Reading as a Writer

Sarah DeBacher | September 22, 2015

Last week, I was one of three featured speakers in the University of New Orleans’ 3rd Wednesday Discussion Series. My assignment: to discuss a book that had “changed my life.ThirdWed

As you’ll hear if you click on the link and watch the discussion (shout-out to the excellent presentations from Farrar Hudkins and Elizabeth Lynch), I struggled to come up with books that changed me. Partly, I’ve always been an incremental-change kind of gal. Partly, I have a terrible memory. And partly, I had a surprisingly bad relationship with reading for much of my young adult life.

My household was one rich with reading–all of it from so-called Good Books. You know, the ones with the shiny Caldecott Medals on them. Because I was regularly read to as a baby, as a girl, I wound up on the honors track in my public school, where I was assigned more Good Books.

Only I didn’t want to read good books. I wanted to read bad ones: the Sweet Valley High series (TOTALLY off limits in my house), the Choose Your Own Adventure series (begrudgingly permitted), and the Babysitter’s Club series (thank goodness, allowed).

I never had a hard time with reading comprehension or analysis. I did well when asked the ever-present school-question, “What did X author mean when he wrote Y?” I could write the STUFF out of a book report.

But what really drew me into books was an assignment given to me by my eighth grade English teacher, Ms. Mecom. We were reading The Great Gatsby, which I liked well enough, I suppose. But it really came alive for me when Ms. Mecom asked me to identify a passage I loved, and to imitate it. I picked a party scene (natch!) and wrote in Fitzgerald’s style about a high school kegger.

What interests me now about this activity is the question at its heart, and how that question can bring readers of all ages closer to the book’s magic–to the craft of writing that authors use to draw readers in. Instead of “What did Fitzgerald mean when he wrote X?” the question becomes, “How did Fitzgerald DO that?” How did he dazzle you with that party scene/make you feel that way/draw you closer–yes–to what the book means?

I used this way of reading as a way of teaching writing during an activity with students last week. I passed out a piece by Ralph Fletcher, read it aloud, and then asked students to read it again, this time underlining lines they wish they had written. Once they had, we each read our favorite, in turn, aloud, twice. That’s it. I just wanted the writers in my class to hear those beautiful lines be uttered in their own voices. We didn’t interpret them or say why we liked them. We just read them in our own voice. And then, we wrote them down, longhand, in our journals. We felt the words come from our pens. How did Fletcher DO that? What might it feel like to write such a line?