Creating a Reader in a World of Multi-Tasking

I have been reading since I was at least 4 years old. I spent much of my childhood curled up under covers with my best friends, the ones found between the pages of books. I could spend hours or days hidden there, sometimes never coming up for air until I had read a book from start to finish. I’m sure there were times that my mother had to remind me to come down or leave the house.

Even now, if I have no other commitments, I can disappear for days, ravenously reading anything that comes my way. Much to my surprise, my addiction has only been fueled more by my Kindle (something I was against owning at first). Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer the feel of a book in my hands, and the joy of turning pages. But, once I discovered the ease of finding FREE books on Kindle, as well as the ease of making a purchase just after you finish one book and realize you want something else to read, I realized that there is something truly wonderful to having words at your finger tips.

As a matter of fact I’ve read around 10 books (or more) since I headed to my “summer home” at the end of June.

Sarah sees me reading all the time. She has picked up the (perhaps bad) habit of collecting books. She claims to love reading as well, but there is a difference that drives me crazy . . .

Sarah never seems to finish a book.

She has several books started. She has a summer homework assignment which requires her to read two books and write 8 essays (short) about them.

Getting her to sit down and read those books has become torture.

Not that she isn’t reading. She is currently sitting next to me reading her Highlight’s magazine. I just cannot get her to sit down and finish a book.

I have a theory. In a world where everything comes in high-speed mini-bites, she can only focus in short bursts. A magazine story or article requires a shorter attention span than a novel.  I see it with all my students, who never seem to finish their reading assignments completely. We are raising a generation of people with the inability to focus for an extended period of time.

It makes me sad. I can only hope that someday Sarah will find a book that she simply cannot put down.

Do you think reading is becoming a lost art?

A Story from the Heart, or The Writer I Want to Be

I’ve been doing A LOT of reading lately.

I’ve been reading books of all types and genres. Sometimes I read for escape, but more often than not I am reading to figure out who I am as a writer. One of the flaws of the course I am taking is that it will soon shift into focusing on how to market your book, instead of just on the writing of the book. This is great in the sense that I will have a complete package ready to send off to publishers or agents or  whoever I find the courage to send the book too, once it is finished. But, I find focusing on the market sometimes makes it harder for me to write.

What’s the use of writing if you only write to sell, rather than write to tell a story?

It’s no use marketing something if I cannot finish it.

My struggle lies in naming the genre of the book. I have called it fantasy, but it doesn’t fall into the land of fairies of  elves made famous by writers like Tolkien.  The book that to me has the closest relationship to the story I want to tell is The Handmaid’s Tale  by Margaret Atwood, so I guess you could call my project a dystopian novel or a work of speculative fiction, but that doesn’t cover the story either, or incorporate the “magical” elements. And I am not Margaret Atwood.

So I’ve been reading, searching for examples of what I am writing. In reality, I think, I’ve been searching for a reason to keep writing– evidence that the story I am telling might be interesting enough for someone to read.

I’ve figured out what my book is not. It is not a paranormal romance, although there is an element of paranormal in it and I’m not sure yet whether or not romance will play a role. It is not a literary novel, or at least not one that plays with language and focuses more on character than on plot, although I think I usually write more with character in mind. It is definitely not chick lit.

So what, exactly am a I trying to write?

I still don’t know. So I keep reading, trying to write, and searching for who I am as a writer.

This morning I finished a book that showed me who I want to be as a writer. Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock is is an emotional roller coaster. I cried off and on throughout, especially through the last few chapters. However, it was so beautifully written, and the characters were so interesting I enjoyed every moment of the emotional journey. Hancock writes with lyricism and brutal honesty. She writes a story from the heart, and that is what I love.

Here is the book description as found on Amazon.com:

“An unvarnished portrait of a marriage that is both ordinary and extraordinary, Dancing on Broken Glass takes readers on an unforgettable journey of the heart.

Lucy Houston and Mickey Chandler probably shouldn’t have fallen in love, let alone gotten married. They’re both plagued with faulty genes—he has bipolar disorder; she, a ravaging family history of breast cancer. But when their paths cross on the night of Lucy’s twenty-first birthday, sparks fly, and there’s no denying their chemistry.

Cautious every step of the way, they are determined to make their relationship work—and they put their commitment in writing. Mickey will take his medication. Lucy won’t blame him for what is beyond his control. He promises honesty. She promises patience. Like any marriage, there are good days and bad days—and some very bad days. In dealing with their unique challenges, they make the heartbreaking decision not to have children. But when Lucy shows up for a routine physical just shy of their eleventh anniversary, she gets an impossible surprise that changes everything. Everything. Suddenly, all their rules are thrown out the window, and the two of them must redefine what love really is.”

The story carried me forward for a number of reasons:

  • Incredible writing that is beautiful, poignant, and honest.
  • Characters who felt real. Mickey’s voice, which we hear in the beginning of each chapter as well as at the end of the book, fascinated me, especially after reading some of the powerful posts Kathy has written over at reinventing the event horizon about her own journey dealing with being bipolar. Kathy has always amazed me, and somehow reading a story like hers in a fictionalized character just made me realize how incredible she truly is. I can say the same about the character of Lucy, the main voice of the story, whose journey made me think of another  amazing Cathie in my life, one who battled breast cancer while watching her daughter fight (and eventually succumb) to a rare form of stomach cancer. She is another woman who inspires me to live life fully because the future is uncertain. I was grateful to be reminded of her as I read the story of Lucy.
  • Although I knew I would cry, I loved the freedom of the tears. I really needed them

This book, combined with my recent reading of Gifts from the Seahave shown me who I would like to be as a writer. I want to write a story that touches people in many ways. I want a story that reminds people of their own lives, their own stories, their own dreams. I want to make people laugh, cry, scream, smile, or simply think. I want to write beautiful words full of meaning and emotion.

So that is the writer I want to be. The hard work will be getting there.

Kathy McCullough in her wonderful backyard, which she wrote about today (click the image to go to her post), when I met her last summer.

The other wonderful Cathie in my life. I stole this picture from Facebook.

The Power of Timeless Words

I just read an amazing book.

It contains words, as books usually do, and offers clarity that can speak to people from any generation, especially women but I think the lessons apply to both sexes. It contains poetry, imagery, honesty, insight, and peace.

While I bought the Kindle version, I wish I owned a hard copy. I want to write notes in pencil in the margin, dog ear pages, and read it over and over again. I know, some of you are wincing at the thought of the desecration of the pristine pages, but I don’t see it as that. I would see it as revisiting an old friend for advice, learning from its wisdom, and giving it the sheen of a well-loved treasure.

What is this book? Perhaps some of you are thinking I stumbled my way into reading the Bible. No, despite my many attempts at reading that story, I have never really found comfort in its pages or lost myself to the beauty of its verse (except a few sections here and there). I have never found wisdom from its messages. I could never really find myself in those pages

You would think that this book, written at a time when the traditional place for women was in the home (1955) would have very little to say to me as I struggle to find my place in the world. But the opposite is true, as this book exemplifies how little some things have changed, and how much we still have to learn. I find myself in almost every chapter, as she explores the challenges of relationships and the lessons of life learned as a woman, a mother, a wife, and a member of a community.

What is this amazing book, you ask? How did I find it? Well, at the wonderful meeting I attended the other day, I learned that this book, written by a Smithie, had been given to high school juniors as a book award. Dean Walters read a passage from it, as she began to talk:

“Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day. How revolutionary that sounds and impossible of attainment. [. . . ]

[. . .] The world today does not understand, in either man or woman, the need to be alone.

[. . .] What a commentary on our civilization, when being alone is considered suspect; when one has to apologize for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practices it–like a secret vice!” ( 42-43)

This passage, which I’ve shortened here, trilled to the person who wrote just a few days ago “The Art of Being Alone, Still Learning”.  I knew I had to read this marvelous book.

Why does this book speak to me so clearly? Because her writing and the metaphor she uses seems timeless. Because even though she was writing from a time and a place very different from ours, everything she says seems applicable today. Here are a few more passages of Lindbergh’s that I highlighted as I read:

“What is the shape of my life?

The shape of my life today starts with a  family. I have a husband, five children and a home just beyond the suburbs of New York. I have also a craft, writing, and therefore work I want to pursue. The shape of my life is, of course, determined by many other things; my background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my hear and its desires. I want to give and take from my children and husband, to share with friends and community, to carry out my obligations to man and to the world, as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen.

But I want first of all–in fact, as an end to these other desires–to be at peace with myself.”  (16-17)

“We must re-learn to be alone.
It is a difficult lesson to learn today–to leave one’s friends and family and deliberately practice the art of solitude for an hour or a day or a week.” (36)

Seashells.

“When you love someone you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to.” (100) 

“A new consciousness of the dignity and rights of an individual, regardless of race, creed, class or sex. A new consciousness and questioning of  the materialistic values of the Western world. A new consciousness of our place in the universe, and a new awareness of the inter-relatedness of all life on our planet.” (128)

“For the enormous problems that face the world today, in both the private and public sphere, cannot be solved by women–or by men–alone. They can only be surmounted by men and women side by side.” (130)

 

I’ve said it before, words have power. The power of Lindbergh’s words lie in the fact that her word reach across time and difference to speak to the questions, concerns and challenges that we all face at different times in our lives. I would love to know that my words have that power, but for now all I can do is keep writing from the heart.

I finished a book today, and I am glad I did.

Diving Into the Pool of Inspiration

“Books loved anyone who opened them, they gave you security and friendship and didn’t ask for anything in return; they never went away, never, not even when you treated them badly. ”
― Cornelia FunkeInkheart

I have spent a lot of time these past few weeks hiding inside books. I turned to favorite friends, re-entering stories I’ve read before, because I find comfort in them despite the dangers, the fears, the darkness, the sadness. The characters are my friends, and their journey of learning and growing becomes my own.

But I haven’t just been hiding, I have also been seeking. I’ve been looking for what makes great stories tick. What makes prose sing? Where do fresh metaphors come from? How does one write, or create, or paint, or anything in a way that transcends what has been done before?

After all  ” every story has already been told” (Anna Quindlan). It seems like every painting has already been painted, every song has already been written, every creative act has already been done.

But, if that’s true, I ask myself, why do so many of us continue to write? To paint? To plot? To sing? To do any kind of creative act? If it’s all been done before, what’s the use?

As I lost myself in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart Trilogy (a series I’ve only read once before) I began to recognize the answer.

“Stories never really end…even if the books like to pretend they do. Stories always go on. They don’t end on the last page, any more than they begin on the first page.”
― Cornelia FunkeInkspell

If it is true that stories never really end, and every story has multiple characters, then there are multiple ways to tell a story. I’ve asked a question before (oddly enough prompted by reading another YA fantasy series) “where do stories come from?”. This question takes on more meaning in Funke’s series, when the author of the imaginary Inkspell gets read into his own book, into the world he supposedly created. The world he created has grown and changed and become a world he could not imagine, and he begins to wonder if someone else was writing the story.

Who is the author of the stories? Where does creativity come from?

We all know that practice makes us better at whatever art form we aspire to. We all know that if you want to be a writer then you have to practice the craft, just as an actor needs to train, and a singer needs to rehearse, and an artist needs to get dirty.

I think we also all know that hard work and practice isn’t enough. To truly become a great artist or a great writer, we need to have access to that mystical, spiritual, perhaps imaginary place of inspiration and imagination. We need to dive into the pool of shimmering fairy dust and submerge our bodies into the energy and power that comes when people create. I’ve felt it before, walking into a theatre on opening night, or into a classroom of young people  inspired by a creative project. The energy when creative people get together to create is palpable.  I imagine that on a level beyond our sight, the air fills with bright waves of color as ideas bounce around the room. These colors pour themselves into the creative pool, feeding it more energy so that it can grow and thrive. It is a powerful, beautiful, incredible place.

The struggle, of course, is how to gain access. It is available to all, but not everyone learns how to dive in, how to immerse themselves, how to succumb to the creative energy surrounding them and let that energy guide them. Some days, I am able to write or create from that place, but more often than not I get in my own way. I think too much, or let my doubts overcome possibility. When I do that, access to the pool closes and I find myself sitting cold and lonely in the dark, crying tears of loss and emptiness. Too often that feeling comes when I focus on things outside the creation itself. Questions like, “will I ever get published?” or “what will people think if I write this?” or “how can I make money doing this?” or “does doing this make the world a better place”  or any number of things outside the process interfere with the act of creation, and I lose access to the creative pool for long periods of time.

I am empty without it.

So, my goal is not to focus on the practicality of the product, but on the journey of creation. I am tired of not moving forward because of my perception of what I “should” be doing. I am tired of clinging to money or title as evidence that somehow I have am successful or reached a point of achievement. I now want to simply bathe in the pool of inspiration as often as I can, and let it’s energy feed me as I go on a wonderful journey into my version of the story.

I want to fight the battles in this world one creation at a time.

I still have a story to tell.


The History of My Life in Books

Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade, Newtown...

Image via Wikipedia

Some friends and I recently signed up for http://www.shelfari.com/ a website dedicated to books. It was our chance to share our passion for reading, and to create a virtual book group for more reading and discussion.

This could be a good or bad thing. Good, because I will be able to have interesting discussions about books and discover new books to read. Bad, because I can already feel the pull of another technological addiction that will distract me from accomplishing other tasks.

However, I have begun my lists of books read, or books I hope to read. I have watched in amazement as my friends’ lists leap into the thousands. I know that I too have probably read that many books, but I have had trouble remembering what I’ve read or finding books. Plus I need more time to dedicate to plumping up my lists.

But how, I asked myself, do I recall every book I’ve ever read?

As I am sitting in the car on the endless drive back home, I’ve been pondering this question. A moment ago it hit me—the books I read tell the story of my life. All I need to do to find the titles is drift back into time and label the periods of my life. If I search through my interests at a given period, I will find all the books I’ve ever read.

There are the books I turn to for comfort. These include books I re-read almost every year, from a variety of genres. The list includes Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, Jane Austen, books by Maeve Binchy, and recently The Lord of the Rings among others. Some of the books in this list are ones that II read as a child and am now introducing to my daughter, or books that she is introducing to me.

There are the books that represent my academic degrees and my love of learning. The topics under this section cover numerous fields: English Literature, Western Theater, Japanese theater, Non-Western Theater children’s theater, puppetry and a smattering of history, sociology, psychology, humanities and theory. This collection includes books that I picked up out of interest, or because I read something that intrigued me.

There are the books that represent my desire to write, ranging from how to writing books, books on creativity, young adult and children’s novels.

There are books exploring culture from many perspectives. I have children’s stories and fables from around the world. This includes books from my time in Japan, on Japanese culture, stories, and language (some actually in Japanese).

There are books about various research projects that I have started, if not finished. Some of them have turned into articles or papers, some sit waiting for me to pick up and start again. The topics include: women writers, interesting women in history, perfectionism, honors programming, overcoming stage fright and bullying.

There are books that represent my search for identity or my desire to reinvent myself and start over. These include books on spirituality and psychology, self help and memoirs.

There are books from lists. Some of the lists include books that I read because I had to, not because I wanted to. There are books from the list of recommended reading for people going to college that I decided I had to conquer when I was in high school. I don’t think I succeeded. There are books from Oprah’s Book Club that I used to read because I thought they must be good. I found many of them depressing so I stopped reading from that list.

There are books that I read and hated, because I believed that I should give them a chance and read them through, or because once I started I felt like I had to finish. There are books that I started and never finished as I finally gave myself permission to stop reading things I didn’t like. Nobody would arrest me for putting down a book midway.

There are books I’ve read for fun, or for guilty pleasure. Some caught my eye in the bookstore, most of them representing whatever I was feeling in my life at the moment. These include books that I read for the beauty of the language, or because the cover art was interesting. Or books I read on lazy vacation days when I simply feel like reading.

There are books from various book groups which represent a mixture of my own interests and the interests of other intelligent women. There are books I read when I have no time to read.

There are books that reflect my working life, or the working life I hope to create. There consist of books that I use as resources for classes, including picture books, Shel Silverstein, and books on teaching. There are books I read as I developed my skills at teaching College Composition classes. This doesn’t even include all the journal articles, or unpublished manuscripts I’ve read at the request of someone at work.

There are books on the paranormal, because of my fascination with that topic.

There are books on Judaism and the Holocaust (that just reminded me of one interesting book called The Jews and the Japanese which merged two of my interests). There are books about culture, travel, and food. There are books by women writers both for and about women.

I must not forget the list of books I plan to read, or hope to read in the future.

This list keeps growing as I type it. I think that I will learn much about my own story by creating this bookish history.

Billions of words. Millions of pages. Each one adds to the story of Lisa, as it is reflected through books.

I am excited to see what my future story becomes, as it is revealed by the books I choose to read.

How about you? What is the history of your life in books? What does your reading material say about you?

Making Connections with Words A Powerful Tool in Education

My Alma Mater, Brockton High School, has been in the news recently.

In a time when the news about school is usually depressing (murder, suicide, school shootings, bullying, failure, etc) this was good news: with a lot of hard work and commitment the school was able to turn around from being the lowest testers in the state to the top 90%.

Many people suggest that this is somewhat miraculous because the school does not represent the so-called ideal that people argue for today. It is not a small school. It’s huge! When I went there, there were around 6000 students. Numbers have dropped, now they have only 4300, but that is still larger than my college.

So what did they do that was so drastic? It is simple really (in its logic, not in the amount of work). They added reading and writing to EVERY SUBJECT!! Yes folks, a radical change, encouraging people to read and write actually helps them learn.

This story has really been resonating with me since I heard it. Not just because it is my school, or because the principal Susan Szachowicz was one of my favorite teachers in high school, but because of my own experiences in the classroom. For the past 5 years, I had been teaching Freshman Composition classes at a small Liberal Arts College. I enjoyed it, except for the fact that so many of my students were not good writers (even though I wasn’t teaching the lowest level classes). Even more of them were not good readers. They could read, but they had no interest in it, and found it difficult to understand or find meaning. Some of them did not know basic grammar.

Now, this is not an attack on the public school teachers. I know that they work hard under trying circumstances. Rather, I think this was a symptom of something greater–the idea that we as a culture are not making young people understand the value of learning or the connections between what they learn and real life.

I usually began those classes asking if anyone thought writing was unimportant. It never failed; I had several students who would argue that they would never use it, because they were accounting majors. or business majors, or science majors, or physical therapy majors or whatever. My goal was always to prove them wrong. We would talk about how reading and writing would play a role in almost any job or just in life in general. Of course, someone would always come up with a couple of examples where they could function without writing–like a porn star.

When possible, I tried to have at least one assignment where the students could choose a topic that interested them to research, read, and write about.  Usually that was pretty successful. One of my accounting students chose to explore how research and writing might fit into accounting. She was very surprised at her results, when she discovered that writing does play a role in accounting.

Back to Brockton High School. By incorporating writing into every subject I believe they are doing several things: 1) encouraging reading and writing, a valuable skill;  2) showing even the most reluctant students that communication is important; 3) making subjects interconnected in a way that they truly function in the so-called real world. You need math as well as words to function in our society.

I believe that when you connect the material to the interests of the students, and show how everything is interconnected you create an education program of true value. Our world functions on the connections we make between what we know and what we don’t know.

John Dewey said “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” By allowing the students to see how language plays a role in sports, in math, in science BHS has allowed them to become thinkers and to grow as learners. They may not all succeed, but they are being given the tools to succeed.

The lesson to be learned from this is not that big schools are better or all schools must do this program to succeed. The lesson to be learned is that, through hard work and focusing on the true needs of the students, education can succeed. Kudos to Dr. Szach and BHS for understanding that low test scores does not give educators the right to give up, but rather creates the mandate to try something new.

Creating Passionate Readers; Engaging Passionate Learners

 

On the platform, reading

Image by moriza via Flickr

 

Yesterday I watched as my seven-year-old daughter did her required 20 minutes of reading.  The 20 minutes were not finished when she sighed and said, “I wonder how long I’ve been reading.” As soon as the time was up, she closed the book and went on to her next thing.

My heart broke a little.

I read. Depending on what I’m reading, I can go through piles of books a week. Or sometimes I focus on just one: savoring every word, picturing every moment, getting lost in the language. Of course, I have my times of getting sucked into movies and television as well, and my daughter knows that. But books have always been my escape, my comfort, my best friends.

Sarah knows I love books. She loves to have me read to her. She loves getting new books from the library. She loves all these things, yet somehow she doesn’t love reading. She does not get lost in the books, letting time pass in the blink of an eye. She doesn’t fall asleep dreaming about her favorite characters and the adventures they might be having.  I wonder if she is better off, or is she missing something truly valuable.

When I changed my Facebook status to reflect on this question, an interesting discussion started.

My husband blamed himself and the internet. He was not much of a reader until I came along, and now his interest in books has grown. The internet is a time sucker for us all. But, is reading blogs and articles on-line less valuable than reading books?  What about playing games which challenge her thinking and math abilities? In our society, it seems important to develop internet skills, as so much is done through social networking, and so much information is gained through access to the vast resources on the web. So perhaps it isn’t the time suck that I think it s.

Two friends responded that her love of reading will develop over time. I’m sure that is a possibility in that her interests change and grow daily. But, I also see her following the trends of friends, and that doesn’t always include books.

Two friends commented on the idea that education today squeezes all the joy out of reading because of making it a chore or a punishment. Students are required to read so many minutes, to keep logs, to write journals, and to read from required reading lists. Reading then becomes a chore rather than a pleasure or, as I view it, a reward.

It makes me sad to realize that learning isn’t fun for most kids. Maybe it never was. Maybe I was one of those strange children who loved learning just because I did. I still love it; that is why I read. But I see the possibility that my daughter won’t find the same joy. Learning is a chore, not because she’ not smart (she is) but because there is some subtle competition or pressure going on in her education that feels wrong.  To me, it seems like we should be less concerned with timing the reading and more concerned with having her enjoy, comprehend, and learn from what she reads. Yesterday she was more concerned with time than reading.

In the same way, I see her struggle with timed math tests. How many answers can she get correct in three minutes? She doesn’t do well on those, but if you give her time to think about her problems she does fine.

In a way, it seems, that the only thing we are teaching our children is that fast time and quantity are more important than quality and enjoyment. I think that is going to make a sad society, if it hasn’t already.

I’m not sure how to encourage Sarah to become a passionate reader. I know she loves learning right now, and I only hope I can continue to encourage that love. I glimpsed one possible answer, though. The other day I asked one of Sarah’s 10-year-old friends to read the book I wanted to enter in a contest and give me some feedback.  Sarah is still too young for this book, I think. She read it in an afternoon, and loved it. Sarah saw her reading it and asked “Can your write some stories for me to read, Mommy?”

Looks like I have some writing to do.

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