Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Slow Reading

"I am the slowest reader you will ever meet," writes novelist Benjamin Percy in a recent issue of The Rumpus.

"After taking in a paragraph, I might pause and stare into space for fifteen minutes." He goes on to say that he will read it again, maybe two or three times, if it's good, examining its construction with his legal pad handy. It might take Percy two to four weeks to complete a novel, but the time is well used. He knows it completely, the way readers in earlier times, having few books to choose from, read and re-read and re-read the classics again, making these texts part of themselves.

Percy is not only a writer but a teacher of writing who believes, as I do, that good writing begins with reading. He has no patience with aspiring writers who say they have no time for reading or don't want to be influenced by another's style because they want to find their own voice.

You find your voice, first, by immersing yourself in Flannery O'Connor, as Percy did, or Hemingway, then writing a short story imitating the pattern and style of the original. You are trying out various voices, Percy says, until you find your own.

You will never find it in isolation.

This is refeshing for me to hear. In my own workshops, students, overly anxious to become published before they know their craft, look puzzled when I emphasize reading and paying careful attention to other stylists. They are unaware that all of us write in the company of other writers, past and present, whose web of influence is essential if you are to develop an ear for what works in dialogue or description or structure.

Do they think you can make a film without having seen and studied thousands of classic movies?

Underlying this advice is the more general need to slow down and remind ourselves to be patient, both with ourselves and with our craft. I have written about the slow movement in food and other areas before, along with the problems that come with the face pace of everyday life in which reflection becomes impossible. Reading, I have said, is a spiritual act, type of prayer; and writing, too, can be contemplative.

I am always learning more about slowing down--and more about writing, having been at it for more than 50 years; I am always finding stylists that entertain, impress or delight me, whose work becomes part of the well I dip into. I am grateful to Mr. Percy for coming my way and sharing his experience of slow reading.

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