June One.

Hello, June. Hello, real life.

I wish I had better reasons for not writing anything lately. Not just here, but writing anything other than book reviews. But I have no reasons because I don’t even have the head space to think of reasons.

When I look back at 2015 and try to remember what it was about, I am sure that all I will remember about this time is that I sat in my car. I sat in my car or I drove a child somewhere in my car, and I tried to hold on to a thought for longer than five minutes. In 2015, I felt like I might never hold on to a thought for more than five minutes, ergo, I might never be able to write any fiction again. Or feign to work at writing any good fiction. (Because being a writer is mostly about looking off into space and thinking the same thought for a really long time, right?) In 2015, I had so many ideas, and they were all gone by the time I pulled into my driveway.

Yes, it’s fun, seeing each of my kids find a way through the world, and junior high (for the big one) has been something so alien to our entire family that it took all our combined willpower to get her through the first year. But while I’ve been able to dedicate myself to a strict schedule of waking up early so I can write my book reviews and not feel panicky about that (mostly), I am unable to dedicate myself to a strict schedule of creativity. Because creativity needs some freaking space, and my brain is mostly full of things like: 7:05, leave the house. 7:12, drop Henry at Grandma’s. 7:22, say goodbye to Addie before PE. 7:50, run to the restroom before class starts. 9:55 sneak out of class during the last five minutes so you can make it to the restroom again before all the kids are in the hall. 11:15, lock classroom door so you can eat without talking to 9th graders. 1:05, run to restroom again before the next class starts pounding on the door. 2:20 try to get to Henry before he’s the last lonely kid in the parking lot. Etcetera. And there’s a lot of me having to say “really?!?” to kids and shooting mean looks around.

This, too: I’ve been trying to lose weight since January. Succeeding, slowly. But I will maintain until I die that some part of my creativity comes from consuming doughnuts and ICEEs and pretzels and red licorice, and that carby/fun part of me is being brutally repressed for a little while longer.

Anyway. I’m home. It’s quiet, and I just finished the last review I need to write for three weeks. I’m having some minor surgery next week, so the break in work isn’t really a break, but not reading for work and not writing for work and not going to work–that feels a little bit like a guilty thing I’m doing just for myself. I’ll take it. I don’t really know what to expect this summer. We’ve purposely kept our schedule open since I don’t know how I’ll handle the surgery. Before you ask: It’s a hysterectomy. Not a secret, not major, and not life-threatening, just something I need to do so I can stop being in agony every month. I’m a little sad to say goodbye to some part of my body that gave me these awesome kids. And I’m a little sad that I’m not packing for some European adventure like I was last summer. But in addition to riding in my car, 2015 just needs to be about evicting my bum uterus. As soon as I do that I can get back on a plane.

For now I am just happy to be home with my (almost) eighth grader. Happy that all of the problems of the school year will fade over the next few weeks. I’m hopeful I find space enough to keep my thoughts, to turn them over and let them become something more than a passing idea.

We’ll see. If not, at least I get to lay by the pool and eat fresh tomatoes.

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What I’m Reading

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This week in words:

On Sunday | The New Yorker. I am not good at reading TNY regularly. When I’m not careful, it stacks up and I start to feel stressed out. This week I tried to start something new. I want to take time on Sunday morning to drink my coffee and read at least some of this week’s issue. I always find an article or a short story to love. It’s time I made it a ritual.

During the week | The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi. I have yet to crack the beautiful cover of this surrealist whoddunit, but I am hoping to have it finished before Friday. Filipacchi wrote about beauty for The New Yorker recently, and I immediately wanted to review it:

After all, finding oneself beautiful when one is not: Is that not the next best thing to actually being beautiful? And the detail grew. Before I knew it, I was writing a fictional meditation on beauty—a disapproval of it, but also a celebration of it.

In my car | The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, AKA J.K. Rowling. For short bursts of reading-while-driving and reading-while-exercising, I have found that I love a good ol’ fashioned mystery. I enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling, and so far The Silkworm seems to be equally good.

Are you reading anything great this week?

10 ways to read more. Even if it’s boring.

UntitledIt’s not as difficult as you’d think to read more books. I’m not a particularly fast reader, and I certainly don’t have very much free time. But in 2014 I read 66 books, for a grand total of 18,863 pages. Best reading year ever.

I get asked pretty often about how I manage to read so much. Of course, I do like to read and chose two jobs for myself that necessitate reading. But I watch a shitload of bad TV, you guys. And liking to read doesn’t mean I’m predisposed to getting a lot of it done. Until a few years ago, I was pretty much only reading the novels I was teaching. I didn’t read for fun unless I was on vacation. When I started an MFA program, I realized that I needed to find a way to make reading work in my daily life. When I started working as a book critic, I needed even more strategies. And I’m not talking about the standard “stop reading if you find you hate a book” advice. Sometimes it’s worth knowing how to read even if you’re not feelin’ it.

How to Read More

1. Know how long it’s going to take.

This seems like it would make the task more daunting, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. This helps me so much. If I know how long a book will take, I’m more likely to know how (and if!) it will fit into my life. I am less likely to be surprised when I’m not finished. I realized in grad school that I needed to plan specific chunks of time for reading and writing if I was going to actually do them.  I’d spent my previous academic career in a state of constant worry: When I was I going to get my reading done? Why did I sometimes have extra time and sometimes run out of time? I spent a lot of time in college trying to stay up late to finish books and papers, which means I spent a lot of time crying while I half-assed things. I have two kids and an incredibly demanding day job that comes with its own homework. I couldn’t do that willy-nilly shit anymore.

So I sat down one day to read for an hour just to see how far I’d get. I tried to pay attention for a while to see if I was close to an average number of pages per hour. What I discovered is that I read about 50 pages an hour, average. This can vary, of course, depending on the typesetting of the book, or how old the material is (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy), but I am always close to that average. If a book is 200 pages, that’s a four-hour book. If a book is 300 pages, it’s a six-hour book. This helps me to choose things based on how they’ll fit into my life. (This is why I chose to read Middlemarch over the summer, not when I was in school.) I mean, I look at the length of a movie before I go. Why not figure out the run time of a book?

Once I know a book is going to take me six hours to read, it’s generally very easy to figure out when I can do that. It might be three hours a day on two weekend days. Or if I want to get it done during the week, four days of reading for an hour and a half. There’s something great about the word “only”–if I tell myself I only have to read for an hour and a half on a particular day to stay on schedule, I am free to quit and walk away when that time is up. And if I want to keep reading? Bonus.

Of course, most people don’t have to get through a book by a deadline. I still think it helps to have an idea of how long a book will take you, even if you only read for ten minutes a day. Are you willing to live with that particular story for the next three months?

2. Give yourself permission to be lame.

I have this post it note on my computer monitor at work: You don’t have to be great today. Just do your job. It works for reading, too. Many, many times the fear of not being perfect (or not getting a whole job done, or not doing something the “right” way) is enough to keep me from doing it at all. That’s stupid. I’m trying to be more forgiving with myself. Sometimes I don’t feel like reading for more than a half hour. Sometimes I can only read 5 pages before my kids interrupt. Sometimes I can’t really concentrate. Sometimes I read and I don’t understand what I read. Sometimes I have to read a chapter over and over just to get it. I used to only read when I could stay in bed for an entire day and binge. I can’t really do that now, but that’s no reason to avoid reading altogether. Nor are any of my other fears about not reading “right.” Reading a little, even inefficiently, is always going to be better than not reading at all.

3. Take your book with you.

Reading in boring situations is the best. My favorite thing to do is to avoid the task at hand. I’m awesome at not doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing. Carry your book. Avoid work. (This post on Zen Habits confirms that I’m not the only person who finds more time to read this way.) If I can make reading feel like avoidance behavior, like a cheat, it’s indulgent. If I’m at a meeting that’s running long, or if I’m stuck waiting at the doctor’s office, or if I’m sitting in the parking lot waiting for my kids to get out of school, reading always seems like more fun than just sitting. I have to be there, anyway. Once I got used to carrying a book, I started to feel like something was missing if I forgot it. I know I could be playing solitaire or crushing candy or scrolling through the latest gossip headlines, but at the end of the day none of those leave me with anything to show for my efforts. If I read while I’m bored and waiting, I can at least get ahead. Little bits add up.

4. Think of reading like a treat.

This is a mental game I play with myself all the time. Do I love to read? Hells yeah. Does that mean I always want to read? NOPE. The minute I catch myself wanting to complain about having to read, I stop and change my mindset. Reading is definitely a “get to,” not a “have to.” As a literate, thoughtful person, it’s a privilege for me to read. It’s never a chore. (And when that doesn’t work because the reading still feels like work, I remind myself that I could be digging a ditch or having to smile at other humans for my job. That usually does the trick and I snuggle right back into my quilt and my book.).

Reading is relaxing. It’s good for your mental health. It’s wonderful to sit or lay still during a busy day, whether it’s at the beginning, middle, or end of it. Read outside. Read under a blanket. Read with a cup of coffee or tea. Enjoy it, because it is a luxury.

5. Pay yourself first.

Procrastination is a losing battle. I read recently that procrastination is the hope that you’ll suddenly want to do something later that you don’t want to do now. That has never happened to me in my life. I hate the same things at the end of the week that I hate on Monday. Pushing a task off until later only makes me enjoy my free time less. If I have to read and I’m not particularly enthused about the book, I make myself get it over with. I jump right in. That way it doesn’t hold any power over me and as soon as I’m done with it, I’m free to goof off. You show yourself generosity by completing boring tasks quickly; you give yourself some truly free time after you’re done.

But that doesn’t address the idea of reading things you want to read, which is sometimes equally difficult to fit into your schedule. I think that comes down to priorities. Either you want to do something, or you don’t. If you want to read more, quit making excuses and just read more. I try to think of the hours in my day like money. I only get so much and then it’s all gone. This really makes me feel better when I “pay myself first” by doing the things that matter the most to me before I do anything else. I deserve to do the things that make me feel fulfilled, not just the things I have to do. Sometimes the only way to do that is to make sure I read before I do anything else. I’ve developed a habit of reading in the mornings before my family gets up.

6. Don’t give your time to stupid stuff–unless you choose it.

AKA, don’t watch anyone read the internet to you on TV. Gretchen Rubin calls this “potato chip news.”  You know what she means. Just watch local news one day and pay attention to how much anchors talk just to fill time. I catch myself gobbling up potato chip news when I’m waiting for the forecast, or waiting for a story that’s teased before a commercial. That’s ridiculous. It’s 2015. I have a device in my pocket that tells me the weather. It also will tell me who was nominated for an Academy Award, or what the latest study says about eating beets, or what I’m supposed to be terrified of this week. I don’t have to ever watch a commercial again. There is no reason to sit and watch any show that regurgitates the internet. (Watch a morning show, and note how desperately they read things from Twitter in attempt to be relevant.) Get your own Twitter account. Scroll fast and skip the potato chips.

The point is, if I catch myself falling down the rabbit hole of stupid news (or re-runs of reality TV, just “watching whatever is on,” etc), I try to at least think about whether or not I could be spending my time more efficiently. This is not to say that I don’t waste hours of my life doing things that most people would find ridiculous. But I’m happy to spend my time on inane things when I choose them.

7. Get into audio books.

Ignore the voice (real or imagined) that tells you audio books aren’t real books. Is it a different act to listen than to read words on a page? Sure. Do you hear the words? Do they go into your head? Yep. You read that. If it isn’t “real,” so WHAT? I listened to Anna Karenina while I trained for a marathon, and I have amazing memories of running with Vronsky and Anna. Last year I listened to The Goldfinch on long walks through my neighborhood, and I was just as moved by antique furniture restoration as I would have been holding the book. I’ve loved some of the stories I’ve heard more than the ones I’ve read with my eyes. Enjoy the words however they get into your brain.

8. Get a buddy.

I’ve never been in a book club, but I’m desperate to talk to people about stories. I find writing reviews scratches this itch. Maybe all it takes for you is having a friend read the same book at the same time. Everything is better when it’s shared. I love when my husband or a close friend read a book with me. Try to find a reason for reading, and you’re more likely to stick to it.

9. Have a goal.

I like to see my little ticker go up on Goodreads. Set a goal for yourself, even if it’s small. It feels good to make progress.

10. Give yourself permission to hate what you read. Read anyway.

I firmly believe this: If you can make yourself read things that are challenging (even if these things are boring), you are going to have more opportunities in your life. Let me say this another way: If you only ever read things that feel easy, good, or exciting, you’re limiting yourself.

I read things all the time that are hard to get through. Sometimes this is for work, sure. But sometimes it’s because I need to learn. Sometimes I want to read an opinion that makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I read bad writing so I know how I don’t want to write. Many times I read about people who are not like me. Sometimes I read things that are beyond my reading or comprehension level and I work so hard just to understand. Not always. God no. I read a lot of fluff. But if you tell yourself you only have to read things  you like, after a while you will run out of books. Reading will get tedious. I guarantee it. If you give up on every book that doesn’t feel just right, you might not ever discover something really great that’s different. Maybe the book is about to get SO good, and you missed it by putting it down. Maybe you are about to get so good as a result of reading it.

I know that’s not popular advice. And this is not sexy, but here’s how you read more. Even when it’s boring: You keep going, even if it’s just a little bit at a time. I ran a marathon that way: slow as hell. If you keep reading, and if you don’t stop, you will make progress. And the more you read, the more you’ll want to.

Flaubert-isons

How do I really spend my time? You think I’d know, since I plan every variable (exercise, sleep, work hours, pages to read) like a madwoman. But I haven’t really thought about how it all shakes out into percentages. Last week sometime (in a post I can’t find now) I read someone’s goal for the new year was to keep the work/fun balance by trying for 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 8 hours leisure.

Sounds nice, right? I had no idea if I was anywhere close to that. And then this morning I saw this post from Colossal about famous creatives and how they spent each day. Of course I dropped everything to crack open an Excel sheet and color-code my own day. I didn’t have to even tell you that.

Verdict? Using the categories from the Colossal infographic, my day looks like this:

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My design skills are out of this world. I know.

On an average day, I spend 8 hours sleeping, 7 hours at my day job, 3.5 in “other” (which basically means driving kids somewhere, cleaning, or cooking a meal), 3 hours on food/leisure, 1.5 on creative work, and 1 on exercise.

If I’m sick (like this week) or have too much review work to do, I skip the gym and end up doing creative work from 4:30-6:00 AM, too.

So?

It reveals both my propensity for charting things and the fact that I do not have nearly enough hours in my day. It also reveals what I fundamentally feel, which is that I wish I had more yellow (leisure) and pink (creative) on my chart. I’ll be glad when I can scale back the green (day job) to do this. But I feel so pleased about my sleep habits. No single other thing I’ve done in the last year has made me more happy. Everything is easier with more sleep, harder with less. Kind of cool to lay it all out so I can compare it to, you know, Flaubert.

Hey, and [shameless plug!] speaking of making comparisons to authors, I have a piece up at Ploughshares today where I do just that. Here’s an excerpt:

I love art from other art. Ballets inspired by narratives. Garments influenced by architecture. Paintings that translate sound into color. Recognizable connections light up our synapses. We like things that remind us of other things, particularly if the connections are clever. (How else do you explain the popularity of “Weird Al” Yankovic?) Inspired work honors its source, but often it also begins a conversation. Many of the best literary examples don’t just use an original plot for a model, but reanimate the language of the older work to create something new. When an author uses work this way, the tension between two texts adds gravity to them both.

Read the rest…