Reading Backward (to trick my brain)

Writers read, all the time. People who want to write should start by reading. There is no better way to learn than to read.

I’ve met many people who love writing but say that they don’t love reading. I admit it: at one point, this would have been me. I discovered, however, that there were three factors that were preventing me from enjoying reading, which is what I am sharing here, and what I share with my students.

The three factors were: 1. I had severe astigmatism, beyond what contact lenses can correct, and what most glasses can only address at a functional level, which made reading, especially small print books, an onerous effort of energy and concentration; 2. The only books I had been exposed to as a teen were books that were assigned for school, some which I enjoyed but most that I did not, leading to my associating the reading with grades, assignments, and the headache I’d get for trying to read the small print; 3. Most importantly, I have ADHD, which went undiagnosed until just recently, and which compounded problems 1 and 2.

Now I read a lot. I am a very slow reader, but also a very careful reader. So, while I may not “devour” books like some people I know, I read all the time.

So, what changed?

  1. Technology: Many people I speak to say that they prefer to read in print. I’m not one of those. Since the invention of the Kindle, my reading has skyrocketed in quantity and quality. I make the print as large as children’s books (my husband makes fun of me for that), and I zip through 500-page tomes like I’m going through a bag of chips.
  2. Wisdom & Flexibility: I wanted to tell stories and I knew that I could not do it if I didn’t also read stories. I soon realized that I had a “taste” and that I could read outside of what I was assigned in school. I’m a finicky reader even to this day, but I have expanded my reading to include the highly literary to the so-called “commercial”: I feel comfortable in both camps and everywhere in between.
  3. Method: As I said, I was not officially diagnosed with ADHD until just recently. I was informally diagnosed a few years ago, by a hearing doctor who figured out that I could not “hear” what people said if I was in a crowd not because there was anything wrong with my hearing but because my brain was not wired to process simultaneous conversations. However, I was not treated for this issue until just last year. The lines doctors gave me: “you’ve made it this far without pharmaceuticals, so why start now?” Of course, doing without also meant that what took my colleagues an hour to complete, it took me three or four, and more disadvantages than I care to enumerate, but I did develop some methods on my own to help me cope with the problem of a brain that hates to pay attention and/or that pays too much attention to one thing and one thing only.

Here are my weird methods for reading if you suffer from ADHD:

  1. Skip to the last page (but go back to read the rest later). This may seem counterintuitive but if I start to worry that the lovers will never see each other again or that the killer may never be caught, I cannot focus on my reading. I read the last page of a book – and only the last page – where I usually get enough clues (e.g. name of a character, meaning he/she is not dead at the end) to relax and enjoy the story without rushing. I can then enjoy the details, including the language, Weirdly, for me, if I know how it ends, I can relax and enjoy every word, and every nuanced moment. I also like to “guess” as I read, how we get to that last page, so I do this even if the book I’m reading doesn’t have a mystery or other suspenseful element.
  2. Read backward. This works only with short pieces. If I’m reading and I get that ADHD sensation of impatience, which is something like feeling extremely hot and itchy and unable to make the lines stop moving, then I go to the last paragraph and I read that. Then I move up to the one to the last, etc. until I meet up again with the paragraph that I abandoned one or two pages into. I don’t know why this works for me, but it does. Maybe it’s because I am forced to guess how the pieces fit together, and maybe that challenge is enough to switch my brain mode from “let’s look at everything that is in this room except this thing you are doing right now” to “let’s look at this thing and at this thing only.” I don’t know. When I tell people I read backward they think it’s weird and start to back away slowly, but on any given day, I read at least six or seven “short” stories, essays, journal articles, etc. outside of the grading I do for my schoolwork, and this method helps me stay focused, absorb the material, and keep going. It’s not all the time, of course, only when I am having a particularly difficult day, but it does help.

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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