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How to Cheat at #Reading: A smarter way to approach your #books

Date a  girl who reads….books are friends….line your house with books…never throw your books away…omg how can you get ride of your books??

Oh, do I hate online reading inspo.  Actually, I hate inspo, but that’s another matter.  And then unquestioning book fetishization.

I’m an english major, dyed in the wool.  I got my degrees in this discipline.  I actually love it.  I love reading, and I’m proud of it.  I also love my books and would not want to get rid of them totally.  But I must criticize the ideas popular in our online discourse:  that reading is always an all-consuming activity, that if you don’t craft your life around it you are some sort of ignorant person, that if you don’t keep every book ever and if you don’t always 100% love it then You Are Doing It Wrong.

Please. One of the things “They” don’t tell you about college is that you have to constantly decide how you’re going to do what you must do.  And this includes books.  For that matter, “They” also don’t want to square stereotypes of being well-read with the mundane realities of readers.  We have other things to do than read.I like to joke that I gave up reading in grad school.  It’s kind of true.  

I was working, commuting, dealing with a lot of personal issues – I didn’t have time to plow through all the books all the time.  I was very lucky in that I had the skill set necessary to “cheat” sometimes.  Is this even ethical to do?  Should I not be admonishing people to read every single word they can, as carefully as possible?  I’m supposed to be all about literacy, comprehension, and critical thought!

But I’m also about getting things done.  Reading is not always going to be  some sort of Neo-Victorian exercise in leisure and cravats.  We’re busy people, and sometimes other things have to take priority.  If you’re a student, you have multiple classes to juggle, and a heavy workload.  I know the feeling.

So I’d like to talk about how to get through a book, discuss it intelligently, and actually learn something from it instead of approaching it as a thing to slog through.  This got me through years of English major work, so it’s all tested, workable advice!

 1) Read around the book – Look at the front matter, the page with publisher information.  Find the authors or editors and google them.  What else have they written or published?  Especially if this is an academic work, when did this book come out, what can its time period tell you?  Read reviews of it, or (if you can) articles that cited it.  Try to get a sense of what was going on in the subject area at the time this book came out. What was the author responding to, what were they aiming to contribute?

2) Keep up on your “cocktail party” knowledge – This used to be a thing. But I don’t think anyone holds these any more.  The idea was  that you’d have to make light, yet intellectual, conversation over drinks with other well-heeled guests.  The object of this kind of interaction was to have a broad knowledge and thus be able to intelligently converse with just about anyone.  This is still a good goal.  While not neglecting depth, it is a good idea to know a little about a lot.  Especially if you’re bluffing  your way through a book.

3) Read for pleasure as often as you can – Keep the reading muscles limber so all of this is easier.  This is the weirdest part of the “cheating” method: actually reading.  But to be honest, the more you are accustomed to reading, and the more pleasure you take in it, the easier it is to pick up on extra-textual cues (hints 1 and 2), or to skim the book.

4) Practice active skimming – Skim with a pen or pencil in your hand.  Mark up your text (provided you own it)  Annotate!  Annotation is your friend.  If you only have time to read a portion of each chapter or section, make notes on the sides to jog your memory, hi-light quotes, or add some quick ideas to talk about.  You can always pass off your still-new ideas a just that – you can always change your mind on symbolism, interpretation, etc.

 This is actually all still literacy-enhancing work, so you’re not really taking the easy road here – it just feels easier.  If you can’t read “properly”, this is a far more active way to digest books.  You should still read thoroughly, but when you’re short on time, there’s no reason not to work smarter.

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#Writing Advice: #Motivation and #Empowerment

In the course of my writing life, people have asked me over and over about motivation.  “How do I get motivated?” or “Can you motivate me?” Few things strike as much fear into my heart.  It’s not that I don’t have any concern for people.  I genuinely want to nurture other writers.  But I hate “motivating” people.

Does this make me a horrible person?

When someone asks me how to “get” motivated, I immediately pull back.  To me, this sounds like an invitation to play a guessing game with their psychology, to start pulling wires in their heads until I make them do the thing they want to do.  This takes an unimaginable amount of energy and patience on my part.  Some days I just don’t have it.

When I hear this from a growing writer, I worry about two things.  First, I don’t want to give the appearance of hoarding the Special Magical Mystical Writing Knowledge That I Surely Possess ™.  Second, I don’t want to give the appearance I don’t care about other writers.  But at the end of the day, I believe in tough love.  To write, you have to write.  It’s as simple and impossible as that.

The necessity of pulling back

When you overwater a plant, it becomes wilted and soft.  The stem grows mold and the plant can die if the gardener doesn’t hold back a little.  Sometimes I think one has to hold back to the sake of the writer.  I don’t want them to wilt.  I want to see people confident and self-actualized just as much as I want to preserve my own energies.

So how do I help people get off their metaphorical couches?  How do I help them to overcome their training that “writing is impossible” and you have to “write it right the first time”?

RX for writing motivation

Motivation is not something you can find, and it is certainly not something someone gives you.  There is no magic button or pill.  Motivation is a series of choices we must all make.  As writers, we are not automatically afforded the respect and dignity given to more popular professions.  We must nurture ourselves, empower ourselves, and claim our own work as work.  We must learn to motivate ourselves.

Give yourself the gift of the draft – such a good idea I had to repeat it!

Produce.  Produce.  Produce.  You are not a writer until you are writing.  There is no pizzazz in this, there is no glamour.  You are translating thought and impression into the code of language, and making that code understandable to others.  This is work.  This is labor.  Own it.

When you actually work on something , you become intimately familiar with the process.  You learn the needs of the format or genre you’re working with, and you learn your own habits and foibles.  The experience of working draft by draft is more valuable than a hundred writing books.  There is no substitute for drafting.

“You can’t spit out the Mona Lisa” – my favorite old saw

Distance yourself emotionally from your draft and learn to edit.  Your first draft will always be flawed.  Your second, third, and even fourth will have issues.  Sometimes projects have fatal flaws, and sometimes they need heavy-duty restructuring.  This is not an indictment on your as a writer.

You are under no obligation to write a perfect poem, essay, or paper the first time.  Waiting until you deem something “perfect” to move on is going to prevent you from writing anything.  Excellence is a good goal, but perfectionism is a very bad habit.

Identify your  High Order Concerns

Take this session by session, and have definable goals for each one.  In tutoring, we have to prioritize on the fly, and we usually only have 30 minutes with a student.   A successful tutoring session triages a paper: both individuals ascertain what the biggest flaw in the work is and address that first.  If there’s time left in the session, they work on small fry. This empowers the student to work on their own errors, not just accept criticism, however well deserved – it puts them in the drivers’ seat.

Do the same for yourself.  What do you want to accomplish this afternoon?  Today?  This week?  Limit these goals severely.  If you can’t place it in the top three slots of your to-do list, it’s not a High Order Concern.  Not every part of the writing process is priority one at every single step.

Parting Thoughts

There will be days, even weeks, where you can’t get “anything done”.  That is ok.  You are allowed to have a life outside of writing.  But you must develop the reflex to return over and over to your worktable.  Over time, the choices you make become habit.

If you choose to put off a project until you find the perfect word, detail, mood, whatever – you are ultimately choosing to not bring this project to completion.  You will develop and reinforce fear, anxiety, and perfectionism.  You have developed the habit of de-motivating yourself.  Can you live with the outcome of these choices?

However, if you develop the habits of production, editing, and prioritizing – you have chosen to motivate yourself.  On a day to day basis, you will have your hands dirty with the work of writing.  You may feel temporary disappointments and setbacks, but overall you will remain motivated to continue.

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Rules for Writing

When people hear I write, they approach me as if I’m in possession of some mystical knowledge.    How can I find the time to have a thought, write it down, and revise it?  Surely I am gaming the system somehow!  Surely I have a charmed life, with plenty of time to read hardcover books, look out the window, and attend parties full of well-heeled people quoting western canon classics.

Joke’s on them – I don’t like leaving my house!

The reality of this is that there is no magic spell for writing productivity.  It does not exist.  Stop looking for it.  The only way to learn to be a good (and productive) writer is to actually write.  Writing is work, it is messy, it is frustrating, and it only sometimes results in useful material.  It is less sorcery than it is mining: you dig and dig through piles of crap, make a big mess, and spend ages melting down raw material and chopping off slag before something remotely presentable emerges.

No one likes to hear that.  It’s not the romantic starving-in-a-garret image we still have of writing.  And it’s not the slick-millenial-with-a-mac image of writing we have now sold ourselves.

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Nonetheless, most people turn to Google for advice.  I did it, too.  Turns out the internet is so full of tips for writing and productivity that a basic google search returned over 15 million hits!

writing productivity

 

There is no need to slog through list after list, dodging clickbait right and left.  I have a few basic rules about writing that I’ve picked up over the years. These actually work.  Hands down.  They work completely and totally until they don’t and you have to try some new ones, because writing as I said before is not a magic spell.  (Ed. note, that is a run-on for comedic effect, please don’t do that, my boss is reading this!)

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Well you just can’t, Minerva.

 

  • Actually Write:  Oh yeah, about this one.  You have to produce to be productive.  You have to write to be considered a writer.  You can’t just think of it, or visualize it, or hide it away.  Nor do you have to win a Pulitzer.  Just produce writing.  This is why I recommend blogging for novice writers – at the very least, it gets writing out of the notebook and the desk drawer.  If you work it properly (reading and commenting on others’ blogs) you may even get feedback.  If nothing else, it’s a great way to maintain a corpus of work, and it’s very easy to go back and edit.  The nervous writer can see their words formatted and “looking pretty”, which does help build confidence.  This, however, is not enough, as you must also…
  • Give yourself the gift of the draft: No one is ever going to produce a perfect first draft, or second, or seventh.  This takes time.  Instead of imagining someone judging you, and being horrified if you’ve left a preposition dangling (which I surely have) – remember that every single piece of writing is a work in progress.  Get it out first, then polish it.  You will never spit out the Mona Lisa.  No one ever has.
  • Revise, edit, proofread – know the difference: This is something I wish we still had time to teach in elementary and high school.

 

Revision is looking at a finished draft, and asking radical questions about the ordering of points, the types of details used, etc.  When you revise you look to make large-scale changes to the work to better the work, not coddle to your image of what the work should have been in a perfect world, if you were just a perfect person.  At this point, the draft is still hot lava – it can take many forms, or destroy the landscape you thought you built for it – but it always leaves a new one behind.

Editing is when you dig into the paragraphs themselves, ensuring that you have as many words as you need to make your point (or striking unnecessary clutter).  If you have arguments in your pieces, you will edit them to ensure they are logically presented, and are in order.  This is what you do when you’ve revised to your satisfaction, but are not yet addressing minor errors.  The lava is starting to cool at this point, but you can’t quite inhabit this new land.

Proofreading is when you check for spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes.  This is the part most people confuse with editing.  It’s an old fashioned term, from back when people would, when writing a book, print out a copy just to check the spelling with a blue pencil.  You were literally reading a “proof” of the work, catching any last minute minor issues.  The lava has long cooled at this point, and there is soil, plants, and animals on your new draft/landmass, and you are just sort of pruning your garden at this stage.

 

  • Read it aloud or backwards:  It is very important to divorce yourself emotionally from your work. If you want to be a writer, you have to be willing to eliminate things you thought you needed, details you may have treasured, or turn whole paragraphs inside out – you have to be willing to tear your work apart.  This is because writing is meant to be read by others.

Your artistic vision is ultimately in service to your readers, so you have to look at the work from their angle.  When we write something, a short essay for instance, we usually have a different image in our minds of what’s on the page.  The reader may not have you there to over over them and explain “what this really means is….” – your words have to stand for you. Reading aloud is the first step to making your writing an object separate from you.  It’s ok to love your writing, but you must be willing to give it what it needs.  Reading your work backwards, sentence by sentence, us another good way to do this – it’s also a handy way to proofread.

  • Make writing plans: If you want to actually be a writer, it helps to think of it like a small business.  When you grow a business, you set goals, or milestones for yourself.  You achieve one small thing after another, in service to a larger goal.  So what’s your goal?  What’s your endgame?  What do you want to do with this writing?  How are you going to get there?  Google calendar is a great way to set dates do do things by – and you can even connect it to your mobile to ring an alarm bell to remind you to write, revise, etc.

NB: When hen you make plans, make sure they are plans you can control.  “Being published” is a fine goal, but that itself you can’t necessarily make happen.  “Improving my grammar”, or “Blogging weekly”, or (my personal one) “responding to more blogs to build relationships with other writers” – these you can control!

So there we are!  These may or may not work for you, and you may need to use them in conjunction with other tips, but as long as you’re writing, you’re getting there!

How to Win the Game of Tongues: Breaking the Unwritten Rules of Conversation

Word Jazz

'And Ygritte Says' by Alexeil April. Used under Creative Commons license (http://alexielapril.deviantart.com/art/and-Ygritte-says-306166334) ‘And Ygritte Says’ by Alexeil April (http://alexielapril.deviantart.com/art/and-Ygritte-says-306166334). Used under Creative Commons license.

Every day, when I leave my office for lunch, I run a gauntlet of people collecting for charity.

‘Hi,’ one said to me just last week, trying to hold my gaze with a suspiciously large smile. ‘What’s your name?’

For a moment, I contemplated the strangeness of her approach (opening the conversation by asking my name), and then the hunger in my stomach. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m in a rush’.

As I got away, I wondered why I had said ‘sorry’? After all, what on earth did I have to be sorry about?

Maybe I apologised because I’m British and I have had this kind of defensive politeness drilled into me from an early age. After all, I hadn’t given the charity collector what she wanted – and these are just the sort of people to hand out…

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Waiting

Backhand Blog

On Wednesday I asked the students in my class to describe what they’d been doing earlier in the day, before our afternoon session began. While they scribbled I wrote alongside them, producing a dull summary of actions and toil—until I came to waiting

There is always waiting. It begins in the still-dark morning when my dog barks at a sound I can’t hear. I wait for R. to get out of bed and take her outside so I can go back to sleep. But really so I can go back to waiting.

If you want to write, there’s no way around waiting. Over waiting the writer has no control. Oh, I’m in charge in the sense that I can follow a routine known to be helpful to the production of words. Keep to a schedule is one common suggestion. But there is mystery in writing. Who can say why…

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Stop Perpetuating the Myth of the Lazy Professor

The Contemplative Mammoth

Dear Gov. Walker,

Last week, you told professors at the University of Wisconsin that they needed to “work harder.” You were making a case that the Wisconsin state budget crisis could be ameliorated by increasing employee efficiency, and you suggested having faculty teach at least one more class. I’m not going to talk about whether or not the budget crisis is manufactured (some have argued it could be solved by accepting federal funds for the state’s Badger Care health program), or whether your real goal is really partisan politics, and not fiscal responsibility.

Ouch. Ouch. Photo by fellow UW Madison geographer Sigrid Peterson.

Instead, I want to talk about the myth of the lazy professor, a stereotype that you’ve reinforced with your comment. I spent 2005 to 2012 at the University of Wisconsin, where I obtained a PhD in the Department of Geography; I am now an assistant professor at the University of Maine.

When you…

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The Pleasure of the Text, and the Pleasure Beyond the Text

Tiny Camels / Jonathan Gibbs

all days are nights

The walk to the station, the sunlight aslant on the pavement, the thought slides back to the book in the bedroom, pen stuck between the pages as a fat marker. The morning, spent reading in bed. The new book reached for on the bedside cabinet, I’d read maybe half of the first paragraph of the first page, the day before. Now, after working a night shift last night: half an hour reading a new book, alone, in bed. What could be sweeter?

Then, two hours later, on the walk to the station, comes the thought. The book in my hand, and the book in my head. The pleasure of the text…

The pleasure of the text, as opposed to what? The after-effects of reading, its manifold, multi-faceted, confused and conflated gifts-that-keep-giving, to sink into cliche.

More and more I feel like I’m less concerned with whether a particular book is ‘good’…

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Why Do We Seek Labels?

10Cities 10Years

It’s almost a daily occurrence now. On Facebook or Twitter, in an article or mind-numbing listicle, someone is discussing the traits, burdens and/or pleasures of being an introvert. Based on the unscientific sampling of my personal feed, 90% of the narcissistic self-promoters in the world are actually meek and shy introverts.

When us loners aren’t breathlessly talking about how weird it is that we prefer books to people (haha, I’m soooo crazy!), we’re posting the results of a Briggs Myers personality test (or some generic knockoff).

“I’m totally an INFP.”

“Well, I’m an ENFJ.”

“Oh, I could definitely see that. I guess that’s because I’m an ENTP.”

“I kind of figured all of you were CUNTs.”

And when we get bored with scientific classifications that mostly mean nothing, we fall back on the original sugar pill of personality labels: The Zodiac.

What’s Your Sign?

How is it that a…

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