Writing for the Reluctant Reader

by Elizabeth Mosier

When Brian Bouldrey, editor for Gemma Open Door, asked me to contribute to the series designed to promote adult literacy, I was thrilled to be anywhere near Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby, whose books had been published in the original Open Door lineup in the UK.  Writing for Open Door was a chance to be involved in a literacy effort different from teaching, and yet to put into practice what I’ve learned from 15 years of working with students from second graders to college students to retirees.  But in the end, the process of writing The Playgroup taught me about my own work.

When I signed on, the Open Door series was new to the U.S.—mine was the third book published here—but it was already a success in the UK.  There, the books were designed to inspire reading, instill confidence (with short chapters and wide margins) and build vocabulary.  As our publisher, Patricia O’Hare, explained to me,  she didn’t want “dumbed-down or patronizing dickandjane stuff, but the very best writing to entice and encourage people who struggle to read, or people for whom English is not their first language.  And, as we are discovering, the adult reluctant reader.”

I’ve taught many students of all ages who are, at times, “reluctant readers”—people who are out of time, out of patience, out of practice:  from little kids who have to run around the room between sentences of a fractured fairy tale to tired adults in an evening continuing ed course, who arrive straight from work and eat a fragrant cheese steak while quickly skimming last week’s reading assignment.

At Bryn Mawr, students are famous for eagerly putting their noses into whatever reading load we assign—or at least faking it really well—but our impressively large number of international students guarantees a classroom that includes readers who first learned a language other than English.  For these students, the challenge isn’t simply literal understanding, but often deriving meaning from ideas and images that are distinctly American.  And that’s not even to mention the task undertaken by every first-year student, who is learning—as I had to, as we all have to—to speak the new language of academic discourse.

Which is to say:  writing is always translation.   I learned a lot about my writing aesthetic in graduate school and through long years of practice.  But teaching—little kids or adults new to creative writing—is what taught me that the writer’s first requirement is clarity.  We know the world through our senses, and so we must describe what we experience using sensory detail that opens the door to the world we’ve created on the page.  This seems intuitive, but for a literary writer well versed in the fine art of writing and trying to sound smart, it isn’t always intuitive.  I was amazed, combing through the pretty sentences of my first draft of The Playgroup, at how many of these sentences just didn’t make sense.

So, writing for Open Door improved my work.

Literary writers are particularly attuned to the many reasons people do not or cannot or will not read.  But I was interested in contributing to the Open Door series because its editorial guidelines are shaped by optimism.  As my editor, Brian Bouldrey, said when we first discussed my idea for The Playgroup, “Think of the lengths people go to in order to read, learning non-native languages and inventing Braille, the sheer genius of those with impediments to reading.  Open Door wants to meet those ambitions halfway, with stories that are intelligent and complex and that pay particular attention to clarity, pacing, and the inviting presentation of text.”

Brian’s somewhat subversive goal for the Open Door series is what finally convinced me to put down the novel I had been writing to attempt to sneak a novel’s worth of material into the 100-page limit the series required.  Open Door aims to produce books that challenge readers to read deeply.  Or as Brian put it, “to make slow readers…slower.”

I wrote The Playgroup for the reluctant reader I have been—most recently, as a young mother, sleep deprived and with an attention span shorter than the time it takes for a toddler to ingest a small toy or put on a pair of my high heeled shoes and fall backwards down the stairs.   (It happened.  She lived.)   I wrote The Playgroup for the reason most writers write their books:  because it’s the book I most wanted, most needed, to read.

Elizabeth Mosier is the author of “The Playgroup” (Gemma Open Door) and “My Life As A Girl” (Random House).  She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the Pennsylvania Young Writers Program.

 

 

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