Reading on the go

I read voraciously.  I read as if I need it to get through the day.  Because of my reading habits, I never thought that I had an attention problem, until I learned about hyperfocus.  If anything, I have attention to spare,  at least when it comes to reading. (Being able to direct focus is a different story.)

In any given day, I’ll read political blogs, surf Wikipedia, read poems,  work through one of the three or four books I’m usually reading, and none of that includes the reading I have to do for my job.  I estimate that I read and comment on about 2,500 student papers a year.  (Grading is my scourge.)

I didn’t always love reading in and of itself.  In middle school and high school, English was my least favorite subject. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, what was the point of all that nonsense?  To me, reading was instrumental, something I did to learn something useful or satisfy curiosity, and it only seemed, based on the way many of my teachers taught, that the point of reading dusty old literary stuff was to answer questions on quizzes, like this:

Ophelia is to Hamlet as
A) Peanut butter is to jelly
B) Peanut butter is to tuna
C) Peanut butter is to anaphylaxis
D) MacGyver is to bubble gum

That kind of read reading you did to get the right answer from a poem or whatever so you could learn something that somehow was supposed to be good for you.  I’ve written more poems than anything else since high school, but did not learn to love them until later.

The reading I liked then was the JC Penny Christmas catalog, model railroading magazines, computer magazines, photography books, and strange tales/science fiction writing.  For example, when I visited my grandmother in her drafty old farmhouse in rural Wisconsin, I would terrify myself by reading a book she had,  Haunted Wisconsin.  I would stay up all night hearing all the creaks in the house and the animals outside and imagining the worst.  I’d hear the twang of the frogs in the marsh and the clunk of cowbells and imagine whatever the rural Wisconsin version of the ghost of Christmas yet to come might be.  It didn’t help that my great uncle kept a pelt from his favorite deceased goat in my room, stuffed head and all.

I read that book every time I visited and would not sleep and go back home exhausted.  I couldn’t help myself.  I loved getting freaked out by the book during the day.  If I had some sort of interest in something, I could read it all day, damn the consequences.

I had always read easily.  Like my sons have today, I taught myself to read even before kindergarten.  In the first grade, a teacher thought I was just looking at pictures because I would page through the books so fast, but she quizzed me and found out that I indeed read them.  Through most of my primary and secondary education, I breezed through anything, unless I thought it wasn’t all that important, in which case I just listened to the class lecture.

When I first got to college, however, I had trouble reading.  I would have trouble sitting down long enough to focus to get through a chapter of a textbook.  There was so much fun to be had instead.  If I had to read something difficult, I would read the words much faster than I would comprehend them.  The reading was markedly more difficult than high school, and I couldn’t just skim stuff and retain it like before, and I didn’t have the patience or focus to slog through it.

After a couple of years of struggling, I learned to read with a highlighter or pencil in my hand.  I underline important concepts, sometimes write questions and comments in the margin.  I still do that for difficult reading.  The pen in my hand sliding across the page helps me slow down and stick with something difficult.  I focus, temporarily, on making really straight lines when I mark, and then the words stay clear to me.  That’s why I love the Kindle today, you can highlight as you read, and it stores all the highlights together.  And the lines are perfectly straight!

I got serious about reading after my first year of college.  After a disastrous start at the university, I took a writing class at a community college, having changed my major to English.  I told the professor, a calm fellow with small glasses and a big beard, that I wanted to be a writer.  He asked me what I read.  Mostly I read a lot of Reader’s Digest, because they were lying around my parents’ house as I was lying around my parents’ house at the time.  He told me I needed to get more serious about reading if I was serious about writing.

From then on, I’ve always read like a writer, focusing on how something is written in addition to what it says.  I can’t separate the two.  And always I read for comparison: could I write like this?  Should I?

This habit has led to some difficulties.  First, if I read a novel or something that’s in an genre that I might be interested in writing, I get angry if I feel it’s not written well.  Second, I often get seduced by what I read.  I read a science fiction novel; I want to write science fiction novels. I read a good poem, then I want to write poems.  I read Edward Abbey; I want to go live in the woods.  It’s frustrating that I know I could write a similar book only if I could sustain the interest long enough.

I often don’t have a strong sense of self and lose perspective once I’m “in” to some new book (the same goes for new hobbies).  There’s an overall pattern of inconsistency in my life.  That pattern appears in the piles of papers, tools, boxes, and other stuff I leave sitting around to take care of later.  That pattern is in my whims and fancies: Pen turning! Kayak building! Photography! Kitchen remodeling! Seventeen different writing projects! Or in scholarship: Literacy studies! Critical pedagogy! Faculty development! Contemplative education!

I’m always molding myself to the present, seeing how I can fit in to what’s going on around me.  It’s only very recently I’ve learned to start saying “no” at work to new projects and committee invitations unless they are core to my vision of what I do.  Only recently I am able to stick to that original vision of my professional self: I teach and write.

As I said above, reading is seductive.  Great writers create a new state of mind and they take me along for the ride.  Even merely good writers draw me in.  And when I’m reading something great, I dwell in possibility.  A portion of experience opens up to me, even a new way of seeing myself and the world, which is exhilarating and uplifting.  Until I find the new best thing next week.

I have been reading like a writer for a long time now.  It’s been twenty years since that teacher told me to read more like a professional.  And, for that long, I have been living mostly in possibility.  That is, reading and thinking like a writer, but not so much writing as one.  Missing is the important step: publishing!

*   *   *

That seemed like a tidy place to end the post, but there is one more, um, experience I did not yet include.  I am a bathroom reader, and I don’t mean while soaking in the tub.

Upon the throne is a great place to read.  One is not supposed to be doing anything, uh, productive with one’s time. So there’s no I should be paying bills thinking going on.  I can’t quite remember when I started taking reading into the W.C., but I remember taking in magazines and catalogs when I was a kid. My parents keep stacks of Reader’s Digest and The New Yorker in their bathrooms.

I read somewhere (probably in the same room) that reading helps one, ah, relax in that situation, stimulates the limbic system or some such system.

It’s gotten to the point where I feel I have to read to go.  Yes, I take books or a newspaper with me into the men’s room at work.  If, for some reason, I have no reading when I need it, I’ll even read a shampoo bottle or toothpaste tube and analyze the sentence structure.  (Shampoo bottles love active voice and imperative mood: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.)   I’ll admit to hiding out in the bathroom once in awhile just for some reading.  And while my discovery that I’m gluten intolerant has made my digestion and overall health much better, I find that it seriously cuts into my reading time.

The other issue there is the safety of my Kindle.  I’ve had to try hard not to drop it in the toilet.  And while this piece of technology is wonderful, I have also admit that, yes, I have purchased a book wirelessly from the bathroom and yes, that does seem a little strange.

Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales share...

Image via Wikipedia

toilet wc

Image via Wikipedia


I’ve had a bit of the doldrums lately.  I’ve got lots of work to do, lots of work that I need to make progress on, and I’ve had enormous difficulty getting started.  I read an apt description of my current state of mind in an essay by Tracy Kidder called “Courting the Approval of the Dead.”  He’s recalling his experience researching for Old Friends, his book on nursing homes, and coming to the realization that a fate worse than a painful death would be to spend one’s final days “bored and inert”:

What  meaning could life have, I’d find myself wondering, if the best of the last things people get to do on earth is play Bingo?

I’m certainly far removed from nursing-home existence, but “bored and inert” seems to be the curtain that has been drawn over my window recently.

A couple of weeks back, I hurt my back.  Kneeling on the floor putting my son’s shoes on as he readied for the bus to take him to kindergarten, I felt a strange twinge in my back, just above the crest of my pelvis on the left side.  That’s odd, I thought.  I stood up, felt a little pain,  not too much, and sat on the couch with my son.  We played with Talking Larry on my iPod until the bus came.

When I heard the bus rumbling up the hill, Alec stood up and I bent over him to put on his backpack.  I found, though, that I couldn’t straighten to an upright position, so I limped bent over to the door to let him outside.  I told him goodbye, watched him climb the stairs on the bus, and then collapsed to the floor.  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up, I thought.

I stayed on the floor a good twenty minutes.  I didn’t feel pain as long as I laid there, but trying to get to a standing position caused deep pain in my lumbar area; if I tensed my hamstring in any way, my back hurt. I used every yoga trick I knew, rolling, using my hands to assist, to eventually get to a standing position.  Standing was fine; walking was the next trick.  Any forward motion of my leg on the left side caused the pain to return, so in a sort of zombie shuffle, dragging my left leg, I made my way to the couch in the family room.

I knew that getting up would be hard after I sat down again, so I made sure to visit the bathroom and then gather my laptop and the phone and TV remote and a glass of water before I sat down.  I put all the items within reach and then carefully sat down and set about the business of cancelling my classes and conferences for the day.

The pain started to subside in a couple of days, and actually moved to my knee and shoulder blades as I compensated for my back.  Today I feel nearly fixed, more of a tightness in the region than anything else.  But this injury interrupted my practices and I am now feeling the results.

I had been riding my bicycle regularly for exercise, going to a yoga class once a week, and holding conferences with my students to keep up with grading papers.  All of those things got disrupted.  I’m not high energy kind of person (unless it’s something I’m really into like a video game) and all the painkillers I took were sapping my reserves.  Even the over-the-counter stuff I take gives me side effects; I couldn’t imagine doing anything prescription.  Needless to say, the bike and yoga class weren’t happening.

Putting things off is nothing new to me.  The things I am putting off today I put off when I felt better and more energetic.  It’s just now they are ganging up on me.  And even the pleasurable things have started to lose their luster.

Like this blog.  I feel like it’s been successful.  I’ve had as many as 65 hits on a single day, and a number of comments and a few subscribers.  In the two months I’ve been working at it, I’ve made 30 posts, and half of those are considerable, more than 1,000 words.  It’s been a fun project, and I feel like at least someone is reading my work, which makes me feel like some kind of writer.  I’ve felt as though I’ve had a couple of really good moments of discovery in my writing as well.

But now my blogging is starting to feel, for lack of a better word, “tainted.”  A project for me gets tainted when some kind of negativity or problem gets attached for it that I can’t seem to resolve.  When I get going on a novel manuscript, everything is new and shiny and exciting, and I really believe that I might finish it this time.  Then I run into some barrier, such as a scene that I am not happy with that I know needs to be different, but I’m not sure how, and then I stall.  After a couple days, I start to lose the thread of the story, and have to backtrack and re-read in order to refresh my memory.  It’s difficult to come back to and the longer I am away from a manuscript, the stupider the whole enterprise seems to me in the first place.  Similarly, I fall in and out of love with my poems.

This ebb and flow is not unusual, from what I’ve read of writers on their own writing.  Tom Perrotta, for example:

I have to send the kids out to daycare and then drink a pot of coffee and play my guitar until I get so disgusted with myself that I have to write.

But the point for him is that eventually he does write, and has experienced success.

Anyway, this blog project became tainted in several ways.  First, I started out way less than serious about blog writing, but now do take it seriously, and am reading my reference books on memoir, and am now starting to apply a higher standard (and more pressure) to myself.  Second, I started out in a David Sedaris writing mode, having just finished reading a couple of his books, but am now rereading The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, and am feeling more serious and less silly about my condition and don’t want to be pegged as a funny writer anymore (at least today).  I often get seduced by what I read in the sense that if it moves me I want to emulate it.  I read a lot of things and can’t decide who I want to be.  I have a hard time saying, “that’s really great writing, but I’m not that kind of writer,” unless it is something extraordinarily erudite.

Finally, and this is the hardest hurdle, is that I feel like I’ve been investing time in this blog at the expense of The Things I’m Supposed To Be Doing, and therefore it is an instrument of avoidance.  That’s the humdinger.  The whole enterprise seems a waste of time, then, a deliberate waste of time, the wost kind.  I developed this kind of Protestant work ethic idea of what a good person ought to be, and though I cannot live up to it, I nevertheless constantly compare myself to it.  Good people are dependent and reliable and productive and hard working, like Boxer in Animal Farm.

“Why are you writing?” you may ask.

I had a good chat with my wife over this state of blah I’m in and mentioned feeling like this blog was a waste of time.  She disagreed.  “If you want to be a writer,” she said, “you have to practice.”  She’s right, as usual.  One makes time for the important work, and finds some way to do the rest.  I am grateful for the insight, and it helped me get started on this post today.

I can almost forgive her for sleeping through my back injury.

Shameless Self Promotion

I’ve been really happy with the feedback I’ve gotten from this blog.  In the effort to further puff up my vanity, I have started another new blog.

I’m an MFA graduate and frustrated poet.  I’ve been writing a lot the last twenty years without seeing much of it published.  Among the many drafts I have, I’ve written a number of poems about my son who has autism and I’m tired of sending them out to journals and book publishers to be mostly rejected.

So I will put them on my new blog.  Please check it out and comment.  I love comments.  They make my whole day better.  Even if your comment is how much I suck, at least someone is reading and reacting to my work, instead of just sending me the standard electronic rejection slip.

And now, behold!  The link:






Writing’s the Thing

I’ve had this idea, since I was about ten, that I had to find my Thing in life.  I had to find the role that would define me, that I could settle into, that would make my name known to the world.  All through school I had the label “gifted.” I always took advanced classes, read at the top end of the highest reading group, had special classes and groups designed for the gifted and talented.  From age ten on I knew that I had to do something in life, and that I would succeed at that choice, fill my special role in the world.  I just had to choose what my Thing would be.

I thought it might be computers.  Inspired by the TV series Whiz Kids and the movie War Games, when we got our first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, I set out to learn everything about programming in BASIC, and eventually write my own computer games.  I bought books and graph paper and came up with lots of ideas (trying to create War Games on the VIC-20, for instance) but it proved too complicated and I gave up.

Commodore VIC-20 Computer with later revision ...

1980's awesomeness!

My mom bought me a subscription to Writer’s Digest, so as a thirteen year old I started reading about agents and crafting dialogue and how to research markets.  I read lots of J.R.R. Tolkein and Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and I imagined penning my own novel, how I would appear on the dust jacket photo in my pinstriped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a knit tie loosened at the collar, my hair adorably mussed and overhanging my smart glasses as I posed thoughtfully in front of my trusty typewriter.  But that writing never happened.  I read and read, preparing for the day that the great flow of pages would begin, but it didn’t happen.

So I decided that it was not my Thing, that instead, my Thing was just preparing to go to college while having as many hobbies as possible.  I built models, played keyboards, ran cross-country and track, got serious about bicycling for awhile.  Those were all diversions from the Thing I sort of resigned myself to do: become an electrical engineer.

I don’t know how I decided to be an electrical engineer.  I didn’t really know what they did, even after years of visiting colleges in high school.  My thinking was that they did something with electronics, which seemed cool, and they made a good salary, and you had to be good at science and math, which I was.  It made sense.  My Thing, then was just to get good grades.

But I did really well in my writing classes too.  I even went to a two-week-long summer institute in creative writing.  I kept getting invited to these academic summer camps.  I did one in biology and one in engineering, so I thought I would have a lark and do one in creative writing.  I had a lot of fun, but it didn’t change my life.  I had a vague notion about writing a book once in awhile, but like mullets and acid-washed jeans, that whim passed.

My senior English teacher, Mrs. LaMothe, took special interest in me.  We college-prep kids had a capstone class called Creative Composition.  Our special honor was that we could bring pop and snacks to class to help our process.  Some of us actually got to write on a computer!  (It was 1988.)  She said to me “I wish we’d discovered this talent sooner.”  I never thought I had a “talent” for English class.  I liked writing, but the literature classes pained me.  I could read faster than anyone, but had little patience for slowing down to tease the meaning out of a poem, or wading through page after page of the Elizabethan English of a Shakespeare play, both of which were litmus tests of the English student specialty.  I fit in more on the Math/Science side (Captain of the math team!).

Anyway, I went to college and met true failure for the first time.  After switching to creative writing as my major, and then earning an MFA in same, and teaching for 17 years, I still struggle to find my Thing.  Mostly I need focus, and cannot garner it, unless I am taking a class or workshop.  Today, for example, I woke up with the resolve to be a better poet, but I can’t decide how best to invest my time.  Write new poems?  Revise old ones? Prepare submissions? Read?  If I decide to read, read what?  Contemporary poems? Canonical? Literary criticism?  Journals? Poets & Writers? Should I network with poets on SecondLife and Facebook? Apply for funds to go to another conference?  Work on my oft-rejected book manuscript again?  All these things seem equally important to me, and I couldn’t decide, so I read political blogs and played Angry Birds until I got disgusted with myself and started this blog post.

The thing about ADD/ADHD, at least as I experience it, is that when you don’t know you have it, you can’t understand why you have such a hard time doing things that other people do easily.  Like decide what part of being a writer to focus on today, this minute.  Like how to plan something and then trust yourself that you will do it.

Another thing that happens is that you finally find your flow, and say, this is it, this is my Thing, this is who I am, and it works for awhile because it is a new project or new challenge or you have some structure supporting it because you started taking a class or a workshop or joined a group or something, and everything seems focused and clear until something happens, something that taints the new Thing, a problem that you can’t resolve easily, or a drawback that you never considered, and suddenly it’s not new and exciting anymore, it’s one of the five hundred old things that you’ve discarded, and you’re lost again.  The more this cycle repeats, the taller the pile of discarded selves weighing on your mind until it’s difficult to find anything to get optimistic about anymore.

So I write, and stow it away, and write some more, and stow it away.  Or I don’t write and I feel bad.  Writing is flow, forward momentum.  When I start a day by writing—and I mean composing words, not editing or submissions or whatever—the rest of the day seems a bit more workable.  When I go for a week or two without writing, I’m lost.  I start to think I’ll never write again.

The formula for feeling well is simple.  Do my work, write, exercise, eat well, take my supplements, meditate.  All these things are easily available to me, and yet, when I’m in a funk (I have often called it a freeze, because I feel frozen, unable to move) none of these things happen.  I do their opposites: stay up late, not working or writing, sit around, watch TV, eat junk.  The constant way out is writing.  When I’m dead and gone, if I have any sort of success as a writer, whoever’s left to examine my papers will surmise from my journals that I was an unhappy dude.  I always turn to the journal when things are really bad, almost never write, “Had a good day, did my work, got a poem accepted, and paid the bills on time!”  Mostly because good writing is about conflict and it’s hard to be both happy and interesting.