When you take on any art form or craft for that matter the act requires a shift in awareness. In order to draw you must learn how to see with the eyes of an artist. You don’t simply see line and form but you see what isn’t there, negative space and the story intrinsic to the relationship between objects. To study film is to learn not only about visual narrative but the craft of editing, lighting and dozens of otherwise invisible elements. There is the surface image everyone sees and then a substrata beneath, the chemistry that causes a sheet of paper to hold a photograph.
Writers must read on two levels, on the story level and the craft level. Sometimes referred to as reading like a reader and reading like a writer, every writer has their own way of doing this. All creative people do this with their art, and while I am comfortable enough to slip back and forth between multiple layers in movies and fine arts I find I am still required to read everything twice in order to both see and know what is going on.
I could blame my being a slow reader, or that my study of writing came later than the other arts, but this weekend I sort of had a delayed epiphany about my “reading problem” as a writer.
I’ve been doing it wrong.
The oddest thing is that I’ve known, on some level, how to do it “right” for a long time, but I compartmentalized the process in a way that makes no sense. In fact, it’s almost amusing. It’s almost like a form of enlightenment, an answer that has always been there waiting for me to see it.
Marginalia. Notes, in the margins. Like I used to do in college.
The problem isn’t that I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I’ve grown beyond the college need to underline, highlight, and scribble notes in the margins. It’s that, for some reason, a switch in my brain was set to regard fiction as above defacing. The book, fiction, had become an ideal, a fetish object that existed like a work to be placed on a pedestal. It’s absurd to even write these words, because as a reviewer of books I have never balked at making notes or of seeing books for what they are and not elevate them unnecessarily based on content. But somewhere deep down, lurking at a level that probably goes all the way back to when I was first becoming a reader, there is a voice:
Never write in your books!
The realization wasn’t as sudden as it seems. For years I would prowl used book stores and reject books that had notes written into them. My reason was simple: I didn’t want someone else’s ideas preventing me from seeing the work myself. Ah, yes, but why had it never occurred to me to mark my own copies? And even recently I saw the marked up pages of books owned by David Foster Wallace, notes clearly of someone who was studying the text at multiple passes and gleaning multiple insights. (“Setting is slow — does not set the stage” he says on the inside cover of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree) It looked like nothing less than some of my own marked-up drafts of my own writing, which often were as informational for me as they were instructive for future revisions.
Also, there were the Post-It notes, those little sticky pages of ideas whose edges I would line up under specific words near the page edge of my thinking. Like some netherworld between highlighting and margin notes, the little multicolor slips (I always hated yellow) poking out in all directions made them impossible to shelve or would fall out and suddenly become impossible to repatriate to their original location. And it was one of the first flaws I noted in the design of the early e-readers, that you could not keep notes attached to the text. This has since been changed, especially as e-readers cast their eye toward the college textbook market, but I don’t have any direct experience with it. Yet.
Keeping notes isn’t the issue, it’s this idea of committing them to the page, and specifically to the page of someone else’s thinking. Yet even that isn’t really new when I think about the number of manuscripts I’ve annotated in workshops, the number of student papers I’ve marked. I have always participated in this form of communication between the word and my experience of it.
So here goes, one final wall to break between me and my dedication to the craft of writing. I will purchase a box of mechanical pencils and settle in to become a better reader. And if it slows me down even further, so be it. This might be the final arbiter of which books I keep in my library and which I don’t, something a little less arbitrary in the process than “I guess that was okay.”
At the crux of this bold new era of book marking I can’t help but wonder if books with marginalia will acquire a deeper significance to me as a result of taking full, complete ownership of them. The commitment is strangely daunting.
Now, who will be the first book?