“I Am Always Reading Them” — A Primer On Reading

I recently complicated my own kid’s love affair with books, and I’m not even a little sorry, in fact, it’s worse, because I knowingly led him to a book hangover so wretched, he refused to speak to me for nearly an entire day, and he’s six. Speaking is what he does.

This kid is one who gets in trouble over books and over reading at school, such is the intensity of his limerence, so you can appreciate the full icy bloodlessness of my crime. I received a note home from his teacher, for example, telling me that it was discovered that he had hoarded more than thirty classroom books inside of his desk.

Life skill, right here.

Life skill, right here.

“You could not possibly have read these,” his teacher reportedly sad.

“I’ve read all of them, except this one,” and he showed her a book with a bookmark still in it, and then gave her an accurate summary of all the rest of the books.

“But when?” She asked. Because, after all, he’s at school where they presumably do school stuff, which is something more than sitting in a bean bag for hours at a time reading, which is what he does at home. “When did you read all of these books?”

“Always,” was his answer. “I am always reading them.”

I can tell already that this business with the school desk book hoarding will be apocryphal, as will the general battle between him and his second grade teacher over his preference to read over all other presented curriculum. I hope it is apocryphal because his eco-steam fantamance has settled into its 300th week on the bestseller’s list, not because he is still taking second grade.

Writing eco-steam fantamance. Exactly what it says on the box.

Writing eco-steam fantamance. Exactly what it says on the box.

On the occasion of my knifing, we were having a nice weekend, mostly reading together between breaks to eat sandwiches and make tea. He’s been reading independently for a long time, but does enjoy being read to, and I was feeling motherly and expansive, so I thought it would be nice to pick out a book for just that. We’d had a conversation earlier that day about dramatic tension and emotional conflict, which he can be a little wary of. The Cressina Cowell books he’s reading now, the roughly seven hundred books in the How to Train Your Dragon series, involve a good deal of father-son conflict, both interior and exterior, and he reads it with one hand over his eye in order to race to the dragony parts or the kissing parts.

Our conversation about emotional conflict was a good one51hPGBm908L-1._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_ actually, we were able to identify that his discomfort comes from what it is that sees the characters should feel, or that he wishes them to feel, as the reader, and their actual action or feelings presented by the narrative. More directly, for example, Hiccup’s father should be proud of him, because Hiccup is exceedingly smart and creative, but his father lectures and berates him, instead, for his curiosity and lack of physical strength, both of which task resources for the rest of the community. This conflict is impossible for my kid to accept because it exists because we know what is the right thing for Hiccup’s father to do and yet, he does not do it. We cannot make him do it, either, because he is bound to a static and permanent narrative. We are, as readers, at the mercy of this conflict. We are held hostage by it. Which is, of course, why as more sophisticated readers, if we feel that a book’s conflict isn’t “good” we’re disappointed.

Because, really, unmerciful dramatic tension that grabs us by the shorthairs and won’t let us look away is delicious.  But it is delicious in exactly the way we mean something that is an acquired taste is delicious. Coffee, beer, and dramatic emotional tension are not for six year olds. If you’re six, you want juice and the kissing parts, all the way, embroidered with pratfalls and straight narrative action of the flying dragon variety.

So when we had this discussion, we also talked about how emotional tension is crafted by the author to make us, the reader, feel things. Because he is lucky, and has a dad that loves him as he is, Cowell is able to reach him with the conflict in the narrative I described and make him feel uncomfortable, frustrated, even angry. Narrative pits the lived experiences of humanity against artifice, against a narrative written one way for innumerable readers. And you know, he got that; saw the magic in it. Saw how, if he was a kid who’d had Hiccup’s experience with his own father that the same passages might make him feel sad, instead of indignant. It was a kind of Reader Response 101, and a lesson that demonstrated the equal power of both the author and the reader, how the relationship between the two is a dynamic way for one story to be a number of stories. It’s one of those ideas that is complex in its simplicity, like many of the best things we learn as children.

So while I had initially thought I’d pull down the first Harry Potter to read, given our conversation, I reached for Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, instead.

Those of you who know this book have a handle on where this is going.

31Cz04DaxOL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Now, we had just talked about how emotional tension is a craft, and there is a way in which, already, I was a little bit unpacking and demystifying the magic of books. A little bit. Maybe not at all, depending on your perspective. Some of us see the magic in taking a thing apart and putting it back together, after all, and some of us prefer to just enjoy what is that has been made. We had gotten to this idea that the author makes choices, makes choices based on the author’s understanding, as a human, about how human’s behave and how best to show that behavior to the reader in such a way that the reader finds themselves bringing their own human experiences with humans to bear on the text.

On his own, he had pointed out that Cowell didn’t have to say, didn’t have to write, that Hiccup was hurt, my kid just knew he was because Hiccup cared so much about his own experiences, and his dad, who he loved, did not. While my kid was working on that, then, all I had to do is ask my kid what it was he thought Hiccup wanted, which he very easily was able to say that he wanted his dad to be proud of him, and then I pointed out that this wasn’t anything that was actually written down, that it was his own emotions in conflict with the actions of the text that came to that conclusion, and by then my kid was pointing out a zillion other examples of dramatic and emotional tension and conflict in the text with that delight, which I’ve mentioned, of figuring out a simple complex idea.

So, I said, this is how books make us laugh, as well, or also, make us cry. The books don’t tell us to be uncomfortable, or angry, or amused, or sad, we tell ourselves to be, or really, we get in touch with things we have already felt before, by reading about familiar emotions in unfamiliar settings and getting the opportunity to safely feel those emotions without risking a new experience.

I pulled out Creech, actually, not because I wanted to break apart my kid into little pieces, but because he asked, could a book make us feel something we had never felt before? In other words, could we have a novel emotional experience by engaging with enough familiar human narrative action in the text that we learned a new feeling?

What would it feel like, is what he asked, to feel something I never felt before because I read it in a book?

Love That Dog is technically a middle grade book, though it is really one of those life books that is for everyone. It is a book told in a series of poems written first, under duress and the direction of the narrator’s classroom teacher, and then with joy as the narrator Jack discovers that he is a poet.

It is also a book about a little boy engaged with the unspeakable grief of losing his first best friend, his dog Sky, in a terrible and confusing hit and run accident. What’s more, Jack’s healing comes not only from his burgeoning love of writing poems, but from his nurturing his very first author obsession with the real life poet Walter Dean Myers, who makes a fictional guest appearance in Creech’s book.

The book starts out at the shallow end, wading us into what will be excruciating emotional tension established by Jack’s refusal to write about his beloved dog because it hurts too much, and the reader’s awareness that he should, oh Jack, you really should, even as the grief hurts us as well. This small start is simply one of Jack’s very funny and reluctant school-assignment poems after another, many of which are in direct conversation with his teacher. My kid delighted in these, no stranger to conflict with his teacher himself, and yet, even before my kid really knew what it was that Jack was avoiding, he picked up on the fact that Jack was avoiding something, and that it was big.

Wait, my kid stopped me at one point, just before the drop into the abyss, what is Jack hiding?

Oh, darling boy. Only his whole entire world.

So here, in a eighty-six page book with maybe a hundred words on every page, it is revealed to my son that yes,

Mothering, the good part.

Mothering, the good part.

you can feel all kinds of things you’ve never felt before, deeply, painfully, incisively, even if you have never lived them. You can feel not only the grief of a small boy who witnessed the death of his own animal, but more complicatedly, you can feel what it is to bury that grief and what it is to be small with a grief that is unresolved and festering. What’s more, when that seems too much, too unbearable, you can feel what it is for the wounds to come open and come clean, and to find your joy, the joy that heals you and excites and most of all, allows you to write your masterwork, a poem called “Love That Dog,” and what it might be like if your favorite poet in the world read your poem, and visited your class because he liked it so much.

My kid felt all that, and so no; he couldn’t speak. Not to me, not to anyone. He entered that space between himself and a book, a space that hadn’t previously existed and now was undeniable. He’d walked alongside a narrator he identified with who compared my son’s life with his own and demonstrated the difference so sharply that the difference no longer mattered, only what they had in common, which by the end of the book, was almost everything.

The result, since, is a kind of dear and bittersweet caution, on his part, with which he approaches a new book. How he reads the back copy, and looks at the cover, and asks what its about. How he reaches for a familiar book to reread after reading a new one, and how he criticizes an author’s choice, sometimes, in how he or she showed him something new.

And how he carefully has avoided a certain book that drew the line between before and after, as if the book is a live thing, not so static, that might dare to show him something else, about himself, that he never knew.

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Serena Bell and Mary Ann Rivers are collecting photos of the spaces where writers write after what proved to be a too-short but incredibly fascinating thread on twitter September 21, 2013.

Serena posted, after a home office clean-up, a picture of her writing space with the tweet “Where I Write.” Mary Ann tweeted back a picture of her own space. Within minutes several other writers tweeted their spaces and Serena and Mary Ann couldn’t help but recognize the weight and sweetness and power of seeing where writers make their words.

So we want more.

We want to see your home offices, your corner in the coffee shop, your space between the laundry basket and the toy bin. We want to see your knick-knacks and your clutter, or your acres of pristine desk with nothing but a pen and Moleskine.

Take of picture of where you work, where the muse visits you and where she abandons you. Let us see the room of your own, even if it’s not even a room yet, or not even yours.

Send your picture to rumposinc at gmail dot com with the subject line WHERE I WRITE.

On Oct 4, we’ll post all the spaces with your name. Let your friends know, too. The more writers’ spaces we see, we think the more interesting and powerful the impact will be. These are, after all, spaces where imagination has occupied.


Serena, Mary Ann, and the Wonkomance Crew

Virginia Woolf's Writing Space

Virginia Woolf’s Writing Space

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What I Learned This Summer, In a Word

Mindset coverThis has been the summer of the one-word-title non-fiction books. So far I’ve read Quiet, Banished, and Mindset. My Amazon recommendations don’t know what to do with me.

I wrote about Susan Cain’s Quiet, an exploration of introversion, earlier this summer. Banished is Lauren Drain’s memoir of her time in the Westboro Baptist Church, and while very simply written and ambiguous in its conclusions, a fascinating look at what happens when someone is desperate to belong.

But I think Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success will most change the way I think about myself and the way I work. Mindset came out in 2007, and some of the ideas in it will feel familiar to you because Malcolm Gladwell also touches on them in Outliers.

Dweck describes two possible mindsets: fixed and growth. In a fixed mindset, you believe traits and talents are doled out in set amounts, as a matter of nature, and that there’s not much you can do to change how good you are at something. In a growth mindset, you believe that human skills and traits are highly, possibly infinitely, elastic. Even things that we often, as a culture, think of as “natural talents,” like athletics, singing, drawing, intelligence, can be cultivated and learned.

People have fixed and growth mindsets to differing degrees and in different areas of their lives. For example, you could be growth-minded about writing ability—believing that it’s something people can learn—but fixed-minded about certain personality traits—like charisma—believing “you’re just born outgoing” or “so-and-so is a ‘people person.’”

If you have a fixed mindset about a certain skill or area of your life, you’re more likely to think there’s no point in trying after the first time you don’t do as well as you thought you should. You’re more likely to compete to “be the best” or to see success and failure as black and white. You’re more likely to give up because you “just don’t have the aptitude.

If you have a growth mindset, you’re more like to try again, many times. You’re more likely to view something as  “setback” or a “challenge” rather than a failure. You’re more likely to try to figure out what you can learn from what you’re doing rather than whether you can do it better than other people.

Because of this, Dweck argues that how “fixed” or “growth” you are in a certain area  plays a very large role in determining how successful you can be. People who view activities or endeavors as learning experiences and setbacks as challenges, not failures, are much more likely to put in the 10,000 hours it takes (Gladwell!) to gain mastery. Not to mention, they’re much more likely to enjoy themselves.

One thing that’s particularly interesting about Dweck’s research is that you’re not doomed to possess one mindset or another. On the plus side, you can improve your own mindset, and with it, your enjoyment of your life and your likelihood of feeling successful.

On the minus side, it takes surprisingly little to induce a fixed mindset in yourself or someone else—like a child. Dweck describes research where two groups of people (randomly selected, demographically identical groups) were given a certain challenge—a series of increasingly difficult puzzles. Beforehand, one group was imbued with a fixed mindset about the puzzles—they were told that the puzzles were an intelligence test, and that how far you could get through them would tell the researchers how smart you were. The other group was given a growth mindset—they were told that the puzzles were fun and challenging, and that if they put their minds to the problems and worked hard, without giving up, they could eventually solve all of them. The growth mindset group was much more successful at the puzzle-solving.

Dweck’s mindset research is also the reason why it’s better to praise children for their efforts rather than their outcomes, why it’s better to say, “I like how hard you worked on that and how you persisted even when it got frustrating,” rather than, “I’m so proud of your straight As.”

I grew up with a fixed mindset about writing talent. My mother was a novelist; I had inherited her talent. I had “the ear.” As obnoxious as I feel admitting it, I believed that people either could or couldn’t write stories, and all the hard work in the world wouldn’t change the fundamental equation of that. I felt lucky—I was on the right side of the equation. What I didn’t realize was that my fixed mindset would only work for me up to a certain point. As soon as I bumped up against what I perceived as “failure,” as soon as I received the first rejection, saw the first evidence that I could “write pretty” but needed some work on “storytelling,” I wanted to give up because I was “good but not good enough.”

In a classic fixed-mindset move, for years I didn’t submit my writing at all because I believed (subconsciously) that once the market judged my work, I would know my worth for certain, and if the market deemed that work (somehow a representative of everything I could do) inadequate, my writing life would be over.  Of course, by not submitting my writing, I was also ensuring that I couldn’t succeed—or grow.

I was also very resistant to revision. If I had natural talent, then what flew off my fingers at the draft stage was pure and brilliant. Monkeying with it would only make things worse. And there really wasn’t much point to messing around with the writing, anyway, right? Because either I’d done a good job with it or I hadn’t. It sounds very extreme, but when I read Mindset I recognized that I really did believe some of those things

My mindset began to change three years ago, when I started writing romance. When I did, I met loads of people who had never written before in their lives. At first, I was doubtful about their abilities to overcome such a huge obstacle. Then I realized that they were succeeding in droves. Not every time, not right away, but right and left, all around me.

Slowly, my attitude toward “natural talent” changed. Now I’m not even completely sure it exists. Natural aptitude, a natural affection, maybe. But now I suspect that what looks like “talent” in a lot of people is just a love of words that has led to loads of reading and plenty of writing and tinkering. And if there is something called talent? Sure, it’s nice to have—as long as you don’t rest on it. As long as you don’t let it make you lazy. As long as you don’t assume it’s a substitute for hard work, revision, more hard work, more revision.

My next goal is to lose my fixed mindset towards promo and marketing. I have long believed—I think a lot of us do—that there are “some people” who are naturally more outgoing, more “salesy,” better at reaching out and drawing readers in. But Dweck would say that there is only a series of challenges, a series of learning experiences, that make us gradually better and better, more and more natural, at completing those tasks. The only way to master “promo” is through that series of challenges, and the sooner you start—and the more growth-oriented your mindset—the faster you gain that mastery.

The first step is to change the way I talk to myself about promo, to stop telling myself, “You’re bad at this. You don’t know how to do this,” and start telling myself, “Huh! How do I do this? Who could help me figure it out? What are the questions I need answered?”

Writing and authoring are—especially in this day and age—pursuits that require talents in many different areas. Some of them will feel “natural” to us, and some won’t. You’re probably doing some combination of dealing with writing, revising, editing, copyediting, blogging, using social media, exporting manuscripts to various formats, learning about e-readers and e-tailers, designing swag, organizing blog tours, hosting contests, and all kinds of other tasks you’ve never done before (and even more if you’re self-pubbing).

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, do you catch yourself having a fixed mindset about certain aspects of your work or life? (A big one is, It’s too late for me to learn to X.) Is there an area where you can commit to looking at yourself as more of a work in progress?









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