Why I Stopped Reading

This is an essay by Williesha Morris.

“The DaVinci Code” was my omen.

The hugely successful novel that everyone insisted I wouldn’t be able to put down? I put it down and never came back to it.

I promised my niece I’d get through the “Harry Potter” series before the final movie. That flick has come and gone. Her half-read copy of the third novel in the series, “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” is in my room.

While some folks may have a handful of books on their shelf they have yet to read, I have dozens. The saddest part is that I wasn’t always this way. I adored reading and writing as a child. My earliest memory of reading was the Golden Book “Little Bear.” I was five years old and didn’t know how to pronounce the word “thought.” I asked one of my parents and kept on going.

Books, magazines, encyclopedias. I ingested anything with words on a page. I took several facts from the encyclopedia about San Francisco and turned it into a love story about two lawyers. Years later, I still had a copy, and I finally saw in person what was depicted in those unsatisfying thumbnail photos.

My love for the written word sparked a career goal. After editing my sixth grade newspaper (since my classmates didn’t need my “Dear Abby” advice) and visited the local paper, I was hooked. I stuck with that goal and became an editorial assistant for that paper many years later.

However, I stopped reading for pleasure consistently around age 12. Here’s why:

Required Reading

My first year of required reading for honors English was the summer before the 7th grade. I was disappointed I couldn’t read the normal fluff books I’d read like “Sleepover Friends” or “Sweet Valley High.” I ended up donating a lot of books to my sixth grade teacher.

I had to read “The Yearling.” The monotonous 1938 exposition and the tragic ending left a terrible taste in my mouth. And since English was always my strongest subject, I’d be doomed to this type of reading through college.

It is a simple but torturous process: Read several books. Write several boring expositions on them and be tested later. Discuss. Repeat.

Though without these classes, I may have never enjoyed the rich literary experience of authors such as Shakespeare, Morrison and Barrett Browning. But I also trudged through Garcia-Marquez, Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky – all legendary authors that bored or confused me. When I focused on journalism and literature in college, I could never make time for fluff. I had to dive into historical autobiographies and non-fiction texts. By then, my love for reading and writing for fun had dwindled.

Opening a book became totally associated with studying.

The Internet

Web browsing is the bad habit I can’t break. Like many people who grew up in the height of the computer age, the entertainment value of the Internet far exceeded what I had experienced. Simply sitting and reading wasn’t nearly as interesting. It has become so difficult to focus and digest what I’m reading, I get frustrated, particularly when I see friends getting through meaty novels in days.

Though it has useful benefits, it also became a source of social fulfillment. Ironically, I still haven’t embraced e-readers. I still believe nothing can match the feel of an actual book and listening to the turn of pages.

Yet, I still have a difficult time with sticking to it.

Possible Solutions:

  • Join or start a local book club. This has been effective in the past because of the social benefit to it. There is still pressure to complete the book before the next meeting, but it’s nothing like it was in school.
  • Reading for a few minutes at a time and taking breaks in between. No matter how slow I am, I will continue.

Much like eating healthier and exercising, I really do think reading often should be a vital part of everyone’s daily life, especially writers. But like most healthy habits, it’s very difficult to maintain. What drew me to this blog is the hope that I will return to my old ways. Plenty of people enjoy the web and endured summer reading but still make time to read before bed, during work breaks or on vacation.

Even if my reading habits never fully return to a passionate hobby of mine, I still have wonderful memories of reading from my youth and later in life.

How do you balance other pastimes with reading? How has your level of reading changed over the years? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Williesha Morris is an administrative consultant and freelance writer in Alabama. Her focus is partnering with business owners. When she’s not browsing the web or blogging (you can read her here), she enjoys spending time with her husband playing games or watching Big Bang Theory.

Top 7 Reasons to Read The Hobbit

This is an essay by Vanessa Santilli.

As a dedicated Lord of the Rings fan, it was to my chagrin that I had unsuccessfully been trying to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s prelude The Hobbit for years. But with the upcoming release of Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated film version hitting theatres Dec. 14, I knew it was time to give it another go.

This time, something was different. I sped through the novel and loved every Hobbit and dwarf-filled minute of it. For the unconverted, here are the top seven reasons book aficionados should read the epic tale.

1. You’ll be able to compare it to the movie for accuracy.

How else will you be able to decide whether the movie did justice to the book? Book lovers everywhere can vouch for the fact that analyzing the casting and plot to a fault is almost as fun as seeing the movie.

2. It’s a far easier read than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Although the movie will be a trilogy, there’s only one book–and no appendices or unfinished tales. You can enjoy all the ups and downs of the perilous journey to the Lonely Mountain without too much commitment. And then you can move on.

3. Tolkien was one of the literary greats of the 20th century.

J.R.R. Tolkien, friends with Narnia creator C.S. Lewis, didn’t just create Middle Earth. He created languages for its inhabitants. As literary classics, Tolkien’s works should be on every reading enthusiast’s literary bucket list.

4. To experience the beauty of language.

Tolkien’s powers of description are unmatched. Travelling approximately a year’s journey across many different lands, the reader is able to easily visualize every change in scenery. As well, the character development takes place primarily through the use of witty dialogue and off-the-cuff humour. But what stands out is Tolkien’s ability to capture raw emotion. “Out up there a silence reigned, broken by no bird or sound except that of the wind in the crannies of stone,” he writes. “They spoke low and never called or sang, for danger brooded in every rock.”

5. It will reinvigorate your imagination.

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who has no desire to go on adventures. But he suddenly finds himself in the midst of mythical creatures he’s only ever read about. This novel brings you from the dark heart of goblin-infested mountains to the fairytale-like home of a man by day and bear by night. Expect the unexpected.

6. It’s the back story to the Lord of the Rings.

In The Hobbit, Gollum plays a major role, much to his dismay. We also are introduced to the sword, Sting, and we learn about the origins of the mithril under armour Frodo finds so useful throughout his quest to destroy the One Ring.

7. To appreciate the importance of always keeping hope alive, even when all seems lost.

Every time one road block is overcome, it seems 10 more appear during the trek to recover the dwarves’ lost treasure from Smaug, the dragon. But always, they journey onwards. They never give up and always find a glimmer of hope in the mostly unlikely places. It’s a lesson we could all apply to our own lives, as far removed as they may be from Tolkien’s fantasy world.

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Vanessa Santilli is a self-professed Lord of the Rings aficionado and hopes to one day visit New Zealand. In the meantime, she is a Toronto-based journalist and freelance writer. Visit her website at www.vanessasantilli.com or follow her on Twitter @V_Santilli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by shes_so_high.

Your Existential Despair–Treat it Like a Creative Gift

This is an essay by Aaron Pederson.

This article is about learning to see our existential despair/discontent/anxiety (whatever you want to call it) as a creative gift, rather than something to be psychologically burdened with.

Note that I’m not talking about neurotic (obsessively self-focused) despair. Existential despair is much different—it’s about how one feels in relation to one’s existence.

I experienced existential anxiety recently, when a couple friends and I were driving home from a night out at a club. We had had our fair share of banana rum and liquid cocaine shots. The driver, of course, was sober. As we were driving down a main road, I noticed a full red moon hanging low in the night sky.

“You know,” I said. “On a night like this, people everywhere are looking at this brilliant object, and most won’t even think twice about it. That thing that seems so close to us is in space right now. It’s so hard for me to fathom that.”

Silence.

“How did that giant rock that so perfectly lights up the night sky even get there in the first place?” I continue. “People rarely ask these types of questions—they just go on with their night…. thinking about work tomorrow or football on Sunday.”

I was speaking anxiously—my hands waving in the air as I scrambled to convey my point accurately, as if the right words were floating in front of my face and I just couldn’t snatch the right ones.

My friends didn’t say much. They suggested that my thought was strange. Perhaps they had missed the essence of what I was trying to capture in words. Had I miscommunicated my point? Should I swig some water, rest my head against the seat and call it a night?

I don’t know. Maybe I was just being weird.

The next morning, though, I remembered something I had read about Sigmund Freud. Let me explain.

Freud believed that people who came to therapy were not crazy, were not ill, but were actually personal previews of the angsts and anxieties the general population would soon face.

In other words, the sensitive people of the population—those who were worse than most at rationalizing their discontent/ despair/ anxiety—were the first to talk about their dissatisfactions, their repressions—but they weren’t the last. Soon enough, the majority of people would be experiencing the same inner conflicts. And that’s when major change happens in a society—a shift in values is really just an attempt to alleviate mass anguish.

For example, before the Renaissance was born out the disintegrated Middle Ages, there were probably a few individuals who predicted a great societal change, who experienced existential angst before the rest of society, who felt that, say, science needed to make greater leaps or the arts needed to become less stiff and more appreciative of nature.

Slowly, more and more people would experience this same discontent until it became a widespread shift in attitude. Suddenly, new values like materialism and human achievement and being a “Renaissance man” would trump the mere worshiping of God.

My point is this: if you currently experience existential angst and are kept up at night with deep, dark questions about life, and nobody seems to understand you, then realize you’re not crazy. Instead, you’re just ahead of the curve than the rest of us.

If anything, you’re more normal and saner than the rest of us—we just haven’t caught up.

Now, you may be wondering how this relates to “creativity.” Well, the great poet Ezra Pound once called artists the “antennae of the human race.” Or as psychoanalyst Rollo May says, “…. they [artists] give us a ‘distant early warning’ of what is happening to our culture.” What Pound and May mean, I think, is that artists often see (negative) things coming before anyone else, and this allows them to comment on society’s discontents in films, in novels, in art, in music.

With that said, you and I should treat our existential despair like a creative gift: something to be cherished, not burdened.

As artists, we have giant antennae sticking out of the backs of our heads that may attract certain thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts or insights seem depressing or hopeless, but that’s okay. We should explore these troubles courageously; not run away from or medicate them, for these are the concepts and ideas philosophers and artists create with.

The great philosopher Jon Stuart Mill once said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”

Maybe ignorance isn’t bliss after all.

Maybe exploring deep questions about life is more important to our human growth then merely being contented, blinded.

Maybe in a few generations, a layperson wrestling with probing doubts and questions about the moon will be a common, daily occurrence—and this will inevitably push our society forward.

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Aaron Pederson is a copywriter and freelance writer by trade and, in his spare time, he writes about creativity. He believes that creative people must be diligent and disciplined in their work, because if they aren’t channelling their creative energy productively their personal life can get messy. He has self-published a book called Lessons for Creative People, a short book on creative recovery. He blogs often at http://creativeethos.net about the creative spirit, and the many lessons we can learn from living he creative life. You can follow him on twitter @Creative_Ethos.

Connecting Via Virtual Book Clubs: Reading to Build and Maintain Relationships

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Even after the advent of Facebook, email and Skype, sometimes it seems to me that my “book” friends are far more present and dependable than actual friends that exist off the page. Beloved literary characters are always there, dependably themselves, and if they’re experiencing a crisis, I can read ahead, and it abates or is otherwise resolved, and there they are again, brightening my day with witty remarks or inspiring adventures.

As for my “real” friends, well, it’s complicated. All of us have hectic lives. Our interests and passions, our problems and experiences, these things are constantly changing, and changing us. So it can be hard to connect, especially with friends (like so many of mine) who live somewhere far, far away both in terms of physical distance and cultural tendencies. And new friendships are an even more fragile, high-maintenance thing.

Benefits: Reading with Friends

Books can be a great unifier. When you read a book with friends or family, suddenly you’re all experiencing the same things at once. While everyone responds a little differently, sharing the same plot and characters gives long-lost and newfound friends a chance to connect and talk about something new. Your single friend may be sick of seeing pictures of your toddler smeared in creamed peas, and you in turn may be tired of hearing about one-night, mojito-fueled escapades, but in any given story, chances are you can find some common ground to enjoy for an hour or so.

Besides, even when a certain passage or character gets mixed reviews, you can have a heated debate, hopefully without anyone becoming offended, because in the end, it’s not personal, the things happening to the protagonist are not happening to you. So when your mom or favorite aunt passes judgment in a way you find annoying or harsh, you can relax, because she’s not passing it on you and your life.

Reading books together is also a great way to cement a new friendship. As adults, new friendships outside work can be difficult to build because we’re all so busy, and young relationships of any type need time and effort to develop. Joining a book club with a new friend can really jumpstart your relationship. Here is a chance to meet regularly, and talk about life on a less intimate level, to laugh and cry together over the experiences everyone is sharing safely, vicariously, via words on page.

Defining a Virtual Book Club

For some readers circling up for traditional book club meetings is as simple as dragging a few friends or family members to a coffee shop or library every Thursday evening, or luring them into your living room with promises of cupcakes and lively conversation on Saturday afternoons. But for readers like myself whose network of loved ones are far-flung (across multiple continents) to say the least, a virtual book club may be the best answer.

So what’s a virtual book club, anyway? Like a traditional book club, a virtual book club is a group of people that agree to read a book during a set time period members have agreed on, and then meet at agreed upon intervals to discuss the book. Unlike with traditional book clubs, this meeting is not in person. The meeting can be via online chat, blog posts, or even emailing back and forth about the book. What matters is that people read the books, and then talk about it.

Setting Up a Virtual Book Club

Setting up your own virtual book club is fairly simple, at least if you have friends who read. The most common problem for many would-be-book-clubbers seems to be agreeing on a book. Finding a book that is appetizing to everyone can be tricky, although today’s genre-crossing tomes make your job much easier than in the past. If all else fails, why not read a classic, or a bestseller that everyone is talking about. That way, even when readers don’t particularly prefer the book, reading it will serve them later for intelligent small-talk at parties and work gatherings.

Another quandary for groups of friends that want to read together is agreeing on reading deadlines, meeting times and a method of commenting that everyone is comfortable with. Add different time zones to that mix, and some serious discussion may be required. But you do have the serious advantage of people being able to attend meeting from anywhere with an internet connection.

After your group has agreed upon a book and a meeting time you’ll be responsible for reading and reacting, but more importantly, really listening to and respecting your friends. What books or characters do they feel most strongly about? What are their questions or strong opinions? How your friends and family respond to books is a great insight into who they are and will also help the group decide what to read next and will greatly improve everyone’s experience.

A Few (Free) Virtual Book Club Tools

Shelfari:  On Amazon’s Shelfari.com, you can set up a private group for invitees only and read and comment in the group. To keep the comments from being public knowledge change all the preferences to “only members of this group” At the start or finish of each book or segment of a book, open a new discussion window for questions and comments. On the bookshelf it’s easy to keep track of which books the group has read and what they’re reading now.

WordPress: Another option is creating a wordpress.com blog for your book club. To make it private, go to privacy on the setting menu and select that you’d like the site to be private.  Then invite the book club members to be authors (publish and edit their own posts) or contributors (submit posts for administrator approval) and post about the book as the group reads it

Skype: One of my personal favorite, and an awesome alternative to ridiculous phone bills is scheduling a time do a Skype chat to discuss the book. Set up a public chat titled your book, or book club and then add book club members’ Skype usernames to the chat. Discuss the book.

Do you belong to a book club, virtual or otherwise?

Do you think book clubs are a good way to connect with friends and family members?

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Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by danxoneil.

Six Sentence Seduction

This is an essay by Noelle Sterne.

At first surf, it seemed like another time-wasting blog, fiendishly mounted to lure writers away from precious writing time. But I bit on the link in a writers’ newsletter, wanting to prove the ad wrong: “Be careful. Read Six Sentences and you may become addicted.”

Addiction, I saw, is easy. Six Sentences delivers. Every contribution on any subject is only six sentences long.

True to Six Sentences’ (6S) credo, the writer’s guidelines announce its requirements in exactly six sentences: “It’s simple. Just write six sentences. Say anything you like. Send your work (including its title) along with your name (or pseudonym), your bio, and any links you’d like to include to sixsentences@yahoo.com. All submissions will receive a response within six days. Please see Formatting for further details.” And formatting? You guessed it—another six sentences, with details on punctuation and title characters, and reiteration that any topic is acceptable.

Neither word count nor sentence length is specified, but the entries I read varied from 60 to 250 words and had five to twelve lines for each sentence. With no limit on semicolons, parentheses, and dashes, I did count one Henry Jamesian sentence of twenty-five lines.

The subjects range widely, from rejected love to werewolf fantasies to a grown daughter’s “blankie” to daily ennui. Some meander or rant self-indulgently, but most I read, until I forced myself to stop, like pushing away the sixth brownie, were competent to brilliant. The bios mirror the variety of contributors, from the arch (“He’s a fourth-generation warlock and sometimes channels Ellery Queen.”) to the writerly (“She won the Dirty Dozen Award for Fiction, and her first novel, Flowering Octopuses, was published last year by Bittersweet Earth Press.”).

The creator, editor, sustainer, and blogmaster, Rob McEvily, a virtuoso 6S-er himself, not only publishes little- and somewhat-knowns but includes excerpts from very well-knowns—from Anne Lamott to Sting to Norman Vincent Peale(!) All authors’ names are indexed, but be warned. These minis mesmerize, and you’ll be tempted to open the next entry, and the next and the next.

Some may dismiss Six Sentences as merely flash fiction—Lord knows, I’ve had a long, snobbish prejudice against it. (Anything worth writing is worth writing at [great] length.) But I’ve reconsidered and reevaluated. As I kept clicking, and my writing timer counted depressingly down, I recognized the immense value of Six Sentences—in at least six (pardon) ways:

1. Reading the posts with your morning coffee, as one writer confessed, can rev up your motivation for the writing session you’re avoiding. Admit it; when you finish a 6S, you blurt out to your cup, “I can write better than that.”

2. The entries spark experiences/thoughts/events of your own—a mangy dog you picked up, or a mangy guy. I’ve scribbled a few out on the nearest used napkin.

3. You can use six sentences to polish a passage from your work-in-progress. A friend chronicling her pre-divorce life described her husband’s habit of taking his jogging shoes to bed and sleeping with them cradled in his arms. She plaintively asked        whether they smelled better than her.

4. You can dare yourself to do the briefest of sentences and still get your story across: No time. No home. No funds. No friends. There was only one obvious choice. I jogged to the airport and stowed away on a biplane to Greenland.

5. Your 6S may be the germ of your next novel:Randy stared out the window at the dirt road across his front yard full of high weeds and broken furniture. The loose gutter banged against the house, and he sighed. Damn place needs so many repairs. Where would he ever get the money? From the road, dust blew up, signaling a car approaching. Into his driveway, almost hitting the rusty lawnmower that had died there, pulled a shiny wine-colored Bentley.

6. The 6S is great practice for your next query, synopsis, or pitch: This romantic paranormal mystery revolves around the lives of three half-sisters, a brunette, a redhead, and a blonde. They each have a different father, and their mother has lied about all three, saying they were dead. Each sister begins a quest to find her birth father, enlisting the aid of her two half-siblings. But the brunette sister is mysteriously resistant. In her presence, the others experience strange flashbacks that they cannot identify but seem very real. When a tall handsome man with graying temples appears apparently out of nowhere, the other two sisters insist on some answers.

See how much six sentences can do? See what you can get into them? See how you’re not constrained by word counts?

Reading others’ 6S and creating my own, I learned more about technique, pacing, diction, drama from each entry. My editorial self assessed how each the subject was handled, the conventions used, the economy or flagrance of expression, the buildup of words to the last line that smacked you in the psyche. And I discovered, to my arrogant shock, that writing the six can be especially challenging. When I tried an entry, my drafts kept exceeding six, with hours I don’t want to tally, and I still couldn’t get the last sentence right.

Remuneration is in publicity and links to your work, and the Six Sentence concept promotes and celebrates the fine discipline of writing a very few sentences on a subject and making them count. In addition to the practical six above, it boasts even broader benefits:

We set a short-term goal that deeply satisfies on completion (McEvily maintains it’s better than great sex).

We reinvigorate or reconfirm our power as writers.

We gain always-needed practice in editing, refining, purifying, polishing.

And we find fresh ways to pique interest, create wonderful word combinations, evoke meaning, and provoke drama. After all, aren’t these what we constantly aspire to as writers?

So now, with this six sentence conclusion, please excuse me. I must go and open a new file. Don’t yet know the 36-character (6 X 6) title, or even the subject. But I’ll engage my best writing skills and hope to move you. Maybe even make you envious. Watch for my post on Six Sentences.

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Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne publishes fiction and nonfiction in print and online venues. Her new column in Coffeehouse for Writers is titled “Bloom Where You’re Writing.” With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) uses examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Noelle’s current practical-psychological-spiritual handbooksupports doctoral candidates specifically: Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation—Finally—and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com

Photo: Some rights reserved by gcfairch.