This is one of those academic facts that still does not make sense to me. While I am reading, I seem to be making sense of grammatical units, an argument or a story seems to be forming in my mind. After I have read, I can tell you what the thing was about. It's not like I'm illiterate or trying to read in a language that has yet to be deciphered.
But none of that is really reading--it's just mechanics. It's better mechanics than when a child sounds out a sentence and looks up brightly because he accurately pronounced all of the letters, but just as a teacher might wait for the child to put the sounds together coherently, to make sense of what he's read, we must force ourselves to put together what we have read. I have in mind a very material image of a new jar of play-doh; when we read mechanically, the content is like the fresh, unshaped dough. In its pristine form, it may be tantalizing, but one could not put it on a shelf and admire it and call that "play."
To play with play-doh, one must mash it. This is the essential first step: to feel its cool materiality squish between one's fingers as if these human hands were webbed like ducks. The second step is to roll a snake/log, but the second step is not the focus of this particular blog post; I am talking about the smashing.
How does one metaphorically smash Shakespeare or Joyce? How does one move beyond admiration with the former or even achieve that much with the latter? If I had not already given you the answer in the title, you might be alarmed at the question. Move beyond admiration for Shakespeare! you might be thinking. Is she mad?
Think of it then like love. You admire someone from a distance; proximity stirs deeper feelings. One must be closer to Shakespeare than a mere admirer, and to bring him close as you might pull a lover to you by his collar, you must write.
Writing does not mean taking notes or copying down favorite lines. This is merely a clever way to avoid writing, a trick we all play upon ourselves. When you really write about a piece of fiction or literature or art, it will be much more difficult than merely copying. You will either love the thing about which you are writing and thereby have too many topics, all too broad, to ever begin, or you will be apathetic toward the thing and thereby believe you have nothing to say about it.
Start by copying it. If it's art, draw it. If it's a piece of writing, sometimes rewriting it is useful. You will find much more pattern and meter in The Waste Land that way than any other method I have tried. But a more direct approach is to simply describe the thing.
When you try to squeeze a work of art into other words, it will resist you like a child being squeezed into a car seat with a winter coat. To describe something, you have to generalize in places, and as you do, you begin to notice the corners of a story and the shadows of a poem that you overlooked in your hasty first reading or your lackadaisical 33rd reading.
If you are like me, you will be tempted to "write" about a thing in your head. This is not writing; it is either thinking done in preparation for writing or it is procrastination; either way it is like serving diced onions for dinner instead of using the preparation stage to prepare, that is, cook the whole meal.
When you move all the way from the recipe to chopping the onions to sauteing them and mixing them with other things like chicken and spices, you have made a meal. Likewise, when you move through the entire act of reading, from reading a book to underlining, thinking, and ultimately describing and then making an argument about it, only then have you read the book.