I have always had an incredibly difficult time trying to slow myself down when I read (or even re-read), to try to understand how a writer composes a work. I’m swept up in the magic of narrative, tumbling through the telling with joyful abandon and left feathering metaphors and symbols — those precious darts of meaning making — like I’m playing pin the tail on the donkey instead of aiming for a bull’s eye. I had sort of given up on trying to teach myself to read as a writer. I figured I just couldn’t do it…I couldn’t slow myself down enough. And I told myself if I understood the magic, I wouldn’t be able to create any of my own.
Over the holiday, I stumbled across Douglas Glover’s (DG) essays and lectures about reading at Numéro Cinq, a discontinued but still available online literary magazine. He applies a systematic approach to reading [to understand writing composition], whereby one suspends meaning making (just parking interpretation for a wee while) and analyzes the text as static data…and only using the text on the page…no lifting off into wonderment (bewilderment?) as to what the author might have thought or meant. Instead, stick to the words (and most importantly, the order with which they are placed) on the page.
For example, in his reading rubric, the first step is to “start by simply looking at the physical story, see how long it is” and he means, count the words, the pages and the paragraphs and the line breaks. “see if it is divided into sections and how that division is accomplished technically (simple line breaks, numbers, chapter heads, etc.)”. In fact, there is a lot of counting in his approach to reading. There is also a lot of bird’s eye view assessment of a story, whereby one zooms out from the work and tries to understand how much text might be devoted to back story, where aspects of a story command a greater amount of text, at what point—half-way through? A paragraph at the very end?—the climax of the story is revealed. Do lines of dialogue permeate the piece or are they confined to one section? How much dialogue in relation to other aspects? Using different coloured pens and highlighters helps me to see how chunks of different parts of text are placed on the page. I started to be able to tease the technical aspects of a story apart. By analysing them I started to “see” the writer’s choices; the gossamer of the magical whole is pulled away and slowly revealed.
DG also uses diagrams and graphs…something I do in my day job all the time but had never thought to apply to analyzing stories. George Saunders also does this for story analysis. I love drawing diagrams and suddenly I’m able to understand composition from a different perspective. Here’s a few of my recent messy assessment diagrams:
I have used DG’s reading rubric to work through three short stories. I have chosen stories just by picking ones I love and by picking ones I think might be very different:
- Just Lather, That’s All by Hernando Téllez (translated by Donald A. Yates)
- The Wind by Lauren Groff
- As Birds Bring Forth the Sun by Alistair MacLeod
I have started to record examples of things in a technical notebook. I have learned more working through these analyses than through any other craft exercise. It’s fun! I plan to allow myself the joy of working through a few more story analyses and then (gulp) I’m going to try applying different forms in my own writing. Scary, but these learnings have provided new writing confidence…at least, a method I might use to attack my shitty drafts and revise them to be better. For those of you working with creative nonfiction/essay, there’s a reading rubric for this too.
Because I am a researcher in my day job, this method…this systematic approach… specifically suspending meaning making to analyze text the same way one approaches research data (quantitative and qualitative), brought the whole thing home for me.