Thursday 15 February 2018

Creative Reading: How We Find Meaning in the Stories We Love

Last Updated: 1 January 2021
books, jack-messenger

So many books, so little time.

Creative Reading and Creative Writing

The phrase 'creative writing' is part of our everyday vocabulary, but what does creative reading mean and how can it help us find deeper meanings in the stories we enjoy? What do we actually do when we read and how can we become better readers?

Many people (especially non-readers) think of reading as a process of passive absorption: writers write their novels, and it’s up to us simply to sit back and ‘listen’ to what we’re told. When the writing is good and we enjoy the story, that is certainly how it can feel. No matter what kinds of books interest us, most authors want us to read effortlessly and with pleasure. Reading is a pastime and a passion that can be challenging and provoking: genres like horror and crime can even provide vicarious thrills and fears. But they can only do that if we understand them in the first place.

Creative Reading

This photo of a disreputable-looking character illustrates how creative reading requires a combination of absolute concentration and complete relaxation – a rare and precious thing. It’s rather like meditation: a person has to try hard to be utterly relaxed, and his or her mind monitors and rebalances itself accordingly.

author, jack-messenger

Reading is a highly creative process, which is partly why avid readers enjoy it. And creative reading and creative writing go hand in hand: they need each other to be fully appreciated. So what do we actually mean by creative reading? Many readers will know this already, but for those who don’t, it’s not difficult to understand and it can soon become second nature. Keen readers are usually accomplished readers, so they will probably be highly creative, even if they don’t know they are.

Creative Reading Means Splitting in Two

Creative reading requires a reader to stop and think. Good readers stop and think all the time. Really good readers – creative readers – might not even have to stop; it’s as if their mind is divided into two parts.

One part is caught up in the story: entertained and delighted, it loses itself in the narrative, identifies with the characters and can’t wait to find out what happens next. The other part stands back from all this emotional involvement. Instead, it monitors and examines, questions and ponders. It watches the other half of itself enjoying the story. It stores away little snippets of information for future use. It notices unusual word choices, recurring images and patterns, character traits – the list is endless. It questions everything and waits for answers. Sometimes the answers arrive immediately, sometimes they arrive during the gaps between reading. Sometimes – if we’re lucky – they don’t arrive at all.

Why is it lucky not to have all the answers? Because the story has not given up all its secrets, that’s why. Which means it’s the kind of story that will keep on rewarding us no matter how many times we read it. We have in our hands a very good book – perhaps even a masterpiece.

Examples of Creative Reading

There are plenty of examples of creative reading that readers can learn to follow. Many of them can seem unimportant, but readers mustn’t be fooled. Even a single word in the right place can be charged with meaning; it can link up with other words in other parts of the story, creating an intricate web of associations and images that binds the story together. When readers notice these things they should be pleased with themselves: they have discovered another dimension to the story they love.

An Avalanche of Meanings

Look at this simple sentence, which is taken from the opening page of a novel:
‘I had no choice but to dodge through an avalanche of traffic and greet him.’
Ripped from its context, this sentence is neither good nor bad. However, let’s look at a couple of the words.

What really stands out is the word 'avalanche'. We all know what it means and it’s not an unusual word, although it is relatively uncommon (unless you’re reading an adventure in the Swiss Alps). 'Avalanche' is doing a lot of hard work in this sentence. It’s a French word, of course, and the novel is set in Paris, so it provides a little reminder – a nudge – about where we are. It also paints a vivid picture of the street. An avalanche is a mighty, unstoppable force, so we know far more about the traffic than we would have done without avalanche or something similar. It also tells us there must be an incline somewhere up the road because, as we know, the direction of an avalanche is always downwards before it flattens out.

What else does 'avalanche' tell the reader – nothing, surely? This is where context is crucial. A few pages later on, the narrator refers to the ‘mountain of bags dumped in his hallway’ by his unexpected guest. 'Mountain' links with 'avalanche' and shows us that this unwelcome guest is going to be pretty demanding. He’s already obliged the narrator to risk his life by dodging through an avalanche; now we learn that he’s burying his hospitality beneath a mountain of bags. This is the guest from hell!

This can be taken even further. Howard, the narrator, is a young man who wants to be successful and is working hard to climb to the top. The novel frequently reminds its readers of this ambition with scenes of literal climbs and unexpected falls. For instance, Howard and his guest, Eugene, have just had to climb six flights of stairs to Howard’s apartment because the lift is broken. Later on, Howard has to climb the stairs to a friend’s apartment, and he’s shown using the escalators upwards to some important encounters.

On the other hand, Howard also falls three times and is pushed down. He takes part in an important scene in a cellar. At one point he lies under his bed. Words like 'avalanche' are a link in the chain of these associations. It’s a chain that runs forward and back: the reader is led forward to the next link and is invited to recall the previous link.

Don’t Dodge Ambiguity

Here’s our sentence again:
‘I had no choice but to dodge through an avalanche of traffic and greet him.’
Why did the writer choose the word 'dodge' and not 'run', 'sprint', 'weave' or 'zigzag'? I don’t know, and I’m the writer! However, I do know why 'dodge' works best. Compared with 'weave' or 'zigzag', for example, 'dodge' is chaotic and unpredictable. It involves uncertainty and risk. In other words, 'dodge' adds to Howard’s peril as he crosses the road through the avalanche of traffic.

'Dodge' is also a link in a chain of associations and images that helps establish Howard’s character. Howard is a dodgy narrator. What he says about himself and Eugene isn’t always true or accurate. He doesn’t really know himself as well as he thinks he does. Later in the story, he has to be evasive, dodging questions and pursuers, dodging small truths in order to discover larger ones. Howard may not be artful, but he is a dodger.

More Creative Reading?

Try to become aware of your reading habits the next time you pick up a book. Does your mind divide in the same way? Don’t force yourself into a particular frame of mind – that won’t work. Rather, gently encourage yourself and pat your own back when you identify something you might not otherwise have noticed. Your good books will get even better.

There is much more to creative reading than there’s room to describe here. Reading creatively may seem complicated, but in truth, it's something we all do every time we pick up a book. 

Jack Messenger writes literary and contemporary fiction. He also writes book reviews and blogs about writing and publishing. In addition, he works in publishing, both in-house and as a freelancer. 

What do you think? Do you read creatively? Let me know in the comments below!

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