The benefits of a book journal…

First, it was slow food, then slow blogging — now slow reading is the latest watchword. In our fast-paced world, movements designed to get us to slow down and really experience what we are doing always have my support.

Here’s a great way to practice slow reading: start a book journal. Whether it’s a notebook or a blog or an online tool like LibraryThing, journaling every book you read forces you to slow down and really think about what you’ve read. For me, my journals — which I started keeping in 2001 — have made me more thoughtful about what I’ve read and helped me form connections I might not otherwise have made. Since I started journaling my reading, I’ve chosen better books to read and integrated my reading more meaningfully into my own writing and my life in general.

I still keep a paper journal in which I write the title, author and publication date of each book I finish or abandon, my initial impressions of the book, and the date I finished it or abandoned it. For books I really like or that spawned a lot of initial thoughts, I write a second, more polished draft of the review and post it here or on LibraryThing.

How do you journal your reading and how has your journal benefited your reading?

Writing advice, distilled…

Every writer must eventually write a book about writing. It’s some sort of unspoken rule. Due to my lifelong interest in the writing process, I’ve read a fair number of these advice manuals. (Two of my favorites are Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, because both of these books say quite a lot about reading and understanding what you read, in addition to writing.) No question that books about how to write remain popular. I guess a lot of people want to be writers, and they think these books contain the secret, that one highly guarded piece of knowledge that will finally transform the person reading the book into a by-gosh for-real writer.

Here’s the real secret: All books on writing say pretty much the same things. They use a lot of words and pages to say it, too, when all the writing advice ever given can be distilled to just a few simple rules. Hang on, I’m going to tell you what they are in just a minute.

If I had to recommend just one writing book, it would be Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s not that she imparts any great secrets either; her book says pretty much the same thing all the other writing books do. But she says it with a lot of humor and reveals a great deal of herself in the process. Her book is really more useful for providing emotional support to writers, rather than showing them how to write. I take my copy out and read random sections from it whenever I need a little boost.

Now, on to the writing secrets. These are the three rules you need to know about writing, distilled from every writing advice book ever:

  1. If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. You can’t wait to be in the mood or to have a great idea. Showing up is key, but the urge to procrastinate can be very powerful. Successful writers usually build a routine around this just to get their butts in front of the computer (or typewriter or notebook or what have you).
  2. If you want to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. The initial struggle is just to get words on paper. Those words will never be as good as you want them to be. Once the words are there, you can work with them, revise, shape, cut, rearrange, to make them better. This rule also means that your writing, like most things you do, will get better the more you practice doing it.
  3. Writers read. I will never understand why someone who doesn’t read books would want to write books. All good writers read, a lot. They read obsessively. They read widely. Reading is how you learn to write. It’s how you figure out structure, character and plot. It’s how you find ideas and techniques to “borrow,” to play with and make your own. It’s how you realize what works and what doesn’t.

By the way, these rules also apply to pretty much any creative endeavor. Just substitute the word writer for the artistic pursuit of your choice: painter, musician, dancer, cook, whatever it is.

And that’s all you really, truly need to know. I’ve just saved you a lot of money buying all those books about writing you don’t really need. No need to thank me–just promise that when you become a successful writer, you won’t write yet another book about writing.

Essay of the week: Exposure

Sally Mann’s Exposure – NYTimes.com: a beautiful essay about art, motherhood and the clash between private and public lives.

Essay of the week: Toni Morrison’s vision

This was a beautifully written profile: The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison – NYTimes.com by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. Have you read any of Morrison’s books? I am ashamed to say that I have not, but Beloved is sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to give it my full attention.

Essay of the week: You do you

How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture – NYTimes.com by Colson Whitehead — a fascinating look at pernicious phrases like “you do you” and “it is what it is.”

Popeye’s “I yam what I yam,” however, remains what it has always been — the pathetic ravings of a man who claims superstrength, when it is obvious to everyone else in the room that spinach merely ameliorates the symptoms of an undiagnosed vitamin deficiency. A scurvy dog, indeed.

Margaret Atwood, Game of Thrones superfan…

Read this and had to share: Margaret Atwood on Game of Thrones: ‘Real people, every murderous one’. Well, if George pops off before the series is done, maybe she can finish it for him. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Essay of the Week: Telling family stories

Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems – NYTimes.com by Rachel Cusk. Ignore the headline–this is an amazing essay about the stories we invent for ourselves and our families. We are all storytellers. Sometimes we forget that our children our storytellers too, and have the right to tell their own stories of their lives, rather than abide by ours.