This year you pledged to write more, write every day, yes?
And yet, the blankety, blank page is the same as it was last year. Sad, empty, forlorn, uncaring, unfulfilled, bare, blank, hollow, vacant, void, laughing at you in scorn. Okay, so maybe I’m projecting a little here…
Still, at times we all need help finding ideas or reaching a deeper level with our writing. If you were not an English major, you may not be familiar with the technique of close reading. And even if you were an English major, you may not have associated close reading with its use as a writing technique.
(Hint: if you are in a hurry or don’t care about the background, skip down to Tools and Example).
What it is
In literary criticism, close reading is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of a text. A close reading emphasizes the single and the particular over the general, effected by close attention to individual words, the syntax, the order in which the sentences unfold ideas, as well as formal structures. A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_reading).
It is not feasible here to delve into all of the history and controversies of literary criticism and close reading. For those interested, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory is a good starting point.
Close reading as active imagination and amplification
Dr. Susan Rowland first introduced me to using close reading as a writing practice. She described it in terms of C. G. Jung’s practice of active imagination.
Active imagination…means that the images have a life of their own and that the symbolic events develop according to their own logic (Jung, 1968, CW7: para. 397).
According to Rowland (2018), “active imagination was devised by Jung as a therapeutic method of working with powerful images, by his definition, symbols. Perhaps a dream has been particularly troubling to a patient. Take the most symptomatic image from the dream and try to stay with it. Allow the image to exist within the psyche no matter how alien it feels. In effect, treat the image as the text of another, a missive from the unknown, unconscious psyche. Eventually, the image with its overwhelming affect will truly show itself to be alive. Acting true to its autonomous archetypal nature, it will move, expand, breathe, develop, and may even speak” (p. 38).
Jung also used a method of working with symbols and images called, amplification. According to Jung, as cited in Rowland (2018), “a symbol is amplified by finding sources and analogies for it in the collective culture, in history and in mythology” (Jung, 1944, CW12: para 34).
Rowland’s (2018) thesis is that all of the different forms of literary close reading (e.g., New Criticism, reader-response, and Formalism) closely resemble Jung’s methods of active imagination and amplification. She argues that this is so because close reading “opens words to operate as Jungian symbols. Words become mysterious because they are freed from the fantasy that either author or reader can know everything” (p. 40).
Yes, this can all be quite esoteric, so for those still reading, I will provide some tools and an example.
If you have stuck with me thus far, or have smartly jumped to this section, I will simply say that to be a writer who uses close reading as your method, your main tools will be:
Etymology (explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago).
A Thesaurus (for different takes on your word under examination)
Symbol Dictionaries (of which there are many)
Mythology References (Wikipedia is also a good starting point)
The text used for a close reading:
“I see a large black scarab floating past on the dark stream. In the deepest reach of the stream shines a red sun, radiating through the dark water” (Jung, The Red Book, pg. 237).
My amplification and partial active imagination with the text:
The scarab or dung beetle can fly, burrow underground or move along the surface with its six legs (a shaman of upper and lower.) However, floating in water is not something it would normally do. Dung beetles, true to their name, love dung. They roll it into tidy balls for consumption, they tunnel and lay their eggs within the dung ball for their larvae to hatch and eat their way out. Or they may simply burrow their way into excrement to live and eat at their leisure. The more enterprising species hitch a ride on an animal host, and wait for the perfect pooping opportunity and then joyfully hop off when the goods have arrived.
Driving home from work, enclosed in my small car (a hard black shell or a dung ball?), I imagined myself as that scarab, floating along the water of unnatural asphalt roads, my two legs not touching the ground, not flying or borrowing. It is upside-down not to follow the true course of one’s legs. The sun is underwater, not overhead. Traveling thus, the Egyptian Sun god, Re is on his night journey through the underworld. As the scarab rolls his dung ball, Re moves the sun from its death in the west, to its rebirth in the east. Like Re’s mystical union with the mummified body of Osiris, the god of the dead, in the deepest depths of the netherworld, the male and female dung beetle lay and fertilize their eggs within the dung ball together, underground. This likewise is the renewal of life with the freely moving sun and soul, and the decomposing earth matter; a rolling, floating ball, a shining through; light emerging from dark waters.
Close reading is a way of seeing images and text in new and unexpected ways to spark or enhance your writing. If you’re not sure where to begin, start with an image that moves you then focus on delving deep into one word that first comes to mind. And then the next, and the next…free write your findings, thoughts, and feelings as you go.