Writing Notes: The Art of X-Ray Reading


[This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I will receive a small commission.]

When Roy Peter Clark writes something, I pay attention. Clark is a writing coach and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, and his advice on writing is poignant, clear, and helpful for anyone who has to sit down and bang out a message. I am still meandering through his latest book, The Art of X-Ray Reading, but I skipped to the back to get the 12 steps for being an X-ray reader.

“Why is reading important to a writer?” Many students and potential authors ask this question. “I just want to write.” You can’t just write. A writer has to be immersed in the genre he or she is writing. They have to know good prose, be able to identify what works and doesn’t work, and pinpoint the rhythms and voice needed for the particular piece. Writing just doesn’t happen. It takes practice, and part of the practice is writing. As a devotee of Stephen King’s On Writing, he makes it clear what the task of the writer is:

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

Reading should sharpen your mind per Ray Bradbury (via Brain Pickings):

In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.

Melissa Donovan summed up the connection this way:

“To write well, there are only two things you absolutely must do: read and write. Everything else will flow from these two activities, which are essentially yin and yang. Without each other, reading and writing cannot exist. They rely on one another. They are two parts of a greater whole.”

“But how do I read?” The reading that is done as a panicked, rushing student isn’t the same reading that you have to do when you are reading as a writer. Writers must go deeper than the normal information scanning routines to look at the marrow and skeletal structures of the writing.

Clark gives some rules that any writer, nonfiction or fiction oriented, can use to strengthen their reading and eventually their writing:

  • Read. Simple enough, right? To write well, one must be exposed to all types of writing. Dig into white papers, novels, comic books, microfiction, and long-form nonfiction.

It’s 1998, and Luther Campbell walks into a party on Key Biscayne. If this were a romantic comedy, now is when everything would switch to slow motion as a Lisa Loeb song fades in.
He notices Khaled almost immediately. Even at an industry party for radio professionals, which this is, Khaled stands out, Campbell remembers.
Keep imagining this in slow motion. It’s sexier that way.
Khaled is frantic, breaking into songs to scream at anyone who dares stand still. He bounces on the balls of his feet, shifting from left foot to right like a cocky fighter, mixing an odd cocktail of Jamaican dancehall and hip-hop as sweat beads on his forehead.
It is pure energy, almost at dangerous levels. Some doctors might have diagnosed it. Uncle Luke wants to bottle it. “He had a mouthpiece on him, man,” Campbell says. “So much energy.”
But let’s back up a bit. You can stop the whole slow-motion thing now.
Read these showstopper passages again. This time do it slowly.

  • Identify the part of the passage that you like the best. In the above passage, I loved the mix of contradictory references (bespectacled Lisa Loeb paired with First Amendment defender/booty music pioneer Luther Campbell) and the vibrant metaphors. I have been to that type of party. I have seen people dance like that. I can also smell the Jamaican patties, rum punch, body oils, and cannabis all under the night stars. Yes, that imagery put me in the location.
  • Read that section aloud.
  • Circle the paragraph and make descriptive notes about why it interests you.
  • Ask yourself, “How does the writer do this?” That’s a good question, and I looked through the article again. The writer’s tone and voice was set in paragraph one. It is clear he is a patient observer of things, places, and people. One has to be to make the connective tissues of this piece–the strong metaphors, the vivid imagery, the deep insight into the Miami music scene, and the sheer humor–work.
  • Duplicate the passage and save it in a journal or file. (One of my graduate professors said that she copied by hand journal articles of her mentor so she could understand the structure, composition, and language of his writing and arguments. It worked. She writes flawlessly.)
  • Don’t imitate the text. Let it be an indirect influence on your personal writing.

On Overfunctioning, Margins and the Functioning Perfectionist

[Republished from the Langley Harper blog]

I despise navel gazing. I hate talking about myself, so typing out this blog post has me alternately breaking out in hives, sweating with dread, and cringing in horror. I hate showing my hand, revealing my feelings, and showing my own humanity, so bear with me as I get through this.

With the new year comes new year’s resolutions, vision boards, themes, goals, and words to guide what we want (and believe we should obtain) within the next 365 (or 366 if it is a leap year) days. I have and continue to do a mix of all of these every quarter, and my 2015 was a melange of awful and awe, where most of goals bit the dust. The awful job wise is captured here in this post. The awe has been seeing friends married, engaged, having babies, seeing new things in my life come to fruition after years of waiting.

To kick off the year, after draining experiences with my job and service commitments, I said this on Twitter: “So far, 2016 is shaping up to the year where I half ass the required stuff, quit the unessential, focus on the true/real things, and chill.” Classy and elegant, it is not, but it’s real.

Upon later reflection, I decided to adapt the Chris Brogan model of resolutions, in which he advises that a person pick three words “that will guide you in the choices you intend to make for 2016. They should be words that let you challenge yourself as to motives and decisions. They should be words that help you guide your actions.”

I instead picked two phrases. My 2016 is the year of increasing the margins and the reduction of over functioning.

Over the Overfunctioning

Overfunctioning is when one unit works harder than the other units in a system. According to Will Meek, a licensed psychologist :

“Over-functioners (OFs) are usually seen as people who “have it together”, are detail oriented, organized, and reliable, and are typically viewed as being reliable workers, partners, and parents.”

Classic characteristics of over-functioning include being overly focused on another person’s problems or life situation, offering frequent advice or help to the other person, actually doing things that are part of the other person’s life responsibilities (and believing that “if I don’t do it, then it won’t happen”), feeling anger when help is not “appreciated” or the UF doesn’t change (or even want to), the OF believing he/she knows a better way for an UF to be living, and frequently feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and neglecting self-care. Over-functioning can be seen as a type of “enabling”, even though the intent is the opposite.”

Many women (and some men) have the character arc toward over functioning. I did until my last semester when things started to unravel at the seams. What I had carefully crafted and done.

In spite of my own research on black women in academia who try to do it all and be it all, of thinking that I could continue to add more to my schedule and my life, it all fell apart.

This article in Forbes slapped me in the face: I am an over functioning perfectionist.

Again, I scored an A+ on the seven questions the author posed, but this wasn’t the type of quiz I wanted to pass with flying colors. She followed up with the following advice:

“Shed the need to do it all perfectly, and embrace help from all those who will give it. And learn to trust that you aren’t meant to handle everything yourself, and live two or more lives within your one.  Identify where you can take action to ask and empower others—your spouse, children, colleagues, subordinates, etc.—to take on more responsibility, wherever possible and appropriate. An essential corollary to this is freeing yourself from guilt and shame about needing and wanting help, and remembering that getting help is a way of saying “yes” to what matters most.”

Thus, I received clarity on what my 2016 goal should be: recognize the overfunctioning, reduce the constant need to be perfect and do everything, and create margin and white space in my life.

The Margin Call

2016 is about creating the room for the true priorities and essentials that I need for my life. Because of my graphic design and newspaper layout experience, I call this white space. White space is the negative space. White space gives the eye a rest or breathing room on a page full of text and images. A design firm described it as such:

“the portion of a page left unmarked, the portion that is left blank, or (as Mark would quote) the empty space in a page. In web design terms, it’s the space between graphics, columns, images, text, margins and other elements. It is the space left untouched in order to smooth things out and transform a page into something elegant. It is also the blank space that reminds us that simpler designs are beautiful and that we don’t need to create a layout filled with text and graphical elements to deliver a clear and direct message.”

Shoes lined up by color along the wall

Richard Swenson, M.D. describes margin like this in his book,Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives: “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.”

The only way you get a margin is to create it, fight for it, make it happen. As a scholar, I dig deep into anything I am interested (which explains why my browser history logs hours on Wikipedia, etc.). So I did some research and came up with the following steps and ideas:

  1. Determine what is essential to your life. In the book Essentialisms, the author asked, ““If I wasn’t already involved, how hard would I work to attend?” I created a chart and began to fill it in. That helped me understand what I truly loved doing and what I didn’t.
  2. Here’s to making 2016 a year of breath, space, margin, and essentials. Here’s to those trying to right and do better–while sometimes failing at those things. Here’s to a happy and productive 2016, regardless of your resolutions and plans. Reduce or eliminate the non-essentials. As noted in the chart above, I sent emails and letters, gracefully resigning from certain roles. The world did not implode, and the organizations moved forward. I now have some margin with my time for the things that matter in 2016: my family, my triathlon training, my writing, and my business.
  3. Start with the bad boyfriend treatment. “”If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go to sleep with somebody else.” I am treating everything the way I would treat a bad boyfriend. Read Amy Poehler’s chapter on this. Work hard at what I love to, but don’t get caught up in the outcomes. Outcomes are what my ego and type A over functioning self loves: the achievement, the accolades. Nope, I’m doing the things I love for fun, enjoyment, and learning. If other things come along, that’s great. But that isn’t the priority.
  4. Be alright with “okay.” I have stopped fighting things that I can’t control. I shrug, say okay and move on. It’s hard. It’s unconventional for type A people like me who shudder and bawk at the idea of letting things flow.
  5. Put it on the calendar and batch things together. Block scheduling isn’t just for school days. You have to schedule in the things that you love. As Michael Hyatt wrote, “assign a theme for each day and then batch similar activities together.”