Friday Speak Out!: The Savvy Reader

Friday, June 14, 2024
by Megan Staffel

When I first started to write fiction, I was afraid to read. I didn’t want to pick up a published author’s style. We writers are good mimics and often, I would slide into the voice from whatever novel was my current book. But a life without reading fiction would have been dreary indeed, so luckily, I learned that the bits and pieces of other writers’ work sifting into my work would ultimately be transformed through the multiple revisions that anything I write goes through.

And when I started to teach, one of the things I enjoyed most about working with MFA students was discussing a literary work in class. Together, we would deconstruct a scene to figure out what made it compelling, and I would always learn from my students’ input. When I retired, it was that shared discovery that I most missed. So, now, on my own, when I finish a novel or story, I examine it as though I were preparing it for that class. This practice has turned into a Substack newsletter called, “Page and Story.” I give a brief description of the book or story to entice my readers, and then discuss an aspect of craft that the author does particularly well, showing how it shapes the narrative.

This close examination increases my enjoyment and I believe it helps me as a writer because it widens the possibilities. When I begin to write a new piece of fiction, do I want to start with a long shot as Dominic Smith does in Return to Valletto, situating the town within its landscape as the narrator approaches, or do I want to start with a close up, a view from a character’s interior as Margot Livesey does in the opening to The Road from Belhaven when Lizzie thinks about her visions? Or do I want to begin with a story that appears in a newspaper as in Clare Chambers novel, Small Pleasures? There are endless choices and from the fiction I’ve read I have a sense of how each choice affects the reader’s experience. Paying attention to the craft of a story I’m enjoying is reading like a writer and opening myself to methods that are different from the ones that may have become my default.

In my next posting I’ll discuss Held, a novel by Anne Michaels in which the narrative is episodic and fragmented and the story is not about characters in a particular time and place, but in multiple locations at different time periods. What unifies them is the theme of love. It’s a wholly original approach to narrative and the elasticity and suppleness Michaels gives it is exciting. Held has suggested new tools to consider as I work on my next piece of fiction, but even if I borrow something, my revision process will make it my own. What I’ve learned over these many years is that reading fiction while I’m writing fiction is necessary, helpful, and enriching.

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photo credit Brian Oglesbee
Megan Staffel's new novel, THE CAUSATIVE FACTOR, won the Petrichor Prize at Regal House Publishing and will be published by Regal House in October 2024. She is the author of two recent collections of short fiction, THE EXIT COACH and LESSONS IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE (Four Way Books) and two novels, THE NOTEBOOK OF LOST THINGS (Soho Press) and SHE WANTED SOMETHING ELSE ( North Point Press) and a first collection of short stories, A LENGTH OF WIRE AND OTHER STORIES (Pym-Randall Press). Her short stories have appeared in numerous journals including the New England Review, Ploughshares, The Common, and others. Her stories have been shortlisted in Best American Short Stories and nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Megan taught in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College as well as at the University of Iowa, Kansas State University, Rochester Institute of Technology and Vermont College. She lives with ceramic artist Graham Marks and has two adult children. She splits her time between Brooklyn, New York and a farm in a small town in western New York State. 

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Renee Roberson said...

This is such an inspirational post, Megan! I believe being an avid reader has helped me master the art of dialogue in my own writing, and that's something I've been complimented on often. I love the concept behind your Substack newsletter and will have to check it out. It's a great reminder for all of us that you can never stop learning about the art of the craft.

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