Reaching for the Green Light
Or, How to Read with Intent to Become a Better Writer
For Roy Peter Clark, the green light meant something totally different than what we were taught in high school.
Even if you’ve never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, you have probably heard references to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. It’s the most talked about symbol in the novel. Does it mean money? Does it mean The American Dream? Or is it just a mirage?
We won’t get into it here. What I want to talk about instead is what the green light meant to Roy Peter Clark. For him, Fitzgerald’s use of the green light revealed a deep insight into how to write a novel. In one interview, Clark described Fitzgerald planting the seed of the green light at the end of Chapter 1 and how it came back full circle at the very end of the book to give the ending it’s extra oomph:
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning--------- And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
But, Clark wondered, is it realistic to expect the reader to recall that one off-handed remark 180 pages earlier? Even in a book as short as Gatsby?
The answer was no. Not only that, but he saw that Fitzgerald didn’t expect the reader to remember it either. That’s why Fitzgerald “waters” the symbol (as Clark puts it) half way through the novel. In fact, at exactly the halfway mark, Fitzgerald has Gatsby tell Daisy about how he gazed at the green light at the end of her dock. This reminds the reader of that passage nearer the beginning so s/he is much more likely to make the connection between that first outstretched hand and the last.
Reading with Intent for Better Writing
All writers should incorporate reading with intent into their creative lives to help improve their skills. In my last post, Bloomsday Prophecy, I talked about reading the type of works you want to write. I would recommend that at least some of that reading should be what I would call “reading with intent” (or “reading with purpose”) – reading with the specific goal of studying the clockworks so you can make your own writing all tickety-boo.
That’s where Clark comes in. He shows how we can read with intent in his book called: The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing. This is a book that I highly recommend, if you can find a copy. (Still available as an ebook, but seems to have gone out of print otherwise…) Clark offers tons of little tidbits designed to help you look at the stories you read with the critical eye of a writer. You get to see the mechanics of the storytelling, why certain things work in certain books, and most importantly how to incorporate those same tools into your own writing.
Today I want to talk about the broader lesson though. The Art of X-Ray Reading is aimed mostly at fiction writers. But I think all writers can learn more about the craft of whatever it is they want to write by studying the writers that came before. Do you write sonnets? Then you need to read Shakespeare and many of the Romantic writers. Do you write travel pieces? Pick up a few Paul Theroux books. Memoir? Haiku? Creative non-fiction? Blurbs on artworks auctioned off at Christie’s? Go out and find those pieces, then take note of how those writers wrote it.
How to Read with Intent
There are many different ways you can read with intent, as a quick Google search will show you. But here are some pointers that have helped me:
Read slowly, at least for subsequent readings. Chances are, if you love a piece, you’ve already read it. When you go back to it, spend time concentrating on the language and the rhythm and the diction and all the other things you love about it, and note what the writer is doing well. If there’s things you don’t like or you don’t think work, note those, too.
Read with a notebook, computer, or piece of paper handy. Actively write down ideas as they come to you. I tend to cringe at writing in books, but if marginalia is your thing, you can do that too. (I do use Post-It Notes sometimes for my marginalia – a nice compromise for me that doesn’t hurt the book…)
Break down the writing into its grammatical parts. Does the writing have a lot of adverbs, as Joyce famously uses? Or maybe not at all, as Hemingway’s writing? Notice the type of language, the sentence structure, the lengths of sentences and paragraphs, the tone (Conversational? Serious? Humourous? etc.) – everything that makes the text what it is. The next tip will help with this, too…
Cheat using modern technology. I once used Microsoft Word to break down The Great Gatsby into all its individual words, ranked in order by the number of times the word appeared in the text. Yeah, I know – nerd alert! But this technique gave me some unique insights into the text. It requires a bit of technical ability using macros, but it isn’t too difficult. You can find out more here: https://word.tips.net/T001833_Generating_a_Count_of_Word_Occurrences.html or search “how to list words by frequency in Word document”.
Another way you can use modern technology is to search the text for specific words, such as when you want to examine symbolism more closely. For example, I jumped through the Gatsby text to find each place the colour “green” was mentioned to see its connections. I caught things I didn’t realize before, which revealed several new nuances in the story. Sure beats manually scanning every page for the words you’re looking for like we used to do in the old days!
Either technique here requires copy and pasting text into Word, so it is mostly relegated to books that are now out of copyright and available as downloadable text (like The Great Gatsby).
Bonus Tip: Read What Other Readers Said
I more often than not get insights based on what other readers took away from the text. There are tons of discussions, critical analyses, reviews, debates, and other writings about the writing. I’m sure there are subreddits out there where you can even start your own discussion, like this subreddit on /books (though be sure to mention your intent and the fact that you’re a writer – it sounds like a lot of students try to use this as homework shortcut). You can even find university theses out there on most of the classic novels and poems. For newer works, such as the Twilight series for example, there are also fan sites where readers go into minute detail.
Of course, the more popular and/or the more “classic” a work is, the more likely you will be to find these discussions. Unsurprisingly, the more likely a text is included in high school English programs, the more materials you’ll find, too.
In any case, it’s worth a search.
Read the types of writing you want to write and take note of all the things the writer is doing, including the things you don’t like. Take away those lessons and apply them to your own writing.
How Do You Read?
Do you have any tips on reading with intent? Anything that’s worked for you? Or do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear your take on it.
I’ll leave you with a video with a three-hour “Dreamscape” of Gatsby’s party noise in the background and Daisy’s flashing green light across the sound. Because why not. (I might try falling asleep to this tonight.)
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
I prefer to imbibe writing technique via osmosis I'll be honest. Analytics doesn't do much for me. In fact I find the analytical mind to be less useful when creatively writing. I prefer to save it for editing. But that's just me.
Hi Graham. I've been doing a lot of reading, thinking and some doing with regards to reading with intent, especially non-fiction. In fact I'm publishing a post tomorrow talking about ways to retain and play with the information using a Zettelkasten or Antinet. Let's say that note taking is a big part of it but there's much more and some great potential.