How does learning to read like a writer shape and improve one’s craft?
To a reader, there’s often a sense of inevitability about a finished book, whereas writers understand that every finished piece of fiction has been made up of hundreds or thousands of choices by the author and that changing any one of them might have made for a different story entirely. Learning to read as a writer means questioning why the author made this particular set of choices. How would the book be different if the author killed off that character in chapter 3 or 9 instead of 5? What if the character was an accountant instead of a hairdresser? If it was in 1st person instead of 3rd? Present tense instead of past?
Learning to read and think about books in this way helps writers gain confidence in using different techniques in their own work. It also encourages a view of writing as experimentation and discovery. That there are as many ‘correct’ ways to write a book as there are books can be a truly liberating and generative realisation.
How do you balance reading for ‘homework’ and reading for pleasure? Are you able to switch off your writer brain when reading?
My primary purpose for reading is still, always pleasure, and paying attention to craft is part of the enjoyment for me. Absolute best case scenario, though, is that something is so brilliant that I read it in a kind of fog of delight and only when I’m finished do I realise I have no idea how the writer just did that to me. It’s the greatest thrill because it means I’ve had an incredible experience as a reader and that I have a brilliant new text from which to learn as a writer.
What books are currently on your bed side table?
I’m working my way through Olivia Laing’s Everybody and greatly admiring her smooth blending of the personal, social and political. I’m also reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant which was recommended to me as a study in slow-burn revelation and a masterclass in unreliable narration.
Emily Maguire is the author of six novels and three non-fiction books, and an experienced teacher and mentor to young and emerging writers. Her novels have been translated into 12 languages and her articles, essays and reviews have been published widely. She is a 2010 and 2013 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and was the 2018/2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. Her latest book is the novel Love Objects.
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