The Silent Dialogue: How We Create The Book We’re Reading

One of the most interesting things that happens to us as writers occurs when we read.

The real story is created as we read.

The real story is created as we read.

We conduct a ‘silent dialogue’ with the text, and, to the extent we imagine the writer in our minds, making him or her seem real as we read, with its author. This imagined collaborator, the ‘author,’ guides us as we make sense of what we read, but we do all—or most—of the real work involved.

If you take notes while you read, you will inevitably ‘talk’ to the piece of writing. You might even talk out loud. If you’re like me, you ask questions of the text as you underline phrases, or draw circles around crucial words; or perhaps, words you don’t understand; ideas you agree with, disagree with, have a strong opinion about.

As soon as you begin to interact with the text, you’ve formed a relationship with its author, but it’s a silent one (unless you can somehow meet the writer and ask him or her your questions). Even so, the real relationship you’re having is not with the writer, for you are imagining him or her, even as you imagine the characters she’s created. The real relationship you’re having is with her writing, which becomes real for you as you interweave yourself, your values, your beliefs, your experiences, into what she’s written.

How could Lizzy and Jane be so patient?

I remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice, for example. I was 16 or 17 years old, and I found myself frustrated by the slow pace the heroine’s life was taking. I could not understand how Jane Austen, with such sanguinity, allowed her protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett, to endure months of unhappiness and uncertainty over Mr. Darcy. Why couldn’t Elizabeth write to him? Why couldn’t her sister Jane let Mr. Bingley know how she felt? Why did nothing happen?

I remember yelling at that book, tossing it down in frustration, unable to continue reading. The relationship I formed with the writer I’d constructed in my mind was one of tension and irritation. I didn’t understand a lot of things in those days, but the primary thing I did not understand was that in my responses to the text, I was creating my very own version of Pride and Prejudice, the one I interwove with my responses, my ideas, my attitudes and opinions as I read.

My frustration at how slowly Darcy and Elizabeth fall in love, coupled with the arcane, stultifying social rules of Regency England, stemmed from beliefs I had formed in an era very different for young women than the one in which Austen wrote. My responses made excellent fodder for my writing, because my values reflected the changes that had happened for women since Austen‘s era, and therefore inspired a paper on the freedoms young women in America took for granted.

As a teacher, I’ve encouraged students to respond to the text conversationally, focusing less on the author as we have been taught to think of him or her, instead conceiving the text as a piece of writing you can engage with directly, commenting, complaining; noticing similarities or differences between the writing and our own experiences.

Although this process is considered a form of reader-response theory or critique, my goal has not been to get the student to critique the text, but rather, to form ideas and responses that will inspire writing and assist in self-awareness and critical thinking skills.

The values and mores of the Regency Era baffled me

One of the most valuable pieces of writing any reader can engage in, therefore, is a journal or diary of responses to a piece of writing. By silently engaging with a text, you will find that you have many things to say. Your personal responses to any piece of writing will inspire you to create something new, and you’ll learn about yourself and your values as you interweave your own reality with someone else’s words.

To get an idea of how to inspire your own writing through responding to someone else’s work, see Lisa Ede’s Work In Progress. To understand the culture in which the idea of the reader or audience’s response to the writing, rather than the author per se, became an important discussion, compare and contrast New Criticism with reader-response criticism.

Following I. A. Richards‘ study of reader misunderstandings and misreadings conducted in 1929, theory began to center around the idea that the reader creates the text they read, that there is no textual reality that exists a priori containing one—and only one—’correct’ meaning, that instead, the individual’s interpretation matters tremendously to how we make meaning.

In addition to this, and important to me when I teach, has been trying to convey the concept that the individual author’s personality or characteristics, while ‘important’ from the perspective of imagining authorial intention, should not derail teachers from what is even more important: getting the student to value their own writing.

10 thoughts on “The Silent Dialogue: How We Create The Book We’re Reading

  1. This is interesting. I have never been looking at my reading this way. I know I always had a discussion with the story and its characters. I found myself sometimes yelling inside, trying to convince a character that this or that is a bad idea. But I never thought about me having a conversation with the author through the book. I can honestly not say if I have, but next time I read I´ll try out your suggestions by actually taking notes while reading. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts, and may I link to this post? I have scheduled a lot of post, and the post with your link will not turn up for a while, but this is certainly worth to bring up. My blog is about writing 🙂
    Thank You once again, and I hope you´ll write a lot. I´ll be back visiting your blog in no time.

    • Yes, thank you for wanting to link to this blog. It is one of the blogs I write that doesn’t get a lot of traffic… I haven’t yet found a way to make the subject of writing thrilling. 😉 And I’m really glad you got something new out of it, that, hopefully will inspire you to write something new. I use this way of approaching a text to help students find something to say in a paper, and it’s part of the invention process. Invention can be the hardest part of the process, if you don’t have anything to say (or you think you don’t).

      In fact, people have a lot to say in response to what they read, they just don’t write down what they think. Now, the other issue is the theoretical/philosophical side of reader-response theory, which is based on the idea that the reader creates their own reading of a text. The question is, what meaning do you create? Reader-response theory places a lot of emphasis on your version of the writing, rather than the idea that the author had one perfect meaning for his or her writing that we can ‘discover’ through a careful reading. The presumption is that we co-create this reality with the author we imagine as we read, because obviously, we aren’t in the head or in the same room as the real author, and can never really know what was in her mind.

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