Learning to Write by Reading

I’ve nearly forgotten how to do this. Days, months, year’s have gone by and I haven’t written. I’ve written a comment, or a post on facebook, a journal entry here or there, but no real writing. The last post I’d made on this blog was in 2016. It is now 2018. Two long years of not writing.

I can not say what brings on writer’s block. Apathy perhaps. Depression, mental fatigue, life fatigue there are so many reasons. At this moment the why doesn’t matter to me. Right now, what matters is the “How to get out of this rut”. Up! Up! and out. My writer’s mind has been too much like Sartre’s No Exit, and I’m ready to find a door. I need a door. We all need a door. Not for any particular reason other than to DO something.

I’ve had a student for nearly 3 years now. A poetry student. We meet via Skype once a week and discuss his poetry. My boyfriend has recently expressed an interest in writing, and I gave him the whole spiel on ways to improve the writing processes. I gave him all types of advice on building the craft of writing. I talk like I know what I’m talking about, but get me to the table, and there is nothing. Get me to the table? I’m not even getting to the table. I have always struggled with the things I want to do. If someone gives me a task to do for them, I’ll do it. If it’s something for me, I don’t do it. Maybe there is some deep psychological belief that say’s that I don’t deserve it.  Again, I don’t think it matters much; the source. I’ve written posts like this before, many, many posts, and the result is the same. I say some thing about how I’m going to change, and then I don’t. I’m an addict. Addicted to not fulfilling my own dreams. Some day I’ll get a head doctor, and we can explore. Maybe if you are stumbling across this post you too have had a similar pain of not being able to write. Today, I’ve decided to write down some tips I had offered my boyfriend and my poetry student. Maybe, one or two of these “tips” on improving your writing will trigger something in you and you’ll get up and go to the writing table. I hope you do. I hope it serves you. I want it to serve you as much as I want it to serve my boyfriend, and as much as I hope it will serve me. One day. Maybe. My last post from 2016 was about reading like a writer. This post continues where I had left off.

There is no order or rule to follow just think of it as learning from your teachers. We stand on the shoulders of greatness may they lift us to the stars.

1. Read books, but study them too.

I can’t remember the professor who taught me about private plagiarism. Stealing to learn. You may shudder at what I am about to tell you to try, but the key to this practice is not to publish what you write but to learn how other’s write. When you read a book you should read it for enjoyment, and if you really loved the writing, if you love the author then go back and study the writing. Go through your book like you are taking a lesson on the craft of writing by (author). First, find all of the words you don’t know and build your vocabulary. Sure as you read for enjoyment many of the unfamiliar vocabulary may be understandable in context, but don’t leave it at that go back, find that word, write it down and define it. Put the definition in your own words. Write it in a sentence. Use it. Put it in your vocabulary bank, and one day when you are writing that word that perfect word that you needed will rise up and be there for you.

  • I’m studying Tim O’ Brian’s The Things They Carried. I love the book. I think his writing is eloquent and moving. He carried me through the memory of his and the other soldiers’ experiences in The Viet Nam war. I’d like to learn his voice, and take what he has so graciously offered to me in his book.
  • I know a lot of the vocabulary in Tim O’Brian’s book, but it didn’t stop me from digging a little deeper into the meanings of things.

I wrote down the names of many weapons used in the war so I could see and know what these weapons could really do to a person and how much they weighed. Claymores, bouncing betties, toe poppers, bandoliers and more. I wrote down places in Viet Nam that O’Brian mentions in the book. I also looked up words that I knew, but at the same time felt unsure of because of it’s placement in the sentence, for example:

As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet.

  1. Hedge /hej/ noun: A fence or boundary formed by closely growing bushes or shrubs.

  verb:   A. Surround or bound with a hedge.

B. limit or qualify (something) by conditions or exceptions. (Ah ha, here, I think to myself, is the meaning he is using.  So I write some synonyms: confine, restrict, limit, hinder, obstruct, impede, constrain, and trap. I think that perhaps he is using the hedge as both the verb and the noun, as the verb to protect and as the noun in a metaphor to surround him self with boundary like a fence of protection.)

  • Your own words: A wall of bushes or a fence something to keep people out or from seeing into your space. To place a limit on something like a caveat.
  • Your own sentence As a hedge against further roommate arguments we put together a list of guidelines regarding the use of shared rooms.

2. Find a sentence you love.

Write it down. Then copy the sentence using your own words. *Remember to write a note that you copied the sentence from another source because if you don’t you may forget. The you’ll think you wrote this brilliant line and it turns out you stole it. On accident of course.

His eyes had the blueish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine, and as he peered up at me I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open. (p.46)

Tim O’Brian, The Things They carried

What an intense sentence. When I first read it I thought, “God, if only I could write like that; come up with a metaphor like that. So I might as well practice the craft.

Copy the sentence structure with some of your own words. Comma for comma: Pronoun, noun, verb, article, modifier, modifier, adjective preposition, article, modifying adjective, noun, and so on.

Her eyes had the greenish black of a bottomless forest lake, the same somber darkness, and as she looked down at me I felt a strange pulsing, almost painful, a drowning sensation, as if her stare was somehow pulling me down into the abysses of water. –Mine


This can be tedious. This can be joyous. If you are in a rush to write the novel, and to find your great voice maybe you don’t want to play around with other books. Perhaps for you it is merely a resistance to the actual act of writing, and you just want to get on with it. You should do what you need to do. I’ll do what I need to do.



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