Sunday, April 4, 2021

Whittling the book pile

When the pandemic first hit last year, my local library shut down for a few months. While I missed it, and I am very glad it has since resumed online reservations and curbside pickup, I knew I wouldn't lack for reading material in the meantime.

Aside from being a re-reader, one who's happy to dip into my collection of shelved books over and over, I also had That Pile. You may know the one; you may have your own version of it. The pile of books picked up here and there--at sales, book swaps, and so forth, or maybe received as gifts. For me, they're books I want to read, or at least wanted to when I first got them, but wasn't in the mood for right then. Or at any time since, though I believed the right mood would eventually arrive. That pile's existence never stopped me from acquiring new books, most of which I read before dipping into the older pile.

Over the past few years, as I've made a conscious effort to declutter, I finally faced the pile. I was even able to slowly dent it. But 2020 would be my chance to make real progress, I thought.

I'm not sure how many books were in that pile when I first started decluttering--maybe 50? Definitely more than 30. It wasn't even really "a" pile, but a few stacks. 

I'm happy to report that the pile is now down to eight books.

I made progress in three ways. One was by facing the fact that I was just never going to read some of them, and I let them go to better homes. For book cherishers, this action can seem impossible at first, but it got easier the more I did it. For the remaining books, I decided that their reading time had come! It was easier to pick up one of these long-unread books if I reminded myself that I could always put it down if I didn't like it after all. (After years of compulsively finishing books whether I wanted to or not, I've reached the point of allowing myself to abandon a book that isn't working for me. Life is short, and there are plenty of books out there.)

The other way I shrunk this pile was by making an effort not to add to it. To bring home only books that I wanted to read soon. Part of my decluttering involves keeping a list of new items that I bring into the house. I don't track perishables like groceries and toiletries, but only things that are meant to hang around for a long time, and that includes books (though not library books, which of course rotate in and out quickly). I don't have any special rules about numbers of items I want to acquire or get rid of. I don't have a one-in, one-out rule. The only reason I made the list was to be more mindful of what I get, to be more aware of what I acquire, to make sure I really want or need it. And that has been happening. I'm not reading fewer books; I'm just storing fewer unread ones.

Happy reading, whether you're tackling a new book or a not-so-new one!


Sunday, January 31, 2021

Small goals, and one thing Twitter is good for

A few years ago, when I was in a writing slump, I decided to set some very small, manageable goals. Goals that would be fun rather than onerous. One was to write at least 100 words a day in my journal. They didn't have to be special words, good words, interesting words. The point was just to keep my writing habit going, and to set such a low-pressure goal that anxiety and judgment and other obstacles couldn't get in the way. 

The other was to participate in Creative Nonfiction's #cnftweet challenge once a week. The challenge is to tell a true story in one tweet, including the hashtag #cnftweet. The Creative Nonfiction magazine publishes selected tweets in its newsletter and magazine. For me publication was a bonus but not the primary goal; for me the writing itself was the main thing. I'd been veering more and more toward nonfiction, and I have always loved flash and micro lengths, so this was a timely exercise. I also enjoy reading the other cnftweeters' contributions; it has become a sort of loosely defined, fluid online community. And it was a thrill to have several of my tweets make it into issues of the magazine.

With the #cnftweets, unlike with my journal, I did concentrate on quality, seeking the telling detail, the vivid image, the apt turn of phrase. I see a micro story as one that delivers a specific concrete image but suggests a much larger story beyond the frame. And if it produces a laugh or a gasp as well, so much the better. 

My goal has been to come up with two #cnftweets per week, but I don't let myself agonize over this. Sometimes I've done three or more, sometimes one, sometimes none. I also don't agonize over the responses. I'm always delighted when others like them, but you don't always know what will strike a chord. I suspect every regular cnftweeter has had a carefully crafted tweet, one that makes them proud, draw few likes, while another tweet they'd thought of as almost a throwaway, the tweet they almost deleted, gets wild applause.

From these two practices, I regrew my writing habit. I have indeed written more and more nonfiction in recent years, although I've also been working on a long fiction project. The most important thing these practices did was to reconnect me with the joy of writing, the stability of having a steady flow of words. The words themselves sometimes snap and leap with life, and other times lie there limp with triteness, but that's the way the way writing goes. Finding the flow was what mattered.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Subject to change

Last year at this time, I would venture to say, most of us had no idea how the year would unfold. That's always true, but the up-ending of the world in 2020 hammered home that message with extra emphasis.

Standing on the threshold of a new year, we don't know how unpredictability will play out this time around. We may have hopes and goals and plans. All of it is subject to change. So we sketch out the plans, and hope that more of 2021's surprises will be of the pleasant kind, and hope for the strength to deal with whatever arises. It's good enough for now.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Grateful for books

I've always been thankful for books, but this year I am especially so, since travel this year has been confined to the imagination. At times I've needed books that reflect what it's like to live through an epidemic (Body Counts, Sean Strub) or cope with grief and loss (When Death Takes Something from You, Give it Back, Naja Marie Aidt) or live in a bitterly divided world (WWI Europe, in the case of Alone Against Gravity, Thomas de Padova; WWII Europe, in the case of Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly). 

At other times, I've needed books that transport me to completely different experiences: good old Emma (Jane Austen) or shiny new fantasy (Star Daughter, Shveta Thakrar) or 1990s radio (Radio On, Sarah Vowell). I've delved into the writerly journals and correspondence of Sylvia Plath and May Sarton, and the poetry of Joy Harjo and Morgan Parker. I "moved" to Bolivia with William Powers and his family (Dispatches from the Sweet Life) and into the American desert with Ben Ehrenreich (Desert Notebooks) and into The House on Mango Street with Sandra Cisneros.

And that's just a sampling. Thanks to curbside library pickup, rereads from my own shelves, and the miracle of mail order, I've been able to keep my pandemic-shrunken world wide and varied, to keep my mind exercised. I hope you have also found books to keep you comforted or challenged--and if you write, to remind you why your work is important.

Monday, October 12, 2020

When the path gets rocky

One thing I like about reading authors' diaries--maybe the main thing--is how they honestly reflect the difficulties, the ups and downs, of the writing life. There are days when everything clicks and the words flow. There are days when acceptances pop into the mailbox. But there are also many days of self-doubt, emptiness, stuck-ness. Days when a good idea just won't come, or an idea that seemed good the day before now looks pitiful. 

It's reassuring to remember that's all part of the process. If it doesn't feel like magic and moonbeams every moment, that doesn't mean we're doing it wrong. Plenty of writers have gone before us, acknowledging that the path can be rocky. If we trip over the occasional rock or wander off into the nettles, at least we're in good company.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Pastimes for the present time

The pandemic has sped up time for some of us, slowed it down for others. I've experienced both. Spring lasted forever, but the summer is passing in an eye-blink.

I'm working more hours, but I have fewer options for my downtime. I still walk and hike, though I have fewer options for where to do it. My library closed for weeks, and the new reservation and curbside pickup process is a bit slower, though I'm profoundly grateful it exists at all. In any case, I did have a great excuse to delve into my TBR pile--the books that I've accumulated but then was never in the right frame of mind to read. 

One of those books is an art book, picked up dirt-cheap secondhand. I had thought, when I got it a few years back, that I might use it for writing prompts. But it was only a couple of weeks ago that I finally opened it.

Each painting in it encourages me to slow down, to study line and form and color, to think about the story it's telling. It encourages mindfulness, this stopping to focus on what's in front of me.

I suspect that gardening, puzzles, and baking may be serving similar function for many: a tangible object or process with which to interact in the moment. Writing can take us deeper into this world, or it can take us deeper into other worlds. Yet sometimes we want to set it aside for paintbrush or rake or dough. Especially when the future looks uncertain, we concentrate on the present moment.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Recording the details

As I look back on old diary entries, I wish I had spent more time recording the mundane details of my daily life and less analyzing every nuance of my angstier moments. I seem to recall the writer David Sedaris saying something similar about the journals he has kept.

One problem is that we're so familiar with life as it is today, we often think of it as boring and not worth recording. And then living through extraordinary times such as this pandemic, we may not want to dwell on the details. We may think we'll never forget them.

But even if COVID-19 permanently changes us, there will be details about this time that will grow hazy. Even if we end up covering our faces forever (and I hope we don't), will we remember what it was like to wear a mask for the first time? Will we recall the scramble to even find a mask, the experiments with old T-shirts and rubber bands? Will we forget the desperation over toilet paper? The evening cheers for frontline workers? The first person we knew with the virus, or the first symptoms in ourselves? Will we remember watching cases spread over maps with growing dread and fear? Will we remember how children played in yards for the first time in years, how they chalked the sidewalks with art? Will we remember the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd and so many others, the jolts of a country's long-delayed reckoning?

We may want to write these things down. Whether for catharsis or for some future researcher, or as a link to our own future selves. I find so much in my earlier writings that I otherwise would have forgotten.