Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Learning to Read Again: Tips from a First-Time Author (PART TWO)

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Welcome back Open Book readers! Here's Part Two of an earlier post on some advice for new writers embarking on their first book experience.
# 3 Give Back to the Community
Being an emerging author is a bit like being the runt in a litter of barn cats scrambling for food. You’re so busy trying to survive, often by receiving support from the strongest in the litter, that you forget you too may have something to offer. When I first started writing and publishing I received guidance from established writers, but it always felt like a one-sided exchange where I was the taker. It wasn’t out of selfishness (or at least I hope not) but rather a lack of confidence. I was at a loss as to how I could give back to someone who already had a successful career and several books published. I felt like I had nothing to offer, but I just needed to find a way to give back. Whether that’s running a reading series, volunteering at a lit mag or small press (trust me, they need the help), writing reviews, or just providing support and mentorship to those who are even less experienced than you are, there are many ways to participate in the community rather than simply existing in a vacuum where you suck everything dry. And trust that you do have something to contribute.
# 4 Find a ‘First Reader’ (preferably not a writer)
This piece of advice is a bit problematic and may not work for everyone, but for me it was essential. Over the years, I have had many different editors and writers with whom I share work. Some have been incredibly insightful and helpful, especially in the last few years, and some have not. It’s important to find editors you trust and respect who will offer critical feedback that is constructive enough to help you improve, yet not overly critical just for the sake of providing critique. You need an editor who will tear your poem apart or pat you on the back every time either or both is deserved.You also need to learn how to accept that an editorial massacre of your poem is something that’s good for you. You should want that more than the pat on the back.
Perhaps more important than an editor though, is finding what I like to call a “first reader.” This is the very first person to lay eyes on everything you write. They’re going to see the raw, unfiltered lines that are over-saturated with clichés, flawed technique, unnoticed repetitions, and bad habits. Ideally, this person should not be a writer or involved in publishing, editing, or any part of the professional literary world. They need to be unbiased and utterly without agenda. With that said, they also need to be someone with a fine-tuned ear and an ability to sense when something feels contrived or pretentious or just plain boring.
For me, unexpectedly, that turned out to be my wife Erika, who has a degree in anthropology and will soon be a practicing midwife. She’s well-read, articulate, and much smarter than me in most ways, but she doesn’t write creatively nor read poetry. So why is she so successful as a first reader? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I allow myself to be completely vulnerable with her. I’ll let her read anything, even when I already know it’s unfinished. When she believes a poem is decent and worth salvaging or continuing to edit, then I send it along to my select few writer friends to help bring it to life. But that first reader is the gate-keeper. They decide what makes it to the editor’s table and what’s essentially a journal entry. If I sent every single piece I wrote to my editor, I suspect I wouldn’t have an editor much longer. Your first reader may never help you change a single line, and they may not see that poem again until it’s published, but they can be as vital as the most skilled editor in bringing a piece to print.
# 5 Don’t Become a Lazy Reader
It wasn’t until much later, trying to write my first review for Open Book (it’s coming in a week or two, I promise), that I learned the most important lesson from the conversation I referenced at the beginning of this article (see paragraph one from PART ONE of this article). I consume a lot of books. Until recently, I simply bought them, read through them on the subway or in a coffee shop, and if I enjoyed them, finished quickly and threw them back on my overflowing bookshelf. If I didn’t like them, I didn’t finish them. That’s it. I read books like I read Facebook comments and Buzzfeed articles, quickly, temporarily, and in a completely passive manner. I realize now that I was even reading books that truly blew me away like a lazy Netflix binger. The most I engaged with a text was by telling another poet in a conversation that I liked it. I often couldn’t even articulate why. I’m not sure when this started, but I have a feeling it was sometime after graduating from University. Perhaps it’s the product of being an English major, where for four years I no longer had time to read for pleasure anymore; everything had to be analyzed, dissected, annotated and written about. I distinctly remember graduating and reading my first book for pleasure, and it was an incredible feeling. I’d burn through a new book, revel in the joy of it, pass it on to a friend, and pick up a new one and start all over. Then, eventually, I got lazy. I stopped thinking. Reading devolved into passive consumption rather than critical and active absorption.
That is, until I had to write a review for the first time. I’m ashamed to admit that it took me that long, but it’s true. It might have come around sooner if I had actually been hired to teach what I went to school for like I had intended, but unfortunately, as much as I love what I do, I’ve spent the last seven years teaching remedial level college English and ESL. Rarely does that involve studying a novel or a collection of poetry. So, strangely enough, it wasn’t until I was given this Open Book writer in residence gig that I finally learned to read again. I decided I wanted to attempt a review, and I found the perfect book for it. I read through it in one sitting in my usual way, purely out of enjoyment. Then I read it a second time, the way I used to do in university, with a pencil and a highlighter and a stack of sticky notes. I wrote in the margins, highlighted particularly well-written lines, dog-eared poems that needed to be quoted, and made notes of potential themes, references I needed to look up, etc. When I was finally finished, it had taken me three times the length of time than my first reading of the book. Then I did it all over again, a third time. It made me want to go back through every single book I enjoyed that was sitting on my shelf and read them over again too, this time with a critical eye.
Perhaps I’m the only one who used to read in such a disengaged way, but if that reading style sounds at all familiar to you, then I urge you not to become lazy. Give each book the amount of attention and labour you would want someone else to give your book. Pretend you’re writing a review even if you aren’t. Tear it apart. Scribble all over it. It’s not a Harlequin; it’s someone’s literature. It’s meant to be digested, not just swallowed.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.