Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Reading Deeply and Roddy Doyle

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 15•19

Bleak November skies this morning and the impeachment inquiry is airing on television. These days I feel like I’m taking a law course by following the news and activities across our government. Make that several courses.

When I’m reading a new author or a beloved author with a new book out I often research the author, reading interviews, articles, reviews. Usually I wait until after I’ve read the book, but sometimes, especially if I’m disappointed in the book, I’ll read reviews wondering what others have thought of the story.

While a compelling novel or insightful nonfiction book stands alone, there’s so much to be learned by following an author’s career and knowing more about his or her background. It’s akin to listening to a performance of a Beethoven symphony and knowing that he was deaf or near-deaf when he composed it. Adding the context of his handicap and daily life deepens your appreciation.

All writers need to read deeply. After reading for enjoyment, we read to discern themes and techniques, structure, and language. Study how author’s create secondary characters in a few deft strokes. Or how the story moves in and out of time. Study techniques you’re trying to strengthen. I’m certain I learn something with every book or short story I read, not to mention a well-written opinion piece or investigative journalism. This means I underline, make margin notes, jot in my notebook (there is one in every room of my house), ponder reasons why the writer made certain choices. I’m always analyzing and it adds a lot to my enjoyment.

Now these points¬† probably aren’t news to you. But also consider my suggestion about researching authors. What risks did the writer take telling the story? Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge is a good example–a woman’s life told in 13 short stories. Olive is a singular character–waspish, difficult, enormously complicated, and a fascinating oddball. And Strout creates her with fascinated empathy and the more we read about Olive, the more compassion we feel toward a character suffering from unspoken grief.

What obstacles did the author overcome along the way? Stephen King has been open about his addictions and physical ailments and tedious recovery after being hit by a drunk driver. His omnivorous reading habit.  What habits sustain your favorite writers? Who has influenced them? What place has shaped them?

And while you’re at it, whenever you’re hanging out with a family member or friend, ask him or her what he or she is reading. Then ask why and what they think about the book, what they’re learning and taking away from it. Ask what single word defines the protagonist.

I’m currently reading, Smile by Roddy Doyle. And here’s an article about his career that was published in The Guardian in 2011. I was struck by his comments about how Dublin and Ireland were modernizing as he was growing up. It reminds me of his earlier book The Commitments.

Writers follow threads. Writers read for meaning.

PS The Guardian regularly publishes an excellent series featuring writers, called A Life in Writing.

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