Richard Hugo, Anne Lamott, and me: You're never the same reader twice

I have developed a habit over the years of dog-earring pages in the books I read as a way to remind myself of passages that resonated with me as I read. I don’t otherwise mark the pages because it encourages me to reread each one to find whatever passage it was that resonated with me in the first place. If nothing jumps out, I unfold the page corner. It doesn’t happen often, but that it does at all serves as a reminder that I’m a different reader than I was when I first folded that corner.

Folding page corners took some getting used to. I used to hate the idea of desecrating a book by intentionally marring it like that. I’m one of those nutjobs who, like Erasmus, buys books whenever I get a little money, and with whatever’s left over I buy food and clothes. “Because for some of us,” explains Anne Lamott, “books are as important as almost anything else on earth.” I know she said that because I folded down the corner of page 15 in Bird by Bird, where she wrote it.

Before I took up dog-earring, I used to underline passages in pencil, and I’d put a star in the margin so the passages would stand out as I flipped through a book. This somehow seemed like less of a disfigurement, perhaps because there’s a long literary tradition of writers who left marginalia in their books. Marking my books seemed okay because it was “writerly.”

Marginalia, too, is a way to have a conversation with a book, and it’s a way for subsequent readers to eavesdrop on that conversation. A simple underline and a star in the margin is hardly a conversation, of course, although it at least identifies the idea that caught my interest better than a vague page-fold.

But the dog-ears, I’ve found, helped me find interesting passages more easily—and the lack of underlining helped me rediscover them all over again.

What I find most interesting, though, are the things that jump out at me now that didn’t jump out at me then.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I revisited Richard Hugo’s writing classic The Triggering Town. I first read Hugo’s book twelve years ago as an assignment. The book’s subtitle, “Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing,” nominally gear it toward poets, and I’m no poet, but it has proved over time to be a book I come back to over and over. It has profoundly influenced my craft, although I’m not even sure I could articulate how.

On this latest go-through, I came across the following passage on the very first page of the introduction:

Many writers and writing teachers believe reading and writing have a close and important relationship. Over the years I have come to doubt this. Like many others, I once believed that by study one could discover and ingest some secret ingredient of literature that later would find its way into one’s own work. I’ve come to believe that one learns to write only by writing.

That is an amazingly provocative statement for someone in the literary field to make considering the fact that nearly all undergraduate writing programs and many, if not most, graduate writing programs are housed in or related to literature departments. Such was the case for me when I did my bachelor’s degree, when I did my master’s degree, and now as I do my doctorate. Even my M.F.A. included a heavy reading component. To suggest that reading and writing do not have a close and important relationship could be tantamount to heresy.

When I first read The Triggering Town, though, I must’ve breezed right by that statement with nary a second glance. At the time, I was underlining passages, and that one remained un-underlined. The page has remained un-dog-eared from subsequent readings. The first passage I marked comes later down the page: “literature should be studied for the most serious of all reasons: it is fun.”

But as I hit Hugo’s assertion that reading and writing don’t necessarily have a connection, it stopped me dead cold this time. I not only underlined it and dog-eared the page, I sat and stared at the passage for a good long while. I was sitting in a McDonald’s, eating a southwest salad with grilled chicken. The chicken lost its out-of-the-nuke’em heat before I started reading again.

When I got home, I fished out Lamott’s book, which I’d also just recently reread. She’d made a comment about the relationship between reading and writing that I’d dog-eared, and I quickly flipped to the page (page 10):

we are going to concentrate on writing itself, on how to become a better writer, because, for one thing, becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is real payoff.

Here, Lamott spins conventional wisdom on its ear. She admits to a close and important relationship between reading and writing, but she articulates it 180 degrees differently than most people. Brilliant!

Now, thanks to my dog-eared pages, I’ve been able to put two books into conversation with each other beyond the conversation I recently had with each—not to mention the conversations I had with each book when I first read them (and the conversation present-day me has been having with past-me in very Krapp’s Last Tape kind of fashion).

I’m still pondering the relationship between reading and writing. The real delight, though, has been the rather existential idea of conversing with my old self and seeing what that conversation illuminates about how I’ve changed.

In the meantime, I’d be interested in what you think about the relationship between reading and writing. I’d be interested, too, in how you converse with your books.

1 reply »

  1. I think Lamott’s observation is more generally axiomatic. Woodworkers I know seem to have a keener eye for and appreciation for craftsmanship. Photographers let the lens inform their view even without the camera, as though they’re framing and filtering as they go.

    For me, I’m highly reliant on tone of voice in my writing, even, maybe especially, in my more tortured constructions. Admittedly, this may be a flaw. However, I also read for tone, almost as though reading were an exercise in theatrical direction. In music, I’ve found that even a smattering of theory and proficiency changed the way I hear and relate to music. For that matter, I’ve got a few rather ham-fisted paintings to my credit, which in turn tremendously increased my appreciation for the art when I can get a birds-eye view at a gallery or museum.

    I’m definitely of the opinion that a lifetime of joinery and finishes, of filters and fish-eye lenses, of chords and counterpoints, of brush strokes and palettes and all the minutiae of our chosen crafts absolutely re-invents the word long since written.