My first creative writing professor, René Saldaña, Jr, constantly told us – his wonderful students – to read like writers. What this meant, at the time, I didn’t know know. I suppose in many ways I’m still attempting to read a book, short story, poem, essays and blogs like a writer and I still rarely succeed. The fault was not of his own because he explained it greatly and constantly told us to read the stories assigned to us not like readers, but like writers.
I’ve had many chats with Dr. Saldaña after class and took a creative writing workshop with him the summer that followed. That is where I met Richard Yañez, a writer from El Paso. Anyway, back to my subject – I’ve had many chats Dr. Saldaña about the writing. While he did have his say about my work, his style never seeped into it. I suppose in most cases, every creative writing professor, lecturer, teacher, instructor and student tends to enforce their writing style into the works of their students and peers:
I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.
You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. (from The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo)
And while I learned all that I could from Saldaña during spring semester and early summer – the writing institute/workshop is only five days long and embodies three daily meetings that run about three hours each – I still didn’t grasp his reading like a writer concept. Two years before I even had a seat in Saldaña’s classroom, however, a nifty little book came out that I would later acquire for free in a box left out by professors cleaning their shelves in order to make room for a new shipment of books (yes, college professors, I know you’re dirty little secret – we all do!). The book discusses a wide range of metaphors, similies, allusions, etc. in literature that only college professors only seem to grasp – you know, because they’re well read and all. However, reading like a professor was far from reading like a writer, wasn’t it?
A literature professor is mapping out a pathway of what the writer of a text has read, what he was trying to say, what he wanted the reader to take from it, what he wanted a reader to recognize and all that jazz. I started to piece together the concept of reading like a writer – something that I started to do back at that fateful spring of 2005 which mapped out the path that would eventually lead me to this keyboard, typing out this concept (or at least, what I believe the concept is) in first draft, which goes against everything Saldaña, Jose Skinner, Richard Yañez and Emmy Perez have taught me (let’s face it, however, this blog is about thoughts and my thoughts cannot be revised unless I plan to sell them, but my thoughts, as of now, are free).
What I figured out as a writer – I’ll use this term quite loosely because a lot of people tend to use it without merit and I don’t want to be one of them – is that reading like one is fucking horrible. Not that it’s not a good idea to read it like a writer, because if you are one, then you have to do it, but to really enjoy a book, I have to shut off everything Perez, Yañez, Skinner and Saldaña, as well as, the countless literature professors have taught me. It just ruins the book. And maybe I’m a maverick in the English department when I say this, but whatever, I graduated and that’s all right with me. I just want to make clear, that I don’t disagree.
When I find myself reading like a writer, I have to really just sit there, reading the same sentence, phrase, paragraph, page, chapter more than once until I truly see what the writer was thinking and why he decided to use such and such in his work. There was this one short story that I read in that creative writing in spring of 2005 entitled “Do Not Disturb,” written by A.M. Homes – which, if memory serves me right, turned out to be a female writer rather than the assumed male writer a certain college professor thought she was.
It’s never been on strong point to describe people, which, I suppose, makes me a bad writer, which is okay because I never said I was any good – those who like my writing said that. In her story, A.M. Homes wrote:
The nurse comes to take blood. “They called Barry Manilow—he’s a very good surgeon.” She ties off my wife’s arm. “We call him Barry Manilow becuase he looks like Barry Manilow.”
When Saldaña asked the class what they thought as writers about the story, a lot of people started listing things off their fingers. While I read the story, I didn’t read it like I should’ve, I suppose because when he asked me, I simply said, “I don’t like Barry Manilow.”
This, by the way, left people in shock and I believe one woman asked, “What do you have against Barry Manilow?” which was probably followed by my answer, “Because he sucks.” But there. As a writer I would never ever compare any my characters to any real life celebrity. I don’t know why. I just won’t.