Sometimes, when I am feeling high-strung or cross-eyed about something, I call Jess Walter. Forget, for a moment, that he drives a sports car and shops at the GAP: I like to think of him as a literary Gandalf, holed up in a cave in Spokane, wearing ragged gray robes and leaning on a warped staff. I trust him. Because he’s good-hearted. Because he works hard and writes enviously well. Because we grew up in similar circumstances. Because he has carved out a life for himself as a full-time writer. And because, over the past few years, he’s become a pal who knows how to share a whiskey and tell filthy stories and give good wizardly advice. On almost every occasion I have asked Jess what he thinks, his response has been, “Don’t be in such a rush.”
And he is always right. I have a high octane personality and I can’t help but try to wrestle too many projects to the mats. This profile, this essay, this book review, this comic book pitch, this screenplay idea, these five short stories, these two novels. And then I have to teach, to travel—and, most important of all, play with my kids, hang with my wife. I have trouble sleeping at night. Sometimes my heart feels caged inside my chest and my brain feels like it’s going to tear itself in half and the only antidote is a five-mile run and six sets of ten on the pull-up bar. Before I stroke out or lose my hair, I need to slow down, chill the fuck out. I need to follow Jess’s advice. I need to not be in such a rush.
This, after all, is the best thing I ever did for my reading, which might be the best thing I ever did for my writing.
When I first arrived at grad school, I received a list of 100 books. 100 books I ought to have read. I scanned it in a panic. Some of the titles I recognized. Many I didn’t. And I had read, maybe, five of them. So I got to work, driven by insecurity and hunger. I felt so far behind my classmates—and I felt such bloated pleasure in shoving all these stories into my eye. By the end of my first year, I had read every book on the list.
Maybe this was an accomplishment—I certainly felt good about it at the time—but really, I read with such speed and carelessness, nothing stuck. Ask me about The Magic Mountain today and I may puree some The End of the Affair into it. And didn’t Beckett write Time’s Arrow? Or maybe that was Calvino. I could not process and benefit from all those wondrous sentences and plots and characters, snarled together as they were in my mind.
I woke up at 4:30 to write and I fell asleep with a book across my chest. Fiction had become more than my life—it was my religion and I its faithful, misguided monk. I not only rushed through my reading, I rushed out my writing. I rushed out my submissions. I rushed through my note-taking.
I have always been one to take notes. Whether I’m driving in a car, sitting in a bar, watching a movie, reading a book, a pen is never far from the hand. In those days I wrote often in pocket-sized moleskin notebooks. I filled dozens and dozens of them with sentences I admired, research unearthed, conversations overhead, images observed, my handwriting like the cardiograph of a racing heart. But I scratched everything down with such impatience—and often tore notes to stack on my desk or tape to the walls around it—that I became lost in a storm of words. I would often attribute the wrong author to a text, telling people about this badass Lorrie Moore story only to see their eyebrows come together in confusion before they corrected me: “That was actually Mona Simpson.” I trashed and half-started so many stories that I would often write a stupid, lengthy description of a sunset and later realize I already used the same stupid, lengthy, self-indulgent description of a sunset. The Georgia Review blackballed me during this time because they accepted a story I forgot I submitted to them. I would see a quote smeared across a piece of paper and could not recall if it came from a novel or diner booth gossip. I remember feeling sick with embarrassment when I asked Brady Udall to read one of my stories outside of class and he handed it back with a half smile and said, “I liked it. But I told you that joke, the one you use in the party scene, and it wasn’t that funny.”
I remembered everything vividly but nothing particularly. I needed to stop rushing.
I didn’t stomp on the brakes, but pumped them, learning first to slow my reading. I realized—as do so many in their twenties—that no matter how swiftly I turned the pages, I wasn’t going to make my way through all the books I ought or wanted to read. And then I realized, after taking a forms class with Mike Magnuson, what it meant to read as a writer, to truly relish every word and study every sentence strenuously so that I might pirate tools to employ on the page.
For every class, we would read a different writer and then pound out a critical and creative response. How does Tim O’Brien use an em dash? How does Rick Bass use a semicolon? How does Dorothy Allison use parataxis? And then each of us, in turn, had to distribute and then explicate one of our own stories, standing at the head of the room as we explained every single line, every grammatical move and its intended rhetorical effect. It was an awakening.
This is why serious athlete studies footage. You raise your left elbow and kick out your left foot after analyzing the batting stance of Albert Pujols. You snap your wrist severely when you release the ball after watching Dwyane Wade at the free throw line.
This is why the painter goes to the museum and sets up an easel before Starry Night. Not because you want to be Van Gogh, but because you want to learn how he smeared light and roughened texture and made hard lines unsteady, artillery to add to your arsenal.
This is why the musician leans in to the stereo and plays the track from the Dylan album for the thousandth time. The guitar is your lap, and as you listen, you toy with the fretboard, come in off the backbeat, warble your voice.
These days, when I ask a student what they’re reading, nothing drives me mad more than the response, “Nothing. I don’t want to be influenced.” Which is kind of the point. Influence. A beginning writer, when reading Pam Houston, should sound like Pam Houston. When they read Hemingway, I want their sentences to grow clipped, and when they read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I would love to see them ramp up the lyricism of their sentences and maybe throw in a few fistfuls of yellow butterflies. You try out all of these different voices so that you might find your own.
Which can only happen if you slow down and take apart a story with surgical precision.
In my grad workshops, people beat me up about structure. My stories were erratically designed, confused by blundering, digressive scenes and choked with irrelevant descriptions that seemed to exist only to accommodate a bunch of pretty sentences. So I chose an author I thought managed structure well—Flannery O’Connor—and I read her with the deliberate slowness of someone spooning their way through a fine crème brulee that might hide a razor blade. I read a story once for pleasure. Then I read it again, and again, and again, four or five times, until I felt emotionally detached and aware of all the moving parts.
On the next read, I kept a yellow legal tablet beside me. On it I mapped out the story’s architecture. By that I mean I might have written, Paragraph 1, a) theme introduced through description of weather, b) main character introduced through dialogue as racist prick.
Or something like that. Page by page. As an exercise, I challenged myself to write a piece that pasted new flesh upon this skeleton. I did so three times, with three different Flannery O’Connor stories, and that was all it took. Something clicked. I understood how to construct a causal narrative.
In short stories anyway. I continued to flounder as a would-be novelist. I wrote four failed manuscripts, in and out of grad school. When I took my first tenure-track appointment, at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, my chair asked me to teach a novel writing class. I agreed, but felt like a fraud. I had never published anything longer than twenty pages. Where would I begin? I got online and ordered a half dozen craft books on the subject. I pulled my favorite novels off the shelves and scoured through them with sticky notes and highlighters. I filled so many yellow legal tablets with diagrams and blueprints and theories. It was only then, when I smacked my open palm to my forehead, that I realized I had not given the long form the same critical attention as the short. What I gained from that class, I channeled into my own work, and it is no coincidence that by the end of the semester I sold my first novel, The Wilding.
Sometimes, when I’m talking books, people will say, “You’re so well read.” I wish this were true. I was on my way to becoming well read, gobbling up books like Halloween candy, when I realized it was hurting me more than helping. I am now the slowest reader you will ever meet.
After taking in a paragraph, I might pause and stare off into the distance for fifteen minutes. I will then read it again, maybe twice more if it’s especially striking, and pick apart its construction. I almost always have my yellow legal tablet in my lap. If I’m reading a chase scene, I might try to understand the mechanics of it, how it uses run-on sentences to create a sense of breathlessness, how it opens up paragraphs with a long string of prepositions to orient us in a city, that kind of thing.
It might take me two weeks or it might take me a month or more to finish a novel, but by the time I close the cover, I know it completely and see it as Neo might the Matrix, as a sparkling string of code that comes together to create an alternate reality. My wife now refuses to crack a book once I’ve read it, because the pages are distractingly blackened with notes.
Sometimes, if a book has a particularly addictive plot, I will force myself to set down the pen. I will read once for the emotional spell the book casts and then I will read it again to study its technique. My wife says I’ve taken the fun out of reading. But really, it’s just a peculiar sort of fun. Maybe more than anything in the world, I delight in stories and language, the way they can be put together and taken apart, the infinite possibilities of these twenty-six letters at our disposal. My mind bristles with forests of sentences, but I no longer feel panicked and lost in the shade of them. I know the way now, slowly.