I’m not naturally a person who reads a book multiple times or watches the same movie over and over. There are too many things I haven’t read, too many movies I’ve not yet seen, to spend large amounts of time re-hashing things I’ve already digested. (There are some exceptions, but they are few and far between.)
As a substitute teacher, I’ve been in a couple of situations that helped me understand two key concepts for emerging writers.
Repetition is Key to Understanding
The first thing I realized came in two different, but similar circumstances. A few years ago, during two different school years, I subbed several days, for different teachers, in different classrooms, with different students, but each day we were covering the same topic: Romeo and Juliet. I spent more time reading R&J those two years than I’d ever spent on that text. Similarly, I had a two-week assignment last year where we covered (five times) a good chunk of To Kill a Mockingbird. Again, because I was teaching (multiple times) these texts, I had to dwell in them much longer than I did when I read them as a student.
I saw so much more of the subtlety in the writing. I internalized phrases and word patterns and rhythms. The repetition opened the text up to me. I saw the flaws, the places where the words are still surprising and engaging even after multiple reads. The first thing I understood, then, was that repetition breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds a new level of understanding that extends beyond the A to Z of plot and the “consult the Cliff’s Notes to understand the symbolism” mindset.
Repetition Gives You a Peek Behind the Curtain
The second realization came to me as I was watching a video. Back in Indiana, I subbed for a science teacher who left a Mythbusters DVD for the students to watch. I got to watch it six periods, that day. Same episode. Six times. Then, last week, I watched a documentary on childhood obesity four times. Repeated viewings of these videos revealed to me several things beyond the surface of the shows. I started to see where editorial decisions had been made, in both content AND presentation. I saw places where the documentary could have zigged, but the director zagged, instead. I noticed inconsistencies in the statistics that I hadn’t caught the first time through.
In other words, I could see more of the skeleton below the final product.
Writing is this way, too. If I read a Flannery O’Connor story multiple times, I begin to see more and more of the decisions she made in the writing and editing, and I can learn from the master, though she’s been dead for many years.
This is a powerful thing about literature. It out lives the author, but it can still tell us many things, still teach us, still help us, propel us forward in our own art.
As I’ve spent more time studying specific stories, I’ve come to appreciate the usefulness of repetition. It is a great way to unlock a great story.