Writers often report having begun a love affair with books even prior to entering first grade. I’ve struggled for years to squash my envy, and still, when a friend announces having consumed a book on their three-hour plane flight home (one I’ve been pining to read or listen to), my envy quotient rises well beyond my comfort zone.
When at last I learned to read, it remained a slow word-by-word moonwalk. This served me well in graduate school, reading Neuroscience of Text Comprehension, but made it impossible to pass a literature class without cheating (i.e., using Cliffs Notes).
In 2009, my literary life came alive upon discovering audio books. Audio books had been around some good many years prior to ’09, but I had no compelling reason to seek them out. I was satisfied with my slow nonfiction reading. That year marked my awakening to the importance of reading fiction as a writer of fiction. In fact, I bought one of my first books addressing the art of writing, Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. I loved the advice: read slowly, word by word; notice each word. That’s the way I’ve always read. This book gave my writerly self permission to view my reading as a strength. Unfortunately, it did nothing to promote my reading of actual novels.
Somewhere between seventh grade and adulthood, I had foreclosed on being a reader of fiction. I continued to hold dear books from childhood, such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, read by my sixth grade teacher, and Black Beauty. They and other favorite stories sat on an undusted fantasy bookshelf with a promise to someday read them myself. My teachers successfully instilled the love of fiction, yet failed to provide me a pathway to read these wonderful works with leisure. I have yet to experience a “beach read.”
Like Maddie in Once Upon a Time a Sparrow, I had been told if you can’t read you can’t write. I wrote anyway, in journals. Like Dr. Mary Meyers, I needed to reacquaint myself with a past I had rejected. I did not enter therapy with a goal to get in touch with my early experience of being a nonreader. I had firmly buried this aspect of my past; considered myself well beyond this. I recall wanting my therapist to know I was smart (because I had doubted this). All I needed was a little help in managing depression as the bouts of crying created misery in my life. I should have known, given my training as a psychologist, healing one’s dysphoria is not accomplished with surgical precision. Once the door is opened, the many unresolved injuries receive an invitation to join the examination table. Including my struggle with reading.
Had I not ripped loose the deep-seated scab protecting my wound of reading failure, my writing would have remained confined to journals. Seven succinct words continued to haunt me: “If you can’t read you can’t write.” I could read. Yet never did it feel like real reading. I read ploddingly. As a college freshman, I took a class on speed reading and failed. My sturdiest memory of reading is my pointer finger moving word to word.
When I finally began to view myself as a writer, I was terrified to read fiction. I knew reading fiction of any quality would cast serious doubt upon my own endeavors. Wisely I pushed on, writing my story without cracking open a single book. And I must say, I was ecstatic in the process. Loving it. I gave myself no critique. Later I more than made up for it. I believe there is wisdom in letting our beginner self be thrilled with taking simple, uncensored first steps. I wonder how many perfectionists lose their passion on the crucifix of comparison.
Like all beginnings, there comes a time when new sprouts benefit from being tossed into the wind—children who are overprotected fail to develop resiliency. Strengthening through exposure to the elements is a delicate balance. Once I knew what my story was about and had faith that it was a story worth telling, I tenderly started exploring how fiction is written. This is when audio books opened a new vista for me.
Listening to instead of reading a story granted me additional cognitive resources. I could both “read” the story and simultaneously consider the author’s choices in the telling. While listening, I took note of the writer’s selection of words, phrases, pauses, and breaks and the impact of these choices on tension and tone of the piece. In addition, I noticed whether I was drawn in or not. Furthermore, I could analyze why I was or wasn’t. Listening made possible “the flow”: phrases perfectly articulated, emphasis as author intended, with single words no longer presenting barriers to a fluent sentence. I “read” without fatigue, achieving what I couldn’t do when physically reading—devoting hours to a book.
At times, listening to audio books feels like cheating—getting the goods without doing the work. I have chosen to reframe this. Removing the “work of reading” has allowed me the gift of paying close attention and noticing the many choices made by the author and my response to these choices. This is invaluable information for anyone desiring to learn the craft of writing fiction: a peek at a finished product while catching sight of the details that make a scene come alive or fall flat.
I find this metacognitive process similar to the practice of meditation. A pulling back from and observation of the incessant chatter without being captured. To see the craft at work, I need to detach from getting lost in the magic of the story and simply notice what I am feeling in response to the made-up characters. I seek to catch the details contributing to the craftsmanship. Admittedly, with certain compelling stories, I simply can’t resist doing what any good reader does—allow myself to be carried away. To cast a hypnotic trance upon one’s readers is, after all, the goal of fiction writers.
Often, I listen while jogging or walking in neighborhoods. Interestingly, a certain emotionally laden part will come back to me when I physically return to the spot where I heard it. Frustratingly, I will hear a beautiful string of words and want nothing more than to read them over and over. This drives me to check the book version out from the library or buy the book, allowing me the best of two worlds. This past year, I’ve been awed by the writing and storytelling in Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Without audio books, these stories would have joined my undusted someday-I’ll-read bookshelf.
I suspect I’m on the extreme end of calling myself a writer without being schooled in writing/literature. I recall in one of my graduate classes in cognitive psychology the phrase “story grammar” and not getting it—and knowing that to inquire would be to reveal an embarrassing lack of knowledge. Thankfully, I am now more than catching up.
The more would not have happened had I not been granted the experiences that drove me to seek therapy, thus reacquainting myself with a wound pleading for healing. I wonder how many others are sitting on a potential life, stifled by a scab that has worked its way into the realm of the undetected. A scab that conceals a wound with the potential for delivering transformation upon healing.
What are the consequences when we fail to uncover the wound beneath the scab?