There are three main steps in reading with purpose: selecting the books, reading like a revolutionary and responding to what you read. We’ve covered some of these topics at DIY MFA before, but today we tie it all together into a structure that functions just a literature course in a writing MFA program. It is the combination of all three steps that makes reading with purpose different from sitting on the beach with a good book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of lounging in the sun with a book and a Caipirinha. (A few vacations ago, I spent five days doing just that at Boipeba Island in Bahia, Brazil.) But when it comes to reading with purpose, you have to approach it with a bit more structure. This is where the three steps come in.
Step 1: Select the Books
In order to read with purpose, you have to choose your books with care. The best way to do it is to make yourself a reading list, just like you would have in a literature class. There are four categories of books that should go on your list and these are: Competitive Books, Informative Books, Contemporary Books and “The Classics.”
- Competitive Books are books similar to your work-in-progress (WIP).
- Informative Books are ones that inform your WIP.
- Contemporary Books are books in your genre that are new but don’t necessarily compete with your project.
- “The Classics” category is self-explanatory and you can decide what books you want to call “classic.” (I consider any book “classic” in my genre if it’s older than I am and people are still reading it. Depending on your genre and WIP, “classic” might mean last year’s bestsellers or a book that has lasted through centuries.)
Step 2: Read Like a Revolutionary
Reading for fun is great, but if your really want your reading to inform your writing, you have to master the art of reading like a revolutionary. This art comes from a technique I use with my students called Creative Practical Reading or CPR. You can read about it in detail by clicking the link, but in short, Creative Practical Reading is all about identifying the most basic elements of a piece first, then working your way up to higher-order analysis.
You start with C (as in Collector) where your main focus is to collect information from the text. Who are the important characters? What do they want? Where/when are we in terms of setting? These, and other basic questions, are your first priority.
Next, you move on to P (as in Philosopher) where the goal is to interpret or philosophize on the information you collected. Here is where you ask “Why?” Why are the characters doing what they’re doing? Why do they want what they want?
Finally, you get to the most important part of reading… the R (as in Revolutionary). Here is when you figure out not Who or What or Why, but How? How does the author do what he or she does in this piece? And how can you get the same effect in your work?
R stands for Revolutionary because it is in this level of reading that you realize the author has an agenda, and that you can stand up to that agenda. You see the strings of the puppet-master and that they author is directing you. The minute you realize that, it means you can choose whether or not you want to be directed. That’s when you become a reading revolutionary.
Ultimately, Creative Practical Reading means that Writers Must Be Readers First but in order to truly READ you have to think like a writer. Go to the link to find out more and learn why reading can change the world! And click this link for a guided exercise to help you Dive into Reading and practice the Creative Practical Reading method.
Step 3: Respond to What You Read
This is the one step we have not covered yet in detail at DIY MFA, but fear not! It is on the calendar and I’ll expand on it very soon. Suffice to say that just reading a book is not enough. If you want to absorb a book and really gain a deeper understanding of it, you need to respond to it in some way. Whether you keep a book journal, or you write reviews on GoodReads for every book you finish you should find some way to keep track of the books and record your thoughts about each one. Not only will it help you later on if you need to remind yourself of the books you’ve read, but it will help Feed Your Love of Literature.
Once you build these three steps into your reading practice, it will be pretty similar to reading for a literature course in an MFA program, with one important difference. In an MFA literature course, you have to read the books the professor chooses, but here YOU get to be the professor and choose what you read. At DIY MFA, you can put together the reading list so that it applies directly to what you want to write. This means your reading will be more focused and you’ll save valuable time, time that you can then use for that all-important part of being a writer: the writing.