Monday, June 14, 2010

Confessions of a Reformed Mindless Reader

   If you have been following this blog, you know that I am compulsive reader. As a kid I read everything...cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, a newspaper scrap on the floor of a taxi...everything. Restricted to a two-books-at-a-time limit on library books (bad library, bad!), I usually had read one of them by the time I got home.  The happiest day of my life was when the librarian at the Jackson (Mississippi) Public Library said, "Honey, you can take home as many books as you can carry." This became great training for my future career...librarian!
    To say that I was an uncritical reader would be a vast understatement. If I found an author I liked, I would every single thing the library had. To me, Authors (I always thought of them in capital letters) were Deities.  They thought up stories, wrote them without making spelling mistakes, and then zillions of kids all over the world would read their books. Authors were perfect.
    Towards the end of elementary school, I started to notice something; I never read a book with a character who was even remotely like me. (This was pre-Judy Blume). None of them had braces, or glasses, or had to take allergy shots every week. My fictional soul mate was Harriet the Spy, right down to (lensless) glasses, hightop sneakers and notebook. But even Harriet lived in NYC, where cool things happened.  I realized that Authors were really authors, who sometimes wrote books that I really hated (me hating a book?!)  but I didn't know why. Literary criticism was not encouraged in my school. Book reports were for re-hashing the plot in 350 words. My opinion of the book was unimportant.
     I learned to "read like writer" in my MFA program.  My usual approach to reading was to dive in, and if the first page didn't grab me, it was on to another book. But I had a reading list of books that I had
to read. And analyze.  Even if I hated the first page. After finishing, I re-read it, line by line and to figure out what worked and what didn't.
   Next I would take a highlighter to the book (yes, I cringed!)  Using different colors, I  underscored action, dialog and description. Then I would go back and re-highlight the individual characters, and sensory details  Was it all visual, or did the author engage all five senses? Now, my book was a quick visual chart, the colors showing the balance and flow of dialog, action and description.
    I learned that every character, action and detail should "move the story along." Every scene should build on the previous scenes. I outlined action. I made web-like drawings connecting the interactions of the characters.
    By the time I had gone through that process with two books, On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer,
and Becoming Abigail by Rachel Vail, I had absorbed the process into my subconscious.  I could be reading along, really enjoying a story and a little voice in my head would say "That dialog doesn't doesn't sound like two ten-year-olds talking; they sound like adults."
    Even though it has been years since I highlighted those books in oblivion, the lessons I learned stayed with me. True, I can no longer dive head first into a book and let it wash over me in pure pleasure. But there are no perfect authors, there are no perfect books. In the end, I decide whether the flaws are outweighed by the strength of other components. (Sometimes I ask "Did this book
even have an editor?") Do I read on, or not?
      Wait.  I was wrong.  There are two perfect books...Charlotte's Web and Harriet the Spy.
       All literary opinions are purely those of Mary Ann Rodman and do not represent those of any other
Teaching Author!

Summer Reading

What I've read so far (school has been out for three weeks here Atlanta):

Countdown by Deb Wiles
Take Me with You by Carolyn Marsden
Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards
The Best and Hardest Thing by Pat Brisson
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (I think I am the last person in the world to read it)
Tell Us We're Home by Marina Budhos
The Girl in the Green Sweater by Krystyna Chiger
Party by Tom Leveen
Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman
The Year of Goodbyes by Debby Levy
Borderline by Allen Stratton

Reading right now:

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (late again!)
Sprout by Dale Peck
Under a Red Sky: Memoir of  a Childhood in Communist Romnia by Haya Leah Molnar
Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine
Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson

In my beach bag for July (some of these are late June releases)

Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill
Glimpse by Carol Lynn Williams
Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan
The London Eye Mystery by Siobahn Dowd

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

Even though I've used the highlighting technique, too, I've never done it to examine the balance between dialogue, action, and description. What a great idea!

Catherine Stine said...

I've done that highlighting technique and it is a fabulous way to learn, in very concrete terms, the balance of character, theme, action, plot, setting--all of it. I have used that method with my students as well, to good results.

mary ann rodman said...

Catherine and Marti, thanks for your comments, and an affirmation that highlighting works. I forgot to say that I now use this with everything I write (if I can keep my kid from swiping the highlighters), and that none of this originated with me. After so many workshops, conferences and mentors in an MFA program (plus generous sharing writer friends), I've forgotten who contributed what bit of technique, or how I tweaked something to better suit my needs.

Jen Vincent said...

Wow, I am new to the highlighting/analysis technique! I've never ever heard of that. I'm actually knew to analyzing and looking for writing techniques and patterns in writing. It's become my focus since I have started my new blog though...and I think it would be cool to try this highlighting technique just to see how it all works. Lately, I've started to think more like a writer when I read and I've been paying attention to what the writer is is a completely different way to read!