How to Read Mindfully As a Writer

Screenshot of Amy Tan’s Masterclass

Writers are supposed to read but if you’re anything like me, you don’t. Or else, you try to read and struggle. One sentence away from the end of a bestseller and my mind is still wandering. Why? Either I’m feeling guilty about reading instead of writing, or else I’m thinking about whatever it is I should be writing instead.

But reading is important, especially as awriter. Ask any successful writer out there, how can I improve my craft? They’ll all say the same thing. Read. Read novels you love. Read essays you hate. Explore different genres and styles. Study the ones you’re most drawn to. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.

But I’ve tried, and I’ve failed. Over and over and over.

Until I watched the poised and profound author of The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s Masterclass on fiction, memory, and imagination. She explained how mindfulness, and creative notetaking, can improve and leverage a writer’s experience reading. And it all starts with a single notebook.

Whenever you read, keep a small notebook handy

It doesn’t matter what you’re reading, whether it’s a Medium article, or a biography, a fiction novel, or the news, you should have a designated place to take notes. My advice is that you don’t use your iPhone’s notes application. Real pen and paper will prevent the temptation to browse or get distracted.

Record the title of what you’re reading and the page associated with each note you take

As writers, we get inspiration from the things we hear, see, experience, and read. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between our own ideas sparked by the inspiration of others, and others’ original ideas altogether.

Amy Tan keeps a notebook for this very reason. She’s diligent in writing down exactly what she found interesting, and what it inspired in her. She says it’s too easy to forget which notes are recorded research and which notes are genuine ideas that could be used in future writing. Amy explains:

Sometimes I look at the notes that I’ve taken and I say to myself, did I really write this? Is this really my idea? And it would be very dangerous for me not to know. I would be afraid to use these ideas.

Record the date you made each entry and the place you were at that time

Knowing the date and place of each note will transport you back both physically and mentally. Not only could your notes help generate future work, tapping into an old mindset — whether you were angry, or eager, or heartbroken, or in love — might unravel something too.

Amy does not journal in a chronological way. She has thirty or forty journals and scraps of notes she can refer to anytime she’s experiencing writer’s block or needs inspiration.

It reflects a little bit of the disorganization of my life, which I like. It’s real. Thoughts go in and out and I forget some of them and they come in conjunction with other things that happened in the past.

Write down your questions and passing thoughts

I am super ADHD when I read. Sentences ignite questions. Questions need answers. Answers need to be Googled. And that’s how I end up down a rabbit hole of useless information. Now, I write these questions down instead. If they’re important enough, I can look them up later. I rarely ever do.

Briefly record any personal memories that arise

Memories are crucial to writing, especially in personal essays and memoirs, but also in academia, where writers need to rely on their recollection of relevant data and research. Memories are fickle. They disappear as quickly as they come. If you don’t write them down, they could be gone forever.

Log uncommon words you love or don’t know the definition of

I’m a collector of words. I have a rolling list of vocabulary I’m eager to use one day. Write the word down now. Find the definition later. Remember, you’re still reading. Right?

Write down common words and phrases that annoy you

In literature and in life, we tend to fall back on the same old, tired expressions. Good writing comes from imagination and innovation, from making observations of the world in a new way. Not only is it useful to record unusual words for the future, but you should also make note of the common, cliche phrases to steer clear of.

The importance of keeping a reading journal

I started my own reading journal after watching Amy Tan’s Masterclass. I’m not only able to read more intently and attentively, but I’ve also found myself more productive when I sit down to write. I no longer experience brain fog.

Not only do I withhold more of the information that I’ve read — since I’m a visual learner who benefits from longhand writing and notetaking — but now, I also have a relatively organized place to draw from new ideas. If nothing else, my reading journal is a chaotic, honest, and candid look inside my brain as both a writer and a reader. And that, Amy Tan believes, is priceless.

If this [journal] was for sale and you were the only buyer, you’d buy a million copies because this is the most interesting book that you’ve ever read and that’s because everything resonates with your life.

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