writers in search of readers. What the hell do they want from me? I never get it right, never give writers what they want.
At Zoetrope’s Virtual Studio’s flash fiction workshop, writers post, review, and discuss their work—getting rated not only as a writer (1-10) but also as a reader/reviewer (1-5). What a perfect place to find someone who knows—and you know what, I did just that.
Myfanwy Collins— the top-rated reviewer—earned an amazing 4.952 rating with 137 reviews. My mathematic skills almost always fail me, but here goes—that means she received, at the very least, one-hundred thirty-one top scores. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it? She’s also really nice, divulging her secrets with just a few taps from the Tazer gun. So here they are, ten essentials to reading for writers.
Reread. Okay, Myf admits, “The process is really sort of boring to explain, I suppose.” But, to reach an understanding of the piece, you’re going to find yourself rereading an entire piece or selective sections. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Give any uncertain sections another go. The extra time and attention won’t go unnoticed. You might even get a dedication in the writer’s next tome.
Love reading. Yes, it helps to love reading as much as writing. ”I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to read,” Myf says. “Before I knew how to read, I would pretend to read. A love of reading feeds into one’s ability to dissect or deconstruct what one reads.” So you don’t love to read? Will yourself to love it. I did—and that alone improved my close reading and reviewing skills. I also willed myself to love Alan Alda. That didn’t do much.
Develop a third ear or eye. No, I don’t think Myf is suggesting extreme makeovers. It was in her “English literature and writing as an undergrad and English literature in grad school” that she “learned to listen with a third ear— or read with a third eye.” Get yourself some impossible to understand texts and give it a go. As Myf discovered, “Reading and attempting to come to some understanding about Shakespeare and Milton and Chaucer and Joyce and Lawrence and the like, helped me in my training, worked my muscles.” I’m sure Faulkner would work nicely, too.
Don’t push yourself on the writer. Working with a mentor on a novel taught Myf the collaborative nature of writing. Rather than be the sage on the stage you need to be the guide on the side. Okay, Myf didn’t say that, but I’m sure she meant it. Well, maybe not. Sure, if you were king or queen of all writing for a day, you might be able to turn any writer’s work into a masterpiece, but you aren’t. You’re being asked to consult—not commit a hostile takeover.
Be specific. “Pull out the threads you want to say more about,” Myf says. It’s that simple. Saying the pronouns were confusing isn’t nearly as helpful as pulling out the particular examples; telling a writer you are the freakin’ greatest, well, go ahead.
Offer the advice as suggestions and resist the urge to be overly negative or unkind. “This lesson has not only helped me in my writing life, but in all aspects of my life because it all boils down to communication—the give and the take.” Listen to Myf. She knows stuff.
Practice with poetry. You want to get really good, really really good, Myfanwy Collins good. Well here’s your training regiment: “I read poetry every day, not only because I love it but also because it stretches the brain muscle. The works are so often obscure and personal, that it takes a while for the reader to tease out what the poet is saying. It’s excellent practice for improving the critical mind.”
Go beyond the literal. Think of your reading mission as understanding the piece, of “knowing on a visceral level what the piece is ABOUT, feeling what the author intended deep within and not just seeing what he wrote on the surface. It is about trying to put the puzzle pieces together—the metaphor, the symbol—and grasping the deeper meaning. And, I believe, even if that deeper meaning was never intended by the author as he wrote, it still does exist because the reader sees it that way—and when that happens, it is amazing.” You go, Myf.
Don’t sacrifice feeling for critical thinking. Don’t forget to feel the piece. “You read someone like Joseph Campbell whose mind just instantaneously makes all of these connections between myth, history, religion, spirituality, language and you realize that perhaps we have become a culture who relies too heavily on the superficial and who neglects that inner glow, that collective unconscious. That neglects the things that exist which cannot be explained.” Word.
Learn to take feedback. How? “Accept it graciously, take it or leave it because ultimately it’s your story.” That advice alone is worth the price of admission.
Myfanwy Collins is a freelance writer, editor and Pushcart Prize nominee. Her writing credits include Smokelong Quarterly, FRiGG, Lilies and Cannonballs Review, In Posse Review, Snow Monkey, Exquisite Corpse, Pindeldyboz, The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix and others. She is working on a novel and short story collection. Visit her at: http://www.myfanwycollins.com.