Tuesday, November 15, 2016


During your reading of a particular novel or short story, why do you:

laugh at some scenes and not others,

cry at some scenes and not others,

feel your anger rise during some scenes, but not others,

consider skipping some segments to get at the "good stuff" rather than others,

copy entire sentences and paragraphs (and not others) into a notebook or commonplace book


The answer is: Because you bring a honed set of responses, needs, and expectations to the table, aware how any other reader may well bring greater sensitivities yet to bear, or in some significant way, make no connection whatsoever with the text.

When you approach a new reading experience these days, which is to say this century, this year, even this month, you do so with expectations formulated when you first began a serious campaign of reading in the late 1930s to transport yourself from the life of being the youngest in a four-person family, living in midtown Los Angeles during the waning years of an ordeal which saw your parents' sizable resources diminished by sixty or seventy percent thanks to a phenomenon known as the Great Depression, set against a background of a pernicious virus that would soon be recognized as World War II.

There was much to retreat from, but the single most significant thing was the boredom of restraint experienced by any young person with limitations on his or her freedom. Your real antagonist was boredom; how3 much adventure can a young person experience without an imagination or some rabbit hole of a Purpose (in contrast to mere purpose) to fall into. 

You read to advance rather than retreat, to progress rather than remain in that inertial state of rest. You read for the same purpose today that you read those long years ago, for the movement side of inertia.

In consequence your reading tastes take you beyond the simple solving of a problem or, for that matter, the hour or two you spend on Sunday with the crossword puzzle from The New York Times, into places where your imagination has to find a conversation with writers who have moved beyond the simple art of description and into the worlds of detail and evocation.

How do you evoke without showing a character responding to a set of details that have been braided with circumstance? How do you provide a range of emotions and impressions beyond your own?  How do you get beyond having each character with the same goals, vocabulary, and sense of right or wrong?

Step one:  Stop describing.
Step two: Allow each character to experience as he or she experiences, not how you think they would experience.
Step three: How do you see the difference between characters you like and dislike, between characters who resemble you and those who are your polar opposite?  Why, you hear them out, just as you've come to rely on hearing out aspects of yourself with whom you are not always on the best of terms.

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