Our Writing is Defined by Our Reading

This is an essay by C. Hope Clark.

As editor of FundsforWriters.com, a website recognized annually for eleven years by Writer’s Digest Magazine on its list of 101 Best Websites for Writers, I hear from many writers about their quandaries and dilemmas in becoming published. They want to understand the magic pill, the shortcut, or the mysterious talent needed to break in to writing, and land that elusive bestseller. For some reason, simply reading well and writing hard doesn’t seem to be that…reliable enough.

Since I consult and speak nationally, I now receive few questions I haven’t heard before, so my responses are already measured in many cases. For instance:

“How can I find an agent that will represent my poetry? I’ve heard that people don’t buy poetry anymore.”

My first question to these individuals who have asked this type question is this:

“How many poetry books have you bought and read this year?”

Surprisingly, most say none. One writer even responded with a resounding, “Touche!”

The world abounds with writers. Everyone wants his name, photo and title on a bookstore shelf, as a minimum on Amazon. But amazingly enough, most of them are not voracious readers. They are spitting out words, but taking few in. It’s like using a shotgun instead of a high-powered rifle. The result isn’t very refined, the results less satisfactory.

Many do not take in more than the occasional light read. I can tell this from their emails, their synopses, and their sample chapters. So can agents, editors and publishers. Reading teaches writing by the osmosis of absorbing so many words, hopefully, in their best usage. Being well-read in a genre teaches the author how to write the genre more proficiently than any conference or classroom teaching.

Let’s take it down to the elementary level. Teaching children to enjoy reading is, without a doubt, fast-tracking them to write well.  The slogan “reading is fundamental” is remarkably accurate. Somewhere along the line, however, between elementary school and college, reading falls by the wayside. Teaching to tests, however, and not enticing children to fall in love with words, has stolen their ability to perform later in life.

A few years ago, I interviewed teachers and students, at high school and college level, for a piece I wrote for VOYA Magazine (Voices of Youth Advocates). The children were frustrated they could not write as well as they thought once they reached college. Professors at universities were saddened at the rate these children failed, horribly debased because what they thought was talent in high school does not pass muster in college. The agony resounded from all parties, with the only finger-pointing done at high school teachers and the handicaps they endure from the “system.” A problem without a sound solution.

I read like a maniac, mainly in my genre, mystery. I read blogs, newsletters, magazines and books about my vocation as well, writing. I’ve learned that the more I digest, the better I write, both nonfiction and fiction. If I need more humor in my novel writing, I read Janet Evanovich. If I crave setting, I read Pat Conroy. If I need plot, I read Sue Grafton. For action, Lee Child. The result, after years of reading, writing, edits and more reading, is Lowcountry Bribe, by Bell Bridge Books, the first in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series. My novel, what I feel is a compilation of all the reading I could cram into my meager brain, has resulted into a solid piece of work based upon feedback and sales. I took fourteen years to write it.

Some of the most depressing words I’ve ever heard are these: “I don’t have the time to read.” Yet some of those people are attempting to write a book. And they will fail.

Behind the history of traditionally published books are the following efforts:

  • years of trial and error by the author

  • a hundred books or more read and absorbed by the author

  • a half dozen or more reviews by editors

  • educated decisions by publishers that the story, style and voice merit commercial value

Every task that these people poured into their books to bring them to fruition, is woven into the pages, paragraphs and sentences of the stories. The new writer, seeking means to publishing success, should jump at the chance to gobble up this expertise. That marriage of intelligence and toil can only improve a new writer’s chance to improve. And yet, so many stall capitalizing on this oh-so-easy method of honing their skills.

We don’t have the right to write, until we feel the need to read. And until we are torn between using our sacred few free moments to read a good book or to write a good story, we truly do not understand the importance of being well read in our journey to become a serious writer.

==================

C. Hope Clark is founder of FundsforWriters.com and author of Lowcountry Bribe, A Carolina Slade Mystery, available at Amazon (in print and on Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and Bell Bridge Books (www.bellbridgebooks.com). She publishes in trade publications, guest blogs, and speaks to writing conferences and writers groups across the country. www.fundsforwriters.com / www.chopeclark.com

Photo: Some rights reserved by Pascal Maramis

How Do You Imagine Walt Whitman Pitched Leaves of Grass?

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

“I exist as I am, that is enough.”

“I tramp a perpetual journey.” ― Walt Whitman

Today, Walt Whitman is an American literary icon. He is, perhaps, the greatest American writer. His voice is identified as uniquely American. Inspiring any number of writers since his passing, he is generally considered the father of truly American literature. So, he must have had an easy time during his life, right? Admired for his genius, wealthy beyond measure, able to hold his head up high in any American establishment, right? This couldn’t be more wrong. Whitman was ridiculed, criticized, and struggled financially for much of his life. Without the support of a publishing house he was left to fund and sell his own art door to door.

What do we think we know? Source: Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.

Whitman continued to revise and edit Leaves of Grass until his death.

Whitman’s brother didn’t think Leaves of Grass was worth reading.

Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself.

Whitman didn’t even really list himself as the author in the first printings.

Whitman started with only 795 copies and grew from there.

Whitman found one proponent in Ralph Waldo Emerson and that helped his efforts to spread the work.

Whitman’s father died with the book being called trashy and obscene and his son being called pretentious.

The work was, at first, unable to support itself, let alone Whitman.

Without a publisher and the backing a publishing house could provide a new author, Whitman had to print and pitch his work to influential individuals. He had some success in pitching the work to Emerson which surely bolstered his confidence, but mainstream acceptance would not come until much later in Whitman’s life. The work was ahead of its time and was creating a voice that had never existed before. The American poetic voice. For that reason, Whitman was all at once writer, publisher, the marketing department, and, at times, a door to door salesman for Leaves of Grass.

How do you imagine Walt Whitman pitched Leaves of Grass?

He must have read it out loud.

He must have invited people to buy it and read it.

He gave free copies to influential readers.

He revised it repeatedly.

He talked about it to anyone that would listen.

He tried to enlist help from publishing houses.

Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s life work. He had poured his entire energy and knowledge into it. It was not well received by all in the beginning. Every author must accept the possibility of rejection and most face real rejection at some point in their career. Even Whitman’s genius could not avoid this fate.

How do you think Walt Whitman dealt with rejection?

Did he lay awake at night, unable to sleep, wondering why he had failed?

Did he hide his face after particularly harsh criticism came out against his work?

Did he imagine the financial ruin that was inevitable if his work did not succeed?

The work received revisions, but Whitman never abandoned the idea. He never gave up his dream of having the work distributed and read.

Eventually…

The literary critic, Harold Bloom wrote, as the introduction for the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass:

If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Bloom, Harold. Introduction to Leaves of Grass. Penguin Classics, 2005.

Success was a life time coming.

====================

A brief plug: Inspired by the work of Walt Whitman, I’m on the Board and am a founding member for a 501(c)(3) called the Walt Whitman Foundation. You can learn more here.

Photo: Some rights reserved by marcelo noah

Finally, I would love to hear how you, personally, imagine Walt Whitman pitched Leaves of Grass? Leave me a note in the comments.

9 Eating Rules I Learned From a Book (In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan)

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

A summary of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.

As a child I ate dirt and crayons.  As an adult I eat Sodiium Stearoyl Lactylate (a suspending agent used in certain foods) and P-Methoxybenzaldehyde (a flavoring agent found in some foods). I’m not sure which is better because I don’t even know what the latter does to you as you digest it. Refining our eating habits is a life long process. From the person who refuses to eat lettuce (because it smells like lettuce) to the person that refuses to eat deer meat (because it reminds them of Bambi), we all have our idiosyncrasies. Deciding what to eat today is incredibly complex and becomes more complex right in sync with the other areas of our society.  As technology changes, we change, and so does what we eat, for better or worse.

In a recent e-mail exchange with my brother I fell into a discussion about the chicken “hormone” issue.  If you did not already know, the “hormone” issue is associated with chickens raised in the United States on commercial farms. There is support in the scientific community that too many hormones can increase the risk of getting cancer. There is also evidence to suggest that the increasingly early onset of puberty in humans is a result of the use of these hormones. This has caused the United States government to ban their use in poultry production. It was once thought the additional hormones would encourage faster growth rates, particularly in the breast of the chicken, which would in turn lead to greater profit for the commercial farms. The assumption that would seem fair from this ban is that the chicken “hormone” issue has been solved.  That, as it turns out, is not as black and white as the chicken eating public would like.

My thesis in our discussion was that there would be some benefit to the purchase of free-range chickens.  At the very least, I argued, we can be more selective and do more research before deciding what chicken to buy. Being the good “googler” that I am, I headed to the search bar to find some support for the thesis I had blurted out without support.  It turns out there is information and misinformation all over the Internet. For example, Plamandon’s Poultry Pages makes the argument that there is no issue with hormones in chicken because the hormones have been banned since 1948. Other sites, like foodforbreastcancer.com, provide access to studies that indicate there may be an issue with chickens raised in the United States and that there is a potential association with cancer.  More study is needed.

In a June 2010 Conference for the American Society of Clinical Oncology there was discussion of this exact issue.  What do we think we know? We think we know that oral contraceptive pills contribute to the incidence of hormone-dependent cancers in women. We also think we know that the chickens raised in the United States end up having a higher estrogen (a hormone) content than chickens raised in Brazil. The study does not answer the question of why our chickens have more estrogen in their meat. I don’t know the answer to that question, but what I did learn from Pollan’s book is that our food stream is in a state of flux. The foods we once assumed were safe may not be.

I took away nine good rules from In Defense of Food that can serve as your “baseline” when making decisions about what to put in your mouth. What do I mean by “baseline?” Everyone needs a set of rules they can rely on to simplify the decision-making process. Voters use the political party system to simplify the process they go through when deciding who to vote for. Similarly, you can use these rules to decide what to eat for dinner.  Here they are:

1. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Wait a minute, you may be saying, this doesn’t make any sense. Not to mention the fact that this isn’t one tip but three!  If that is what you are thinking, you’re right, but it is the very thesis (verbatim) that Pollan puts forward in his book. This unorthodox sentence deserves to be looked at step by step.

Eat food: After having read the book, I now know that “food” is not necessarily defined as everything you can find in the grocery store.  “Food,” as Pollan defines it, is what you find on the peripheries of the grocery store.  The middle aisles tend to contain highly processed items which are better classified as “food-like” than “food.”

Not too much: Diets are hard to follow, if they are too rigid you can’t follow them. To combat this you can simplify things by just taking in fewer calories than you burn on a daily basis.  More on this concept in tip #7.

Mostly Plants: Vegetables should be the staple and not the side dish. If your plate has more things grown in the ground than things that walk on the ground then you are following this suggestion.

2. Throughout history humans have kept healthy eating a diverse variety of diets.

Variety is okay, we can handle it. In fact, you have probably seen this idea work. A vegan can be as healthy as a meat eater. My favorite example is Scott Jurek. He runs ultramarathons on a vegan diet.  If he can do that then the same diet can get you through a ten-hour work day with fuel left in the tank. Contrast that with Dean Karnazes who orders pizza from a cell phone on his road runs and you have an example of the rule in overdrive.

3.  “Nutritionism” is a widely accepted but unexamined concept.

Pollan has popularized the term in his description of our modern dietary theory, “nutritionism.”  To Pollan “nutritionism” is the idea that we may be over valuing the individual nutrient components of food and in turn undervaluing the synergistic effect of the components of real food. Pollan argues the focus on how much of a nutrient is in food is completely untested. Looking on a jug of juice for the vitamin C does not do much to answer whether you will actually get the benefits of the vitamin through this mode of delivery.

4.  Don’t eat anything that your neolithic ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food!

Processing has made things into food-like items and stripped away much of what makes food good at the same time. Highly processed foods tend to be highly marketed and brightly packaged.  This fancy outer shell is intended to disguise the fact that you are just dealing with a corn derivative.

5.  Shop the outer edges of the grocery store and avoid highly processed foods with more than five ingredients or with any ingredient you can’t pronounce.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid the processed aisles all together and  just surf around the edges picking up fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and eggs.  Use these ingredients along with a variety of herbs and spices to make your meals.

6.  Eat wild foods when you can.

Information Americangrassfedbeef.com shows the difference in fat content between grass-fed beef and grain fed beef.  If you want good food then get back to basics and eat a diet that eats a good diet! What does wild game eat? They eat a variety of plants and roots naturally occurring in the environment. Necessity makes their diet diverse.  Contrast that with stock fed foods that eat corn or some corn derivative.

One way to define “wild foods” is as those that have had to naturally fight to survive without the help of modern agriculture. Wild foods have a greater amounts of phytochemicals, are more chock full of omega-3s, and contain less fat per calorie than products brought up in the luxury of modern agriculture.

7.  Hara hachi bu (Japanese for:  eat until 80% full).

The Okinawa diet has popularized this concept. Stuffing yourself is not only bad for your health, but it saps your energy and productivity.  Save large meals for very special occasions.

8.  Involve yourself in food production – plant a garden in your backyard.

There is something about growing your own food that makes you want to eat it. For that reason, I suggest growing your own vegetables. It actually is not that hard to do even in small spaces. Research “square foot gardening” for more information or visit squarefootgardening.com.

9.  Cook  at home rather than eating at a restaurant.

At a restaurant you can’t see what ingredients are being used to prepare your meal. The only way to guarantee what goes in your mouth is to prepare it yourself. These days many restaurants use oils and butters that you may not approve of. Restaurants may use processed substitutes to save time and money. Avoid the issue all together by cooking your own meals.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Tracy Hunter

An Introduction to Flash Fiction (aka The Short Short Story)

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

There is no precise definition of Flash Fiction except to say the works are shorter than a Short Story. Sources argue, though, how short a work must be to fit in. Writers like Kafka, Hemingway, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Jr., and Chekhov did some of this before the genre was named. Hemingway is said to have penned a 6 word story which wouldn’t have fit some definitions of flash fiction, but would have fit others: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Some journals specify the word count they are looking for, like 55 fiction, (55 words) the Drabble (100 words), and 69er (69 words).

This category of fiction deserves particular attention on this blog because reading and understanding short short stories can be a gateway that leads to tackling longer works. Even if you have to reread the work several times to come away with the meaning you can do so in less than 15 minutes. If you have not practiced extended attention to writing in years, consider Flash Fiction as a place to start.

Here are some resources to consider:

Flash Fiction Online 

Online Collection of Flash Fiction

Everyday Fiction

Flash Fiction Writing Course

Six Sentences

Six-Word Memoirs (while not technically fiction, it does meet the definition of “flash”)

Long Story Short (In the “featured authors and their work” section you can find some flash and micro fiction)

Press 53 (courtesy of Word Zeal)

Photo: Some rights reserved by christophhhhh

Start a Reading Savings Account

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

[H]abit is a great deadener.” – Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Every day one should at least hear one little song, read one good poem, see one fine painting and-if at all possible-speak a few sensible words.” Goethe from Dirda, Michael. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. Kindle. loc 138.

Habit is a harsh word. The habit that makes each day the same is dangerous. Time is disguised in the similitude. The other side to that coin, certain habits open doors. Habits like saving money, regular exercise, and, I would argue, reading, give you access to funds, physical fitness, and powerful ideas that make new adventures possible. Think about it. You can’t take a trip to Italy without the money to get there. You can’t run an adventure race unless you train more days than not. You can’t know a new part of human nature every single day unless you make an effort to expose yourself to new ideas.

I’m not about to re-write the book on habits. There are already great resources out there: (1) 18 Tricks to Make New Habits Stick; (2) zenhabitsHabitforge.com emails reminders and tracks your progress to keep you accountable as you form new habits. Stickk.com lets you stake money on a particular task and if you fail you get to decide where it goes.

If those sites aren’t your style, why not consider a reading fund.  At ingdirect.com you can link your existing bank accounts and automatically transfer amounts each day. When the accounts are linked you could, for example, make a commitment to transfer a dollar a day to a “reading fund” that you can then use to buy books. If you’re buying and reading books you’re forming the reading habit. In the worst case scenario you have a savings fund at the end of the year.

The dictionary definition of habit suggests a focus on the involuntary, nearly automatic, nature of the act.  Definition of Habit. Merriam Webster Dictionary. Retrieved on August 29, 2008. Automating the reminder, at the very least, should help. Every time you check your bank account you see the dollar missing and in a real financial way you are told to read.

If you decide, don’t use the money on books throughout the year and instead, at month’s or year’s end, treat yourself to something with the fund. Incentive isn’t cheating, it’s smart.

Photo: Some rights reserved by sushi♥ina

How Do I Find the Time to Read? 19 Tips Hidden Throughout My Reading Day

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

What we need is not more books or more readers, but more time for reading….” Jackson, Holbrook. The Anatomy of Bibliomania. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1950. Print. p. 53.

My reading day is not linear. My reading day looks more like a mind-map or an old oak tree. My reading day has branches and forks coming off the day’s events and the day’s books. My reading days are always different, but there are techniques built into my routine that help keep reading on my mind. Here are 19 tips hidden throughout my reading day:

In the first hours of morning, before work, I wipe the sleep from my eyes and know there is a (1) book on my bedside table. I can, sometimes, get in a few pages before work. On weekends I often get in a solid hour before Alicia wakes up. Alicia and I have been together for six years and she never complains about my reading because she must understand it is better to let me have some time with books.

Around 10AM I try to take a break, sometimes for another (2) cup of strong black coffee. I have a (3) Kindle app on my computer and sometimes I will steal a few pages during the week. On the weekends, when nothing is planned, I try to read after I walk my dog, Eggers. He needs his walks more than I need to read. He gives me a break  after we walk to get a few pages in.

During lunch, I can usually get (4) a peanut butter sandwich down pretty fast.  Just enough to keep the cravings away and some energy in the tank. If I have a few extra minutes, I will read for a while before I get back to work.

In the afternoon I start to hit a wall. I try to (5) get up and stir around and then I sneak a few pages in. Maybe I catch some inspiration that powers me through the afternoon. It happens more often than not, actually.

When I get home from work I read before I start to get dinner moving. Most of the time I get a few minutes in before we decide where or what to eat.

When the kitchen is cleaned I usually have a few hours to read. This is prime time. I can read (6) while others watch TV. Usually, very little is expected of this time. A few hours of reading is bliss. I sometimes (7) break it up with walks or chores to keep the blood flowing and my mind sharp.

When Alicia moves to bed I read there for an hour or so. Sometimes, I (7) listen to an audio-book if my eyes are tired.

I am always looking for other opportunities, too.(8) If I have a long drive I load an audio-book. (9) If I have a doctor’s appointment I bring a book along. Time to (10) renew my driver’s license? I do it with book in hand. My (11) car needs service? I find a lobby chair out of the way and make myself at home with my Kindle. (12) At the bank’s drive thru line I can put the car safely in park and grab my book from the passenger’s seat.

I’m not telling you I read the same book throughout the day. (13) I read based on mood. I also (14) pick what to read based on energy level and background noise. I am not perfect at filtering out certain background noises, like TV, so (15) when I know there will be distraction I look for a lighter read, a compelling story. When (16) my energy is high and I have some time alone, without background noise, I read something dense that will build fortitude. That is the time for heavy lifting.

If I have read enough good sentences and exercised enough (17) I sleep well.

Tomorrow (18) my book is at my bedside and I start again.

In this way I find the time to read, everyday. The (19) important thing is not what, when, where, why, or how I read but that I do read.

What does your reading day look like? Aren’t they always so wonderfully different?

Photo by Paul Jarvis.

How to Outline a Book: A Guide in Very Few Words

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Outline every book you read. Your outline need not be written with a first reading. Outline in the detail called for by your desired understanding. To outline, identify the book’s component parts. Ask the following questions:

  • What is the book’s first part? Second? Third?
  • Are those parts divided into sub-parts?
  • Are those sub-parts further subdivided?

Continue this process until you feel you have identified the book’s major parts.

With a word processor, easily number your outline using the ordered list command in the toolbar.

 I.  MAIN IDEA
A. Subsidiary idea or supporting idea to I
B. Subsidiary idea or supporting idea to I
1. Subsidiary idea to B
2. Subsidiary idea to B
a) Subsidiary idea to 2
b) Subsidiary idea to 2

II.  MAIN IDEA
A. Subsidiary or supporting idea to II
B. Subsidiary idea to II
C. Subsidiary idea to II

III.  MAIN IDEA

In subsequent readings add detail. The best outlines evolve with each reading.

For additional reading about how to apply your outline see these posts about writing book reviews: Writing Book Reviews—Well ; Writing Book Reviews – An Application. Those posts may offer an application, or end goal, to keep in mind as you prepare your outline. Let your personal need be your guide.

Photo: Some rights reserved by mathplourde

The “What About Bob?” Approach to Reading: Baby Steps

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Bill Murray is my favorite actor. Favorite movie is Rushmore. In case you’re interested. Before that, though, in the early 90s Murray starred in What About Bob? He played, Bob, an obsessive compulsive patient that sought care to bring him back to a sense of normalcy. Right after Bob starts treating,  his new psychiatrist leaves on a family vacation and Bob tracks him down. Watch the movie if you haven’t seen it, but the part that I want to reference is that the star psychiatrist (played by Richard Dreyfuss) had just recently released a book called Baby Steps. In it, he emphasizes taking small steps, “baby steps,” toward normalcy. You can be the judge of the success of the book on Bob, but the thought spawned an idea. There are a number of small steps we can all take to revive our reading pleasure. Here are four:

1. Get back to basics and read for fun as opposed to intellectual stimulation.

There are a couple of different ways you can do this: (1) Remember your favorite book from your childhood and take the time to re-read it now through the lens of your present experience and intelligence; or (2) Scan the list of best sellers and go after a good story being consumed by the masses. Either way you should pick a book for interest as opposed to picking one because you want to challenge yourself, at the outset. After a book or two following this pattern your brain will probably be sufficiently warmed up to take the next step, if you are so inclined, but stepping things up to a more difficult book is not something you have to rush into.

2. Make it a regular activity, but tell yourself you just have to start and you can quit whenever you get bored.

Starting is more than half the battle. Once you pick up a book your tendency is toward curiosity and a desire to see the story unfold. Turn your mental focus toward picking the book up and reading a page. Once over that mental hurdle commit to do it daily.

3. Keep a book handy. Life is full of waiting and reading can help make that tolerable.

Read in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, read while you wait for a table at a restaurant, read while your significant other is watching a marathon of wedding shows, read before you go to bed, read for five minutes at lunch, and read for a few minutes before you head out the door to work in the morning. All of these opportunities add up. Having a book with you lets you seize the reading moment.

4. Focus on finishing something. There is no better motivation than the feeling of accomplishment.

Some days I leave a full day of working hard feeling like I got nothing accomplished. There is peace of mind in truly finishing something, even if it is as simple as mowing the grass or reading a book. Reward your mind with a little nugget of satisfaction in the process and make a commitment to finish at least one book. Use your success as a catalyst to spur additional exploration.

What “baby step” can you think of that you could take to get back to reading for pleasure?

Photo by Paul Jarvis.

Say “Literary Grace” Through Quiet Post-Reading Contemplation

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

“There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our own thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his.” Proust from Edmundson, Mark. Why Read? New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print, p. 106.

We plod through books without taking time to stop and reflect. Rapid transition without taking the time to let an idea settle in  means you are not getting as much out of a book as you could have had you given it some time to work on you.

Take time to be grateful for what you receive from a book. You may do that by writing to someone and passing on what you learned, through a blog post, or journal entry. Any form of contemplation is acceptable. No matter how you say literary grace, pay as much attention to the reflection as you did to the book.

Religious scholars suggest reading the Qur’an or Bible with contemplation. That idea can be applied to all reading. Here are some tips on practicing contemplative reading:

1. Don’t fight the urge to read slowly.

There is no speed limit or minimum. Read without a page goal. That way, you won’t hesitate to stop mid-sentence to give the author your contemplative attention.

2. Let your mind wander while you read.

Follow the rabbit trails that reading puts before you. There is a reason your interests are taking you that way. Following your interests instead of denying them will make reading pleasurable.

3. Write about what you read.

Journaling is contemplation recorded,. Don’t feel like you have to make all contemplation’s results public. There is no harm in keeping something for yourself.

4. Find quiet.

Just sit for twenty minutes and think of what you’ve read.

5. Contemplation doesn’t necessarily mean worship.

I’m not asking you to spend time worshiping the ground every author you ever read walks on. That is foolish. It is within your discretion to conclude you disagree, but give it some thought and a re-reading before you do.

6. Asking questions that don’t get answered is a form of contemplation.

We have already discussed the benefits of reading with a pencil in your hand and a question on the tip if your tongue, but the point is worth emphasizing. Questions are a form of contemplative thought. Focus on them as you read. The questions that come to mind while reading can serve as the basis for future contemplation. Sometimes new questions arise during contemplation as well.

7. Use logic.

Solid objective reasoning is a valuable tool. Philosophers have perfected it. Borrow their approach as a way of thinking. The key is to approach thought in a systematic way.

8. Use emotion, it’s another tool, don’t discount it.

Emotion spawns energy and excitement. Remember its Latin root is, move. It also should not be abused, however. Let yourself get carried away to a degree but reel yourself back in through the use of logic. See things objectively first, but then play around with your own subjective views of the same subject.

9. Realize you are fallible.

Your fallibility means you just might be wrong. If you keep this in mind you will save yourself the stress caused by holding yourself to an impossible standard.

10. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. If you get no result the first time, keep trying.

Contemplation is a practice. You might not get an immediate benefit or be struck by the proverbial idea lightning bolt, but eventually you will get something out of contemplation if you persevere.

11. For an interesting exercise, try to see the book through the eyes of someone completely different. Create an imaginary character, a polar opposite, if that will help.

Contemplation can be a way to practice perspective shifting. Shift views to see an idea from all angles. Jump to a new set of eyes to experience the same idea in a new way.

What have you been reading? Take 10 minutes to think about what you’ve read without reading a line. Spend another five minutes writing down anything that comes to mind. Has your reflection shed any new light on the book?

Find the time to repeat this process at least as often as you finish a book.

Is the Book You’re Reading “Imaginative Literature?”

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

“From things that had happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of.” – Earnest Hemmingway from Dick, Kay. (Ed) Interviews from ‘Paris Review’. Penguin 1972

What is literature?

Works of literature change over time. Their meaning today might not be their meaning tomorrow.

Literature is a higher form of art than ordinary fiction. The label carries great weight.

Literature still has a subjective component. Reasonable minds may differ when deciding which works should carry the label.

Literature has subcategories: poetry, short stories, drama and novels. Not all poetry, short stories, drama, and novels, are literature.

Literature is one of the highest artistic forms.

If you label something literature, that’s fine, but you should be prepared to defend your opinion.

Sometimes, you can define literature by what it is not. Literature is not non-fiction.

Literature is fictional and imaginative.

Literature in one society may not be literature in another.

Literature creates worlds that did not previously exist.

Literature makes us question many things, including, our place in the imaginative world created by it. Similarly, those questions should have some bearing on the world we actually inhabit.

Literature expresses ideas from philosophical schools of thought but it is not philosophy.

Literature can have a political effect but it does not decide who gets what, when, and how. It is free from that burden.

Literature can be defined by prior qualifying works.

Literature will not answer every question, but it will cause you to reflect and develop your own answer to the most important questions.

Works of literature attempt to be beautiful. The more ambitious, the better.

Authors of works of literature want you to think they have written something beautiful and true.

Literature is creative. Literature is unique in some way. It can not only be the sum of what came before it.

Literature will define our time and place for future generations and great literature will have something new to say to those future generations.

Literature has something in it that is personal, yet universally applicable.

Literature has no word count or predetermined page length. It is finished when it is finished.

Literature is ultimately given any meaning by its effect on the reader.

Authors of literature can artificially impose constraints on its creation but only if those constraints foster the creative endeavor.

Don’t be afraid to ask what it is you are reading? Sometimes the author may even be confused about the direction until the end. Be prepared to amend your answer as you read. 

Try it out. Read 10 pages of a book you choose. Were you reading literature? Why do you think so? When you figured this out did you approach the book in a different way or think about it in a new way?

What other criteria do you use to determine if you are reading literature?

Some rights reserved by david__jones