Becoming a Conscious Reader

Writers don’t simply read for pleasure. We read to become better writers. This is what committee member Cathy Shouse reminds us below.

Cathy Shouse is a journalist who has published hundreds of stories in newspapers and magazines. She is the author of Images of America: Fairmount, and prior to joining the planning committee where she is director of special events, she was named a MWW Fellow in Fiction for her romantic mystery novel. Connect with Cathy on Facebook or on Twitter @cathyshouse on Twitter.

For more on her reading obsession go here.

In looking to manage my money better and improve my health, some experts say that it starts with getting off of autopilot with what you spend and your fitness choices.Cathy

With that in mind, I’ve recently realized the advantages to writers of becoming a conscious reader. The idea came when I taught a college class called Advanced Feature and Magazine Writing. A book called Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories: America’s Best Writing 1979-2003 was suggested as an assigned text to use for the class.

Now, I was no slouch when it came to reading, or so I thought. I had regularly sought out stories in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I would click on the entertainment sections of The New York Times, and read Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, before his untimely death. For a while, I subscribed to Forbes and read business writing. Having learned that sports writing is considered some of the best in publishing, I read my share of features in Sports Illustrated and even Golf Digest.

But the Pulitzer Prize feature stories I read to prepare for class were beyond exceptional. The vocabulary was rich. The topics were riveting. The writing style was far superior to anything I had read in years — possibly decades — maybe ever. Plus, I was immediately able to incorporate some of these techniques into my own writing. It was as though my writing world had opened up. I looked at every story assignment differently, aiming for more depth. My students began to do the same, as if our collective bar on writing had been immediately raised, with no lecture or Power Point images required.

About the same time, I decided to read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, a book recommendation that came from an accomplished writer friend. Again, everything from the vocabulary to the theme to the characters was on a higher level from what I had been reading. My mind began to play with concepts that I would have discarded as too complex or not possible for my own fiction writing, before I read that book.

This was somewhat an epiphany. Since becoming a writer, I was told to read — which really meant to continue to read — in my case. And read I have. I simply wish I had been more mindful and had followed a well-thought-out supplemental list of books to broaden my reading experience. In fact, many successful authors have a standard list of writing craft books that they recommend to beginning writers. I’m wondering if it would be good to have specific novels that every writer should read, or at the least, a book list of the exceptional books in one’s chosen genre.

Like the Pulitzer Prize feature articles, these novels would have stood the test of time. I realize the books from the list might not even sell well if introduced today. But books from the list would make one’s own writing better just for having read them.

One of my goals for 2014 is to read some extraordinary books, ones that greatly expand a writer’s mind to explore new avenues and discover mental places unknown. To that end, I plan to read more professional reviews, which can be hard to come by these days. I’ll also look for recommended lists and pay better attention when writers mention books that are special to them.

So, let’s start right here.

What would you include on a list of must-read books for every writer?

What books have made you a better writer?

Overlooking the obvious

Kelly O’Dell Stanley is a long-time MWW conference attendee and one of our newest committee members.  She is full of doubt and full of faith, trying to make sense of it all through words. A graphic designer and writer, she’s always frazzled, always reading, always watching, always waiting to see what she can discover of her mighty God in this magnificent, busy, confusing, contradictory, glorious, upside down world. And she’s trying to learn patience as she waits for her first book, The Art of Praying Upside Down to be released by Tyndale Momentum in 2015. Today Kelly shares with us where her book came from.  

Kelly blogs at You can follow Kelly on Facebook, Twitter (@kellyostanley), LinkedIn, and  Goodreads.

Stanley_Kelly photoMy high school years were geared towards being an architect. It made sense. My dad was a professional watercolorist, and I knew I didn’t have his kind of talent, so I didn’t want to be an artist. I was good at math, good at school in general, and I wanted something challenging. Architecture seemed to be a good fit. I was sold.

Until I wasn’t. My mind doesn’t, apparently, work in three dimensions. But oh how I loved the shapes and pattern and abstract design the architecture program started with. I adored my architecture professor, so I listened when he steered me towards graphic design. It made sense, but frankly I was a little disappointed. Shouldn’t a college major — and career — be something more academic? Something hard? I’d spent my whole adolescence writing long letters to international pen pals. Designing a logo and business card for my cousin, who shared my initials and—by virtue of being the older of us—was president of the KAO Club. I wrote letters in the form of colored and illustrated newsletters. I created pictures from rows of Xs and Os typed on a basic word processor. I traced fancy typography and wore out sets of markers coloring patterns in geometric design coloring books. It wasn’t anything special. It was just what I did.

And you know what? It turns out, graphic design was the perfect career choice for me. Twenty-four years after college, I am still pleased to be working full time in this career field.

Last month I turned in the manuscript for my 2015 book, The Art of Praying Upside Down, to my publisher. The biggest surprise as I wrote? Discovering that my book wasn’t some wild departure from what I already knew. Shouldn’t writing a book require some magic? Some hard work?

Well, let’s be honest. It was hard work. But it wasn’t hard like learning a new language, or starting from scratch and having to trudge through an instruction manual line by line. I didn’t have to search far and wide for the content. It just was, much as the newsletters and logos and drawings I played with in high school prepared me for the career in graphic design that I didn’t know I wanted—but which reflected exactly my natural talents and inclinations.

My book came from the core of who I am, from the sum total of my life experiences, personality quirks, spiritual growth, and professional experience. It grew from my relationships, friendships, family, hurts and hardships and highs and lows. It wasn’t a new approach to seeing or experiencing life. It was more like recording and recounting what I already knew, the specific ways I’ve always viewed the world and my faith.

This realization may not seem monumental to you, but it was to me. And the reason I’m sharing this is because I know there are a lot of writers out there—potentially very good writers—who aren’t writing because they’re waiting for that special magic. For a big revelatory moment, with flashing lights around a neon sign and a voice from heaven saying, “Do this unique and special thing that is set apart, that is a total departure from who you are, from how you live!”

For most of us, though, it won’t be a big departure. Who you already are will play a huge part in what you write. If you’re feeling the need to write, but are stymied by the “what,” take heart. You don’t have to go far to discover the answer. Go ahead and spend some time exploring and discovering who you are, how you see things, how you feel, what you love. As much as I’d like to be part of what seems to me to be the more glamorous world of fiction, my natural predisposition is towards creative nonfiction, essays, inspirational pieces. I’m finally OK with that.

Don’t fight your natural tendencies. Write what you know. What you love. What you think. What you feel.

Write from who you are.

And in doing that—whether you write fiction or nonfiction or poetry or fantasy or music or journals or articles or some experimental thing we don’t even know about yet—you will find your direction.

MWW: Helping writers live a pants-optional lifestyle since 1973

Kelsey Timmerman, a member of the MWW committee, is the author of two books, and the co-founder of The Facing Project, which seeks to connect people through stories to strengthen community.  He met his agent at our summer conference in 2007. You can follow his global writing adventures at his blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.  

I’ve been a committee member of the Midwest Writers Workshop since 2010. I know what you’re thinking: He does it for the groupies and the money.

After all, my boxer shorts have their own Facebook page made by a MWW attendee. But minus my underwear’s 32 virtual fans, alas, there are no groupies.

As for cold hard cash, I and the other committee members are volunteers. We typically meet at least once per month for at least 90 minutes to plan the summer workshop, mini-workshops, and other events. I’m guessing that each of us puts in at least 40+ hours of work each year. If you factor in the hours Jama, our director, works, that number averages out to about 4,000 hours annually. Some of our members drive hours to attend the monthly meetings, others leave work early, and I even put on pants and brush my teeth.

I’m exaggerating a bit. I wear pants and brush my teeth every day. But here’s the thing…I don’t have to. That’s right, I don’t have to go to an office every day. I could live a pants-optional life at home, all thanks to the committee members before me.

In 2007, I attended MWW and I met the agent who sold my first book Where Am I Wearing? That book led to another book Where Am I Eating? Now, between writing and speaking about my writing, I have a full-blown career.

I admit, I think I may have joined the committee to repay this debt, but I soon realized that the members of the committee were driven by much more than a sense of duty. There is something amazing about being a part of the stories of other writers as they seek and succeed at the writing life.

We get emails on a regular basis from folks who’ve seen their writing dreams come true, and credit MWW for helping them. It’s not even the thanks that we do it for.

I think the best thing I can compare the reward of being on the committee to is teaching my daughter to ride a bike, which I did (for the win) on Father’s Day this past year. She never thanked me. She never needed to. Watching her navigate our street through puddles, around potholes, and find that balance and pleasure that comes from reaching her goal was thanks enough.

There are plenty of puddles and potholes on the written road. Just keep pedaling. This is what makes those times when we don’t fall on our face so rewarding.

2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the Midwest Writers’ Workshop, but we are always looking for new ways to help writers. That’s why this blog is about to change.

You are about to see a lot more of us — members of the committee — here. We are poets, fiction writers, nonfiction writers, freelancers, and professors. We write for profession and passion. I’m honored to be on the committee with these folks and I’m eager to read their posts about their writing lives, what happens behind the scenes of our conference, and their tips of the trade.

I think I speak for the entire committee when I say we all want you to write, write better, and enjoy writing more.

I speak for myself when I say, I want you to have a pants-optional life.

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