I’m reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem right now. By reading, I mean I’m devouring every sentence and every word. I love her style.
On a similar note, I’ve been thinking a lot about reading for language and style vs. reading for story and character. I think there’s value to both. My mind defaults to reading for story and character more so than language and, unless the writing really catches my attention (as Didion’s does), I usually have to remind myself to look closer at the language in the prose I read.
One of the teachers in grad school suggested that we hand write passages or entire stories that we liked to get a sense for the style of the piece. It was not enough to simply read it, he said. He encouraged us to get a feel for the cadence of writing the story. In a notebook somewhere I have entire handwritten copies of “How to Talk To a Hunter,” “Lust,” and “Sonny’s Blues.” It may sound like busy work. I recall one of my classmates rolling his eyes and arguing that he barely had enough time to write his own stories, let alone someone else’s. But I had enough time. And I’d argue that I became a better writer for it because it made me pay very close attention to language in a way that I didn’t when I was reading.
I came across a great quote by Julie Kramer that may speak to this: “If authors have to write half a million words before they get published, I’d venture that they have to read ten million.” The next time you read something really outstanding, try pulling out your notebook and copying a paragraph or two. If you’re really ambitious spend some time re-writing your favorite story. See if it doesn’t draw your attention to the finer details of the prose.