“Have you read that book I lent you last month?”
“Yes, I enjoyed it, but I’ve…”
“Would you bring it to our meeting next week? My neighbor wants to read it.” (A tactful way of saying, “I want my book back before you begin to think it belongs to you.” A thoroughly justified concern, as I become quite possessive of a book after I’ve read it– especially if I enjoyed it a great deal.)
Reluctantly, I agree to return the book five days hence. I hurry home to read it – one more time – before I part with it. It’s a very good book as testified to by the fact that I want to read it for the third time, although I’d rather have put that third reading off for another week or so.
At first, a person might think that I’m a slow reader – or that I’m one of those people who dawdle over a book, savoring every page and rereading the more significant and interesting passages. Not so. Actually, I’m a very fast reader and knowing that I have a one-track mind, you might surmise that I open a book and seldom put it down until I’ve seen the inside of the back cover. You would be right as far as that goes. If I start a book in the afternoon, it’s very likely that I’ll be finishing it sometime around 3:30 the next morning. That, of course, depends on the length of the book.
I seem to remember starting to read \The Grapes of Wrath\ one evening after my children were tucked into bed and finishing it around dawn two days later. What else happened in the interval must have involved fixing meals and tending to my family’s needs, but the plight of those desperate people trying to maintain life and dignity in the face of hopeless and cruel circumstances was my main focus at the time. And then, I did something I’d never done before. I started reading the book all over again. I knew that in my eagerness to find out what happened to those people, I had missed a lot of significant things. Things such as the descriptions of the various settings, the individual attitudes of the various characters, their motivations, dreams and fears. And then there was the utter grace and clarity of the writing itself. The stuff that puts this book above so many others – the genius that earned a Pulitzer.
I find that I do this now with nearly every book I get hold of. The first time through, you might say that I inhale it. I want to know what it is. I’m after the story, the plot. Once I’m satisfied as to what sort of creature this is, then I read it again to find out about the characters, the setting, the time and the circumstances. I want to know these people. If I find them to be inconsistent, unbelievable, or unpredictable, I lose faith in the writer and won’t read further. In fact, I have abandoned more than one book part-way into the second reading simply because the writer proved to be untrustworthy. I am well aware that fiction is not real. But it’s the job of the writer to make me think it is.
The third time through a book is the one I enjoy the most. Knowing that I am dealing with a sound story and a competent writer, I can settle in and enjoy discovering how he does it. Every book I’ve ever read has taught me something about writing. Yes, even the bad ones teach me what to avoid! The only way to learn how to write well is to learn what it is that makes good writing. There’s no rule book, no perfect examples, no magic formula. It’s more a matter of recognizing quality when one sees it – the way art experts recognize the work of a great artist without seeing the signature. Once we learn to recognize the good stuff when it comes our way, then are we able to judge our own writing.
Judging one's own writing requires a certain amount of honesty, courage and ruthlessness. It is painful, sometimes, to cut out a pet passage or original turn of phrase when we’ve worked so hard to perfect it. Sometimes, it just isn’t quite what we wanted it to be. Sometimes, it just seems to have been put in the wrong place – maybe we can use it in another story at a different time where it will belong. If we fall in love with every word we write and resist making changes or deleting those clever but superfluous parts, we are not being honest about wanting to be a good writer. This is one reason I belong to a writing group, which helps me avoid falling flat on my face. At least, most of the time.