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.


#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.

Talking Words vs Writing Words

“Well, as we can see….”

“One thing leads to another and…..”

“Anyway, the point is…..”

“It’s like, you know….”

What’s a talking word?

In the course of my tutoring, I often find that I have to impress on students the importance of knowing how to write in an academic register.  This means words, phrases, and constructions that they use in their everyday language won’t work in an academic paper.  Many of the students I see will often use informal words and phrases in their papers (from the dreaded “like” to the grating “you know”).  These are “talking words” and I advise students to avoid them.

Why is this a problem in writing? What changes?  Why should we not encourage natural writing, a more conversational rhetoric?  If students are more comfortable writing, they may derive more pleasure from it and, oh, I don’t know, do it outside of the last-minute rush a day before an assignment is due.

“It’s like, you know….”

“Talking words” are named such because we say them all the time in speech. There, in face to face conversations, we can overlook many “sins”.  We have the luxuries of intonation, gesture, and posture to convey our meaning.  This is where meaning started, for that matter.  We spoke before we wrote, and when we first spoke, we spoke to each other.  So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the “talking” word or phrase, provided it stays in its proper environment.

The problem sets in when we change media.  In a paper, those coy or instinctual usages are left without valuable context.  They literally clog up the sentence.  A student has to know what they are saying and how to do that in the most efficient manner possible.   When a student writes a paper, they not only have page limits to observe, they also have to take into account the fact that there are multiple students and (usually) only one professor.  While a student has to concern themselves with a single audience, the professor must divide their attention between multiple students, each with developed essays.

This means multiple voices competing for attention.  Efficiency and formality are they students’ best bets to making sure their information comes across.  Having “clogged”, clumsy sentences means the professor or other instructor cannot “read” you.  We literally do not know what you are saying if you do not make your info a priority.

How to avoid this

The bare-bones method is simply telling a student.  When I see words and phrases that are informal and speech-like, I cross them out, and immediately explain to the student why this is unworkable styling.  But I am a professional, so I have the advantages of knowledge and experience.

For a student to learn to recognize these, I would suggest reading professional prose.  Take individual sentences and analyze them.  What is the point of the sample sentence?  What is the main idea?  Notice how fast this professional writer communicated what they needed to communicate.  See how many synonyms and alternate phrases are being used.  The only surefire way to learn style is to read widely and build up awareness of how language moves and operates in its written form.


The Guilted Age

Here’s something I wrote last summer about tenuous employment and guilt.   I’ve held off posting this for a while, because I wanted to see if the emotions would fade.  But they have not.  I think it’s time now – I think this ready to go out there.  This is a very personal piece, but it is part of a conversation that needs to happen.  We need to talk about guilt and its impact on our generation.  This seems like indulgence, like navel-gazing, and it is.  It is a necessary indulgence, because I am not the only person with these feelings, and if I put them out there, it’s like sending up a flare to anyone else who may be feeling this way.  If this resonates with you, hop into the Twitter stream and let’s talk: @thinking30


It’s late summer.  The afternoons are still warm, the sun still strong, but with  the promise of autumn in a few golden leaves and swelling berries on the bushes outside my window.  I have just finished a phone call with a friend, and as I hang up, I am struck by the similar contents of our conversations.  Frustration, anxiety, and above all guilt.

We are recent products of an American state-run university.  We’re both young, barely thirty, and we majored in the humanities, following our talents and our pleasures to the level of Masters’ degrees.  And we’re without full-time jobs or more than a few months in savings between us.  Our grace periods on students loans are nearing a close, and we’re both beside ourselves with all-consuming emotions.  I sit, watching an August breeze stirring those early-turning leaves outside and I consider the one unifying factor in both our emotional storms.  The guilt we both feel underpins our lives, a shared note.

We feel guilty for not having “real” jobs.  We feel guilty for not having savings.  We feel guilty for not being “practical” and avoiding higher education.  We feel guilty for asking our parents to help.  We even feel guilty for not owning property, having families of our own, or living up to any treasured standard of the American Dream.  We feel guilty when we don’t send out resumes for five hours straight, or spend the weekend networking (for whatever that’s worth), or just for going to a movie or on a date instead of tending to our resumes as if they’re bonsai.

And it just gets irrational from there, away from practical matters of objectives and work experience.  Maybe the right combination of bullet points and serif font can mean an interview.  Or is the magic combination sans-serif and hyphens?   We feel a nagging sensation of guilt when we should be enjoying our private lives, our creative pursuits, or the occasional blessed idleness necessary for basic mental health.

It is this guilt I want to speak about.  In all the articles, op-eds, and conversations I’ve read about the constellation of financial and social crises plaguing our country in this decade, I have yet to hear much talk about guilt in any widespread fashion.

Guilt is intensely personal, private by nature.  Look at the common descriptions of people wracked, consumed, devoured, and crushed by this emotion.  These images should be familiar to anyone following national discussion of under or unemployment, or the rapidly building crisis of student loan debt.  Why is no one speaking of the burdens of guilt?

This is an odd omission.  I’ve seen plenty of blame flung around rightly placed with the theft of American industry, stability, and social mobility.  I’ve seen blame wrongly applied to students, graduates, their families; anywhere imaginable.  I’ve seen pessimism, cynicism, and all the rest.  But I never hear anyone talking about the guilt new graduates feel.  My recent graduation, for example, should have been a joyous time.  It is still an accomplishment.

Generations ago, a woman would not have been able to do what I did, especially if she did not come from a wealthy family.  I have just under a 4.0, I have taught, I have assisted faculty with research, won awards, traveled to conferences (on my own dime) to present personal research.  I’ve done “everything right”.  And now I feel divorced from all those remarkable accomplishments and evidence of my dedication and talent, and the nurturing assistance of so many others.  I have reached the dream that my family held for me.  But I feel like I have done something wrong.  And I cannot be the only one.

Lest you think this is only my issue, let me emphasize that this is common among my friends.  Combined, we have the sleeping troubles, digestion troubles, and sexual troubles of people twice our ages.  What do we have to feel guilty over?  We all did the “proper thing”.  We went to school, worked, we made ourselves useful.  I suspect that this guilt touches more than my immediate circle.  It’s time to stop and analyze what we are doing as a culture, and what silent baggage our immediate future, our young people and our recent graduates, are carrying.

Guilt is a tricky thing to talk about with any level of practicality.  Taken the wrong way, sharing and analyzing guilt can too easily turn into a form of blame, and avoidance of real, tangible problems nourishing the guilty feelings.  Take, for example, the academic pep talk I received recently:  “Oh, all that anxiety you feel about finding work in your field?  That’s all in your head!  You feel guilty and you’re psyching yourself out!” Never mind the very real nationwide cuts to universities, slashed programs, starved departments, and increased reliance on a sinfully underpaid adjunct contingent.

I feel bad for not “making it” farther than my parents, for not being more financially stable, for having to delay starting my family, for not owning a home, for still having to do the bill-panic dance each month (which can I put off the longest?).  My rational side can offset each of these with a patient, reasoned explanation of precisely why I am not doing the things my culture deems normal.  In fact, I can successfully undermine the sanctity of each of those markers of middle class American success.  But even as I recognize they are limited and limiting, and in no way mean security, the roots of this dream are deep.

Aside from the fact that I hold the marketed imago of the middle class “good life” in deep suspicion, I know logically that factors beyond mine or my compatriots’ control have shaped the America we have to live in.  And I rationally know that I have benefited from sheer dumb luck, certain social advantages, and the tireless efforts of others.  But the guilt remains.  And, as silly as that guilt may seem, I won’t be talked out of it.  It has become useful.

As suffocating as it may be the guilt I and my friends feel is now making us angry.  We can only beat ourselves up for so long before we stop caring about maintaining our guilt.  We may as well get angry.  You may as well get angry, if you’ve been feeling this way.  We all may as well get more defensive of our time and our boundaries and more active in our shared worlds, instead of folding inwards.

I think of my friend, and myself.  I consider now how much time in our finite lives we have already given to internalizing untenable ideals.  As I watch summer entering its final, bittersweet act, I consider the danger of stagnation.  Things have to change.  We cannot go on like this.