The Writer as Student: Why You Need a Reading Syllabus

First, a confession: I’m a slow reader. It’s a curse because I know I’ll never finish all the amazing books out there (I even wrote a story, “What Happened in the Library”, where the narrator hired a reading clone). I’ve had to accept that I can only finish 1 or 2 books a month while other friends (you know who you are!) get through a book or two every week.

Seeing this as a weakness, my life was changed forever when I read and photocopied for posterity an article titled “The Intentional Reader” by Bob Hostetler in Poets and Writers back in 2000. The original is no longer available but here are two excerpts that together capture the essence of what I read back then: The Intentional Reader and Do You Plan Your Reading?

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Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

In the article, Hostetler encourages writers to intentionally read out of our comfort zones. This “intentional reading” is a potent way of keeping ourselves “schooled” and challenging our minds…and that will ultimately improve us as writers (and human beings). Too often we habitually reach for a certain style of book (because we like it!) or we read what was recommended/loaned by a friend (and if you are like me books by friends–woohoo!). While there is nothing wrong with reading spontaneously, it can keep us from challenging ourselves as readers because those books are never at the top of our list/bedside pile. And sadly, without a clear action plan to purposely challenge ourselves as readers and approach different/more intimidating texts…it usually doesn’t happen. Not because we don’t have good intentions to read this or that book or author or more about that topic…but because time and reading have a way of slipping away from us.
Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

So… the Intentional Reading Syllabus is an action plan, a way to take charge of our own continuing education.

For many years I created my reading syllabus as part of my New Year’s Resolution (and that works great!), but it works equally as well at the start of a new school cycle. As teachers and professors are putting together their syllabuses and outcomes for their students, it’s a natural time for writers to do the same, setting clear reading goals for yourself so you always know what to read next as well as why you are reading it.

Inspired by Hostetler’s original list, and refined over the last 20 years, here’s my modified Reading Syllabus Template (feel free to steal it!)

·         3 books by authors I’ve never read before

·         2 classics

·         2 rereads

·         1 new book by a favorite author

·         2 books on writing

·         2 nonfiction books on topics I know nothing about

·         1 book of poetry

·         1 memoir

·         1 biography

·         1 children/YA book

·         1 play

·         1 book in translation

·         1 mule choker (Hostetler’s term: i.e. a book over 700 pages)

That’s 18 books. Add to that various other books that come up during the year and that’s about all I can handle.

What I’ve found after doing this practice for almost two decades is that even if I don’t get to everything on my list, having the list at all keeps me focused, consciously choosing to read away from what is familiar or comfortable and into what is not.

So, as the new school year approaches, consider making your own Reading Syllabus for the year. Then print it out and hang it above your desk or work area.

Because, if you’re like me, you get crazy satisfaction from checking things off a list.

Happy Reading!
xoxo

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On Finding Inspiration: Holy Boredom

I’m bored the kids whine as soon as summer begins. Boredom seems bad. And it’s so easy to fill the empty spaces with a million easy-to-reach options: from food to electronics to conversation. “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean!” say the Ghosts of Restaurant Managers Past. Empty time seems wrong somehow.

But let me suggest, after putting it to the test myself, that the real key to finding inspiration no matter where you are is a healthy dose of Holy Boredom.

I’m writing to you now at the end of my sabbatical. (After 10 years of teaching college I decided that I was giving myself my own sabbatical!) And I’ve discovered that even on sabbatical, once the initial excitement wears off, it’s easy to get bored. My budget wine-cellar-turned-apartment has no television. Internet is spotty and unavailable altogether once I leave my apartment. But it took me about a week to discover this because, of course being someplace new makes you want to walk, explore, snap pictures. Which is why inspiration, real inspiration, did not arrive for me until week 2, when I’d explored all the crannies, eaten at all the restaurants, took all the pictures, and finally found boredom.

Holy Boredom—that place of nothing-ness where everything already lives.

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My guru is always (gently) reminding me that I need to meditate. I try. I have an app. I schedule it in my normally busy schedule, in between A and B. But the real point of mediation, as I understand it, is to quiet the mind, to silence the honking horns of urgency.

Holy boredom is to creativity what meditation is to the mind. Intentional stillness. Wide open space with no agenda. We think we’re so busy because the outside world is always pushing down on us (insert job, obligations, etc.) But also we do it to ourselves. We keep our mind busy, spinning, distracted. it’s not until you reach a place of actual boredom that inspiration, that deep inspiration, can shyly arrive.

So it’s not the table with the view by the sea that creates the inspiration—it’s the wide spaces of nothingness you create around the table. Staring out a window with no agenda. A long silent walk (with no phone). Room for boredom without the usual distractions: music, television, conversation.. It’s from that deep stillness your most original ideas can finally bubble to the surface.

As a disciplined person, one who normally uses all time available with military precision, scheduling in boredom seems, well, silly. But the good news is that this can happen here, now: you don’t have to travel anywhere to create pockets of holy boredom—they already exist, we just fill them so fast we don’t even see them: whoosh! Gone. So this summer, if scheduling “writing time” seems too intimidating or exhausting, why not just make room for a bit of daily boredom in those spots that you usually fill with blur and noise and see what bubbles up instead?

To Your Success!

PS: Maybe find a Boredom Buddy to keep you accountable?

PSS: Tell me how it goes!

How to Take a Mini Solo Writing Retreat

I’m a big believer in writing retreats. Even if you write every day, it’s important to periodically dive more deeply into your work for a sustained amount of time. But sometimes a week-long retreat isn’t possible or maybe it is possible but it’s too far away and your writing relationship needs an intervention right now.

What then?
Enter the solo writing retreat weekend.

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I’ve been doing mini solo writing retreats out of necessity for many years, and I like to think I have just about perfected the micro condensed, inexpensive yet highly effective solo writers retreat. Don’t get me wrong–while it’s absolutely amazing to give yourself the gift of an official retreat, MUCH can be done in a solo weekend or even daylong retreat if you do it right.

Here is my mini retreat formula and some guidelines:

1. You must get out of your house but you shouldn’t go somewhere too interesting. Some of my most productive mini writing retreats have happened at a friend’s empty condo or the cheapest Travelodge or Motel 6 I can find. The point is to stay in your room and write. Bad weather is a bonus.

2. You must be alone. No visitors. Non-negotiable.

3.  To really dive deep you need one entire 24-hour period, so I recommend you arrive at your retreat spot the day before if you can so you can wake up ON your retreat. If Saturday is my retreat day, I check into the hotel on Friday after work.

4. Take food with you lest you be tempted to go out exploring. Food should be simple, relatively healthy, easily available, and not overly interesting, food that won’t put you into a junk food/sugar coma (and needing a nap) but will keep you from needing to interrupt your work and go out to eat.

5. Try to avoid alcohol (and other substances), and sugar until you have FINISHED your retreat.

6: Beware of cable television and internet surfing, both of which are distractions on retreat as they are in real life. Consider only checking the internet during designated times (I give myself 10 minutes at the top of each hour).

Here is what a mini weekend retreat schedule looks like for me:

Friday: Take overnight bag and computer with me to work and drive to location right after. Check in. Go to closest grocery store and buy food for the weekend. That night: Spend 1-2 hours rereading my work so it’s fresh in my mind and percolating in my dreams. Go to bed early so I can wake up early and begin.

Saturday: Retreat Day
Morning: Wake up and start writing. Eat and do a good 2-3 hour chunk of writing before noon.
Lunch Break: (no more than 1 hour). Weather permitting take a quick walk to get the blood pumping.
After lunch: another 2-3 hour chunk of writing.
Late afternoon/early evening—At this point if the work has been going well I might take a few hours off. Take another walk or maybe eat a quick dinner out. Maybe take a nap if needed (but set alarm!).
Evening: Another 2-3 hours of writing after dinner.
Night: NOW watch bad cable, eat sugar, drink wine, and decompress. Sometimes if I’m feeling particularly accomplished I’ll go to a late movie.

Sunday: Wake up and get at least one more 2-hour chunk of writing in before checking out.
Go out to celebration lunch on the way home. *Very important to celebrate your successes!

If you’ve been doing the math, that’s somewhere in the range of 9-13 hours of writing in less than 48 hours! That’s A LOT of writing. And as a bonus you will probably also get good, extended sleep, lots of self-reflection time, and maybe a dip in the hotel hot tub. You will leave feeling accomplished and in motion with your writing and you will wonder why you haven’t done it before…and whether you can pull it off every month.

Maybe you can????

To your success!
xoxo

PS: Let me know how this works for you!

PSS: AND if you also want to come on a longer retreat with me and other writers, consider 4 days in the Rocky Mountains in August or a week in Costa Rica in March 2020!
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The Green-Eyed Ides of March: On Artistic Jealousy

Shakespeare was the first to call it the “green-eyed monster.” And since we are here, in a month of green, with green holidays and the Ides of (backstabbing) March, let’s talk honestly for a second about artistic jealousy..

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that, despite our very best efforts, artistic jealousy affects us all at one time or another. Recently, on a low day, I was feeling a twinge of the green and decided to put it out there on social media: “What do you do to not ride the green spiral down?” So many responses from funny to inspiring to serious, but the bottom line: most people could relate.

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If you have never been jealous of a colleague’s work or success, then you are a bigger person than me. Mind you, I try very hard to not go there, and I genuinely like my colleagues and I want them all to succeed. Nineteen out of twenty days I subscribe to the “we all win when we all win” mentality, and I deeply believe it’s the only way to have a rewarding artistic life.

But… no matter who you are, there is probably somebody out there who is kicking more butt than you, and it seems to be happening effortlessly (even though we rationally know that’s probably not true).

Over the years I’ve been jealous of many things. When I was overworked I was jealous of those with open, breezy writing schedules. When I was broke and raising two small children, I was jealous of those without financial worries or those who had the financial means to support their writing. When my creative well was dry and parched I was jealous of those whose muse never seemed to grow tired. When I couldn’t get published by a dream journal I would be jealous of those who did. When I was struggling to sell a manuscript or get a publisher/agent, I was jealous of all the new books birthing.

And…on and on.

If you look at the world through this lens, it truly doesn’t end. Of course you might have noticed that the common denominator in all these examples is ME! When I was feeling low, then I was jealous. And for me, that’s the key discovery here: Jealousy is triggered by a feeling of lack inside of ME–it really has nothing to do with them. Because if we were having a gold star day, then our colleague’s success, muse, money or time wouldn’t affect us at all.

To deny these feelings only stuffs them down deeper and then you end up with hemorrhoids and cancer. So while I don’t have a magic answer, here are three things that help me:

1. Speak it. Acknowledge it. Don’t pretend you aren’t feeling it. Tell someone. Or tell everyone on social media. Jealousy grows when it’s allowed to fester, so don’t let it fester. (Did you notice that “jealousy” contains the word “lousy”?)

2. Do something nice for yourself. You probably wouldn’t be feeling this way if you were having a gold-star day, so you probably need a little extra something. There was a time in my life when I would go eat a banana split every time I got a rejection. It just made the rejections go down easier and I love hot fudge. So…do something nice for yourself.

3. Try to remember Georgia O’ Keefe’s best advice ever: “I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.”

Meaning: Take all the good days and good reviews and all the bad days and bad reviews and flush them both down the same toilet and get back to work.

In solidarity!