By Dylan Townsend
“What do you enjoy reading?”
It’s a question that you can generally answer off the top of your head. Science fiction, fantasy, romance—most people can call to mind a handful of genres that they consider their reading tastes. But literature is a broad, broad sphere. How many favorites are out there that you’ve never even considered picking up because they don’t fall into the band of genres you call your own?
As a student editor for Watershed Review for two semesters and Flume Press for one semester, I’ve read dozens and dozens of pieces that never would have crossed my path as a casual reader. College students are often bombarded by this kind of assigned reading when they take literature courses, but personally, very few of those pieces have spoken to me in the same way that submissions to Watershed Review and Flume Press have. In part, knowing that this is the work of a living, contemporary author makes the forced reading more palatable. Someone out there put their heart into this work and cares about my eyes on it, and this leaves me more open to broadening my horizons; not only that, but I want to engage with it as the author intended, which can be difficult with unfamiliar forms. When discussing poetry chapbooks, it led me to ask a simple yet hard to answer question: “How do I read poetry?” Going around the room, almost everyone had something unique to contribute. Ask what the poem is trying to achieve, how it makes you feel, and how it changes when read aloud. See how the structure of the poem on the page connects to the meaning of the poem (or doesn’t). Jeanne Clark, professor of poetry at CSU Chico, provided another important piece of the puzzle for me when she visited the class and explained how she evaluates poems by the first line, last line, and the beginning and end of each line. Each of these tools, and the experience of having to read so much poetry, allowed me to appreciate the artistry involved in a form I previously cared little for.
Nonfiction was another genre that never interested me prior to working on Watershed Review. Since I was old enough to read, I have devoured science fiction, fantasy, and many other forms of fiction. My own writing has been almost exclusively fiction; I find it extremely difficult to write creatively about my own life. However, I found that the creative nonfiction writing I read often resonated strongly with me, even when my personal experiences came nowhere close to that of the piece. Specifically, the main thing I have discovered enjoyment in is nonfiction that feels intimate and unfiltered. Writing is unique among media forms in its ability to transmit emotion and thoughts with explicit precision. A conversationally-told story may be interesting and engaging, but a writer can take the time to decipher all the implicit parts of that story and portray the internal, personal lives of people in fascinating ways, all the more fascinating for being based on truth.
As a writer myself, all the submissions I have read have helped me reevaluate the way I write and consider my own work. Reading broadly in all genres has given me a better understanding of deftness of word and phrase; the same techniques that make a poem striking in its concise beauty can be applied to prose as well. If a scene doesn’t have the impact I am looking for, the culprit is often a lack of those intimate thoughts that make you understand and care about the individuals portrayed.
These insights I gained through this experience will continue to improve me as a writer, reader and editor, as well as provide a more thoughtful answer to the question:
“What do you enjoy reading?”