Angel in the Details: How to Excel at Appreciating
By Tineke Bryson, Staff Writer
Would you like to derive more joy from interacting with words? In “Turn Your Gift with Words Inside Out,” I explored the way we writers often elevate what we can achieve with words above enjoying words for themselves. I shared the challenge I set myself: to turn my priorities inside out by focusing on appreciation instead of being impressive.
I bet lots of you share my desire to enjoy language more. A love of words is how many of us got started writing! But how do we become the kind of people who value words over our own ability with them? How do we become excellent “noticers,” appreciators?
Sometimes, society collapses the categories of writer and fangirl—not that people assume writers are female, but they expect from writers the kind of enthusiasm for reading, movies, and fandoms that popular culture calls “fangirling.” I’m a fangirl and proud of it, but being a fangirl—or fanboy—while fun and positive, is not the same thing as being good at appreciating. Thoughtful appreciation of words goes beyond acting enthusiastic.
What we are after is a countercultural approach to language. In an industry where people get attention by eviscerating the work of others in stinging reviews, elevating the art of appreciation takes effort. Here I share some reflections on the ways I have tried to focus on appreciation instead of on my own ability. I want to be an angel in the details—noticing and pointing out the beauty and strength in the writing of others, and enjoying words for themselves not what I can do with them. I hope you will be inspired to turn your gift with words inside out, too!
Learn about Words
I collect the beautiful words I read and hear. As my friends know, I like to share them in lists on social media from time to time. People often reply with favorites of their own, and I love that! But I also deliberately throw learning opportunities in my path. The internet provides so many opportunities to learn about words. Where I used to read the thesaurus and the dictionary (yes, me too!), now I can sign up for a new word in my inbox every day, and follow users on Twitter who share obscure words and idioms.
I have always kept a pen to hand when reading a physical book, so I can underline interesting ideas, but now I also circle words I don’t know the meaning of, so I can look them up and jot down the meaning in the margins. I love that I can look up a word directly on my smartphone—I don’t have to have a physical dictionary handy. I can do it on the spot.
Read Poetry and Poetic Prose
In Reading Poetry: A Little-Used Tool to Strengthen Prose, Gabrielle encouraged all of us to read more poetry. Poems are just such a wonderful way to enjoy words—the sounds in them, the look of them on the page. Lots of fiction writers craft beautiful sentences, but using words beautifully is especially critical to the craft of a poet. For the most part, poems are also quite short—something I can read no matter how busy I am. My favorites are Edna St Vincent Millay, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Mary Oliver.
I also love to read nonfiction where there is attention to beautiful language. I find I read these quite slowly, but that’s no slight to them; I am just occupied savoring the writing sentence by sentence. Find a book like that and “sip” from it every day.
Become a Fan of a Lesser-Known Writer
It’s easy to join the throngs of people who admire J. R. R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, and Ray Bradbury. In a sense, it’s even relatively easy to pick out why we admire them. Having studied Jane Austen’s novels in minute detail in high school, I have an education on how to appreciate her work. But Austin doesn’t need another fan. Lesser-known writers—and writers who aren’t even very talented—do. Writers you would have a hard time getting approved to write about in school because they’re not important enough to warrant scholarship.
In coaching writers, I quickly learned how much less effort it takes to notice what is wrong with a story than it is to identify what is right. Our brains are very good at finding flaws, cracks, problems, and worrying over them. We naturally obsess over a cruel comment more than a compliment. The same is true when we read. We notice ourselves reacting negatively and—if we’re editors—set ourselves the task of figuring out why. I have to balance this tendency with decisions to notice and appreciate what is good. Not just to avoid crushing the souls of the authors, but so that I don’t turn into a lazy consumer.
I challenge you to pick a writer of mediocre success, someone with potential who also has weaknesses, and study their work. Really study it. Learn how to explain their strengths, appreciate the themes, talk them up. Your “noticing muscle” will grow stronger.
Become a Fan of Your Competition
Along similar lines, you can’t do better than by choosing to champion the work of somebody who shares your own writing traits and aspirations. As writers, it’s hard not to fear and resent other writers who are pulling off what we wish we were doing ourselves. The story I shared in my previous post about my feelings while reading Katherine Rundell’s work is a case in point. It takes special grace to choose to actively admire the work of a “rival” instead of ignoring it. It takes a special humility to vocally support them and recommend them to others.
Become a Referential Writer
One of my favorite writers is Robert Macfarlane. I love to read his books because of his precision of language; he writes beautifully about nature; but I also really admire him because he’s a highly referential writer. By “referential,” I mean that he writes about other writers. He loves to bring a somewhat obscure landscape writer into his own work, exploring their ideas and strengths. Opening one of his books is like setting off on a treasure hunt. I gather clues to other books and poems and art to track down and enjoy. Macfarlane doesn’t seem to suffer from a fear of being derivative or unoriginal. He lends his considerable talents to introducing and praising other writers. I have noticed that since I started reading his books, I am much more likely to quote from other writers in my own work. His example has freed me from a false need to distract my readers from the source material of my own ideas. I now want to be in a conversation more than I want to be on stage.
Find New Heroes
To piggyback on the last suggestion: choose to admire appreciators. We do slowly take on the traits of those we admire. I admire Robert Macfarlane because he is so gifted at appreciating others. I also admire this same impulse in some of my editor friends: people who give their energy and ability with words to building up others. Such people are my heroes. It’s fine to admire a writer just because their books are great, but we need examples in our life of writers who use their platform to encourage others. On a smaller scale, ask yourself who of your acquaintance is good at encouraging people and noticing strengths and beauty. Then study that person’s behavior.
Thanks for reading! I wish you joy in words! I wish for you release from the pressure to impress! I will continue to work hard at these appreciation habits—I want to finish my life having truly noticed and reveled in the beauty all around me, including in the writing of others.
If you’ve got an appreciation suggestion for me to try, let me know in the comments!
I live in the center of a pretty complicated Venn diagram, right where fiction and nonfiction, creating and editing, and North American, European, and West African culture meet. I grew up abroad, and before joining The One Year Adventure Novel, I worked as an editor.
My husband and I presently live in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Read about my move in “Musings on Adventure from an Anxious Protagonist”.) I’m also The One Year Adventure Novel‘s resident creative nonfiction enthusiast. An especially avid reader of landscape writing, I also love British and African history, reading middle-grade fiction, and collecting moths.