By Barbara Linn Probst
Before I turned to fiction, I was a hybrid of academic and therapist. There was a truism in clinical practice that having been in therapy made you a better therapist—a complicated question, impossible to prove, although we always encouraged students to experience therapy themselves before attempting to offer it to others. I got curious and decided to ask the question in reverse: what was it like for people who entered therapy after having spent time as therapists? Could they leave their therapist-minds behind when they moved to “the other chair” and surrender to the client role? As you might guess, it wasn’t so easy.
Now that I’m a novelist, I’m interested in a similar question for writers. Most of us were readers before we became writers, and would probably agree that our reading experience influences our experience as writers. But what happens when a writer opens a book and shifts to her reader-identity? Can we leave our writer-minds behind and surrender to the “reader chair”—and should we?
Once again, I asked. More than fifty people on several writer groups I belong to responded to my question: “How do you read? Do you lose yourself in the story (as a reader might) or read to study how the author did it (as a writer might)?”
The responses can be summarized into three big ideas.
For some, there was a clear difference in how they read “well-written books” and how they read “poorly-written books.”
On the other hand, some people felt that the writer-brain interfered, even with well-written books, and often ruined their enjoyment.
People dealt with that challenge in different ways—typically by toggling back and forth or by reading a book more than once.
For some, the “toggling” happens as they go. While mainly “just reading,” they might stop to note something the writer did that they admired—or to wince when something is jarring.
For others, the two processes happen alongside one another, as if different parts of the self are engaged in different ways.
With an exceptionally good book, many people said that they read for enjoyment the first time, and then go back to re-read with their “writer-brains” so they can focus on craft and identify what the author did that was so effective.
This was especially so for books that had effective twists and turns.
Many people noted how important it was to experience the story as a reader, before all else.
These reflections offer an additional reminder. It’s important to remember that we’re writing for the reader—to give the reader that immersive experience of falling under the spell of the story, the same experience that we ourselves enjoy!
That may sound obvious, but I know I can become caught up in craft and technique—the sort of things that writers care about. I can spend hours worrying about eliminating “deadweight” or searching for the perfect word to convey the meaning I’m after. Although these things are part of our craft, I suspect that they’re not the things that readers care about.
Isn’t that what we care about too, when we are in our reader-selves? When we read, many of us toggle back-and-forth. We also need to toggle back-and-forth when we write— balancing our search for the highest level of craft we can muster and our feeling for the reader.
What about you? How do you read? Do you find yourself switching into your writer-brain when you read? If so, what triggers the switch? Please share with us down in the comments!
Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls (April 2020), is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe.
Endorsed by best-selling authors such as Christina Baker Kline and Caroline Leavitt, Queen of the Owls was selected as one of the 20 most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother, one of the best Spring fiction books by Parade Magazine, and a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle. It was also featured in lists compiled by Pop Sugar and Entertainment Weekly, among others. It won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for both the First Horizon and the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s book-related article, “Naked: Being Seen is Terrifying but Liberating,” appeared in Ms. Magazine on May 27.
Barbara is also the author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When The Labels Don't Fit. She has a PhD in clinical social work, blogs for several award-winning sites for writers, and is a serious amateur pianist. Her second book releases in April 2021. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/
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