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The pleasure in reading like a writer

On days like today, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have what must be the best job in the world. September is winding down and I’m wrapping up two weeks of teaching writing retreats. Tomorrow I will be home to kiss my husband and snuggle my cats. Today I’m on the last day of gathering groups of women on a farm in Tuscany to read, discuss, write, practice yoga, eat pasta, and drink too much wine. It’s like a little bit of the best parts of college, especially the reading of beautiful pieces of writing and the opportunity to talk about them.

Hosting these retreats is also a reminder of how much I read as consumption rather than as pleasure or craft. In teaching the writing workshops, I try to encourage writers to read like writers — that is, instead of the reflection ending at “I liked this” or “I disagreed with that,” paying attention to the bones and flesh of a piece. How is it structured, and how does that structure shape your experience of it? What’s the music of the piece — is it melodic and smooth, or is it a punctuated drum beat, or is it some combination of the two, or something else entirely? Who is this piece for? What do we know, and what do we think, about who wrote it? Why do we trust this writer, or relate to them, or empathize with them, or pity them, or feel called to act by them?

I don’t mean reading as picking-apart. I mean reading the same way you might run your palm across a beautiful wood table, forged by hand: Admiring the craftsmanship, imagining how each piece might have been carved, using your fingers to find the invisible seams.

What goes into making something so elegant? That’s how to read as a writer.

I thought I’d share a few of the pieces we read over the past two weeks. Some you may have read before; others might be new. Next week we’ll return to our regularly-scheduled feminist-minded news analysis, but for now, I thought I’d share a few beautiful things, and invite you to read them well.

  • My Mustache, Myself by Wesley Morris. In writing workshops we talk a lot about “the small story” and “the big story” that are present in longer essays like this one. The small story: The quarantine mustache. The big story: you’ll have to read the piece.

  • On Doulas, by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Using Erykah Badu as a backbone for a piece that is at once sprawling and compact, Aisha Sabatini Sloan takes us through the rootedness of family through the vulnerability of new motherhood through the pain of generations and into the hope that builds on a strong, if shaken, foundation.

  • Yewande Komolafe’s 10 Essential Nigerian Recipes. A set of recipes might not seem like the most obvious thing to discuss at a writing retreat. But Yewande Komolafe does an expert job at describing not just the diversity Nigerian food, but food as experience and food as a site of '“normal.” Whose cuisine is “normal,” and whose is exotic? Here, she flips the usual American script, situating Nigerian food not as a foreign delicacy she’s encouraging Americans to try, but a standard and robust universe of options of which she’s sharing a handful.

  • The Crane Wife, by CJ Hauser. How much of our story needs to be complete before we tell it? Can a writer be in the middle of a process — recovering from a trauma, or figuring out who she is — and write from that space of incompleteness? This is one of my favorite essays because Hauser captures something many women have experienced — the shutting-down of our own needs in the service of someone else’s convenience — in a gorgeous natural-world metaphor, and comes to the reader as someone still sorting it all out.

  • On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by a Pandemic, by Jesmyn Ward. This piece is music. It is a symphony and it is a drumbeat. It is a strong back and a broken but still open heart. It is a piece that starts in the depths and crescendoes into a cry that shakes your whole body. It is a work of art and I’m not going to tell you any more other than: If you haven’t read it, trust me and read it.

  • Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis. We talk about writers having a “voice.” It’s nearly impossible to read this eulogy and not hear it in Obama’s voice. It’s also an example of compassionate and empathetic writing, not just in the sense that it is a eulogy and therefore saying very nice things about a person who is dead, but in the sense that it embodies the spirit and ideals of that person — in this case, a man who never hesitated to use any platform he was given to advocate for justice.

  • The Age of Instagram Face, by Jia Tolentino. This is one of several of Jia Tolentino’s pieces I’ve taught, and I usually share them at the end, when we’re talking about editing. Tolentino is a writer who always seems to find the right words, and who fits an enormous amount of information and cultural references into tight, flawlessly-edited paragraphs. She is also a writer with a voice, and a writer who knows her audience (Millennial women, mostly), writing for them, as one of them, who is also critical of the circumstances they / we collectively find ourselves in. She is an incisive critic who, somehow, never comes across as judgmental, and a writer who puts in the work to make her prose feel effortless.

  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia, by Ariel Levy. This is a gorgeous piece of writing about a harrowing trauma. Levy is far enough away from the traumatic event to write this story with clarity and calm, but you sense that she is still very much in it. Is she writing from a place of radical acceptance, or dissociation? Is she as ok as she insists she is, or do we not quite believe her, because she purposely offers us evidence to the contrary? How is it that she can evoke such a deep reaction from her reader using such spare language? I first read this essay when it came out in 2013, and I read it as I read most New Yorker pieces back then: In fits and starts, while taking the subway. This one almost made me miss my stop. And by the time I got to the end, I was glad New Yorkers know to leave women alone when they’re crying on the train.

These may not all be “enjoyable,” exactly, to read. But they are beautiful, and they are important, and they are good. I hope you enjoy them.

xx Jill