I do my best writing reading. Yes, you read that right. I write best when I read what I want: spicy romance, psychedelic fiction, heart-expanding poems. I finish one book; I pick up another. Along my meanderings, I discover good writing across authors, genres, and forms.
How does all of this indiscriminate reading help my writing? I make notes, squirreling away anything capturing my attention. Juicy description or turn of phrase. Unusual scene pacing.
I scribble in notebooks and on my phone. I take snapshots of pages, uploading all to Google Drive as soon as possible. Then I turn it all back into my own writing, experimenting with forms, rhythm, and atmosphere.
But what is good writing? How do you spot it?
Train Your [Good Writing] Palate
You can’t collect good writing if you don’t know what it is and what makes it good. I’ll point out contemporary examples of good writing and show how to mine them for literary gold nuggets. They’ll serve as good writing pathfinders and palate trainers. Let’s begin with a lyrical short novel.
That Night by Alice McDermot has long but detail-packed sentences that catapult you squarely into the action. Excerpt. McDermot’s first paragraph is only two sentences but they’re pure poetry. Look how she begins:
“That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands.”
This first sentence is a telescope, making everything immediate and visceral. She evokes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Laurents’ West Side Story in her 1960s Long Island setting. McDermot’s That Night more than earns its own place among them.
Chris Drangle’s Optimistic People, a short story published in One Story magazine (Issue #224), is a perfect jewel. Drangle sets up a predictable scenario of a teen first date only to turn the story on its ear. Excerpt.
“[Soleil] was alone on the road, save for one pair of headlights drawing closer in the rearview. She put her hazards on, hoping to coast as long as possible, but the vehicle behind her, a black SUV, raced up to her bumper and stayed there. High beams filled her mirrors. She braked and pulled halfway onto the shoulder, and still it loomed close. Teenage girl, no gas, highway at night—she felt her vulnerability like a chill in the air. ”
Drangle introduces metafiction into the narrative here; his Soleil is self-aware, attentive to her surroundings. She (and Drangle) highlight her precarious and cliched situation: Teenage girl, no gas, highway at night. We so know where the story is going, right?
Wrong. As the story progresses, Drangle pulls off literary sleight-of-hand. By the end, we find ourselves in a much different place than expected.
Text and Intertextuality
I often talk about the physical effect good writing has on me. It’s as if my body is a ringing bell. Emily Dickinson wrote about poetry taking the top of her head off; poetry reducing her body temperature so much so “no fire ever can warm” her.
While you’re reading, pay attention to what writing makes you ring like a bell. When you find it, write it down. Later, practice seeding small bits of those words and fragments into your poems and fiction to help your creativity flower. (The aim is to spark our imagination and practice adding depth to our writing, not pass another’s work off as our own.) Try to replicate its feeling or rhythm in different subjects or forms.
But take care not to innocently wander into the land of plagiarism. Writing guru Jane Friedman covers how and when you can safely use others’ work in publishable pieces.
Still, mining literature isn’t just about publication; it’s about learning the craft of writing. I mined Gwendolyn Brooks’ work to write my poem, Variations on Gwendolyn Brooks (excerpt):
and oh there shall be such islanding from grief
so many things descending without warning
come and see we are things of dry hours and not
we are small communions with the master shore
she and we in our little jars and cabinets of will
You can easily follow my poem’s genesis in this list of Brooks’ phrases (and their respective poem homes):
- “We are things of dry hours”, kitchenette building.
- “Come: there shall be such islanding from grief”, A Sunset of the City.
- “And small communion with the master shore”, A Sunset of the City.
- “In little jars and cabinets of my will”, my dreams. my works, must wait till after hell.
Probably unpublishable. The poem runs, I think, too close to the line between fair use and plagiarism. However, I learned much about word use and pacing from delving into Brooks’ work.
Does even a slight chance of plagiarism scare you? It should…but you can avoid it. I patterned my poem, This is [Not] for You, after Nikki Giovanni’s book, Those Who Ride the Night Winds. The volume’s This Is Not for John Lennon (and this is not a poem) roused me to write:
Poste Restante…is the secret code…
The P.O….the conduit…
and change…the key…Change…
of direction…change…In life…
There are close calls…and close cuts
…in body…in mind…In spirit…
This is for me…who has traveled
…journeyed far from home…who
carries home…my home…within
In Those Who Ride the Night Winds, Nikki Giovanni uses unusual rhythm, structure, and form for the poems. Their immediacy forges intimacy between the poet and us. Giovanni’s John Lennon poem conjures a late-night DJ’s crooning patter. Listen to the poem’s confessional and intimately frank tone in this fragment:
“The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts . . . we’ll never know now . . . one part is missing. No this is not about John Lennon . . . It’s about us . . . And the night winds . . . Anybody want a ticket to ride?”
Writing can be hard, and yes, I read to escape hard stuff. You should, too. The good part is that writing well and reading well are inseparable.
Bottom line: read what you want but read widely. Pay attention and make sure you have a notebook handy.
Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.