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.

Change of seasons, change of heart: Taking stock with the new semester

When the season starts changing, it’s a good idea to take a little time and reflect on how things are going, especially before the rush of “The Holidays”

So it’s fall, and that means only one thing to me: Cleanup!  As summer fades away and the fall semester begins, it’s time to take stock of stuff, tie up loose ends, and get ready for winter.

This cleanup encompasses a number of different dimensions:

  • Physical: which means I literally clean house
  • Mental: which means I take a look at my schedule, budget, and commitments
  • Emotional: which means I start thinking about what has happened in the past year; what I can change and what I must accept

The reason I mention all of this, besides trying to cough up content, is to share with you some things I do that helped me as I acclimated to college and beyond.

It’s been a while, but I have been pretty much where you are now, so I know something of what your experiences may be.  What works for me may not work for you and that’s perfectly ok, but hear me out and you may learn something that does you good!

Physical cleanup

These are some actual techniques I’ve used to help manage physical clutter in my life:

  • Trash blitz – Set that kitchen timer or the great Timer site for a small chunk of time, say 15-20 minutes, and let yourself tackle one problem at a time like that messy desk top, or that out of control pantry. And when you’re done, you are done – small, attainable goals, people!
  • New space, new ideas – I have trouble sorting and evaluating drawers, folders, and so on in their places.  One trick I’ve learned is to take the take the container, if it’s portable, and settle into another room. If you’re going to do this, you have to remember to put the drawer (or whatever) back, though!
  • Freecycle –  Your mileage may vary, but I found freecycling to be a liberating experience. Various charities often need clothes, shoes, and toiletries, so if you have a bunch of stuff to let go of, check around with local community centers and churches.
  • Launch pad – sometimes I’m really stumped as to whether I need something or not.  I keep a small area by my front door for things I’m deciding on and it has to be cleared out in a week.  No exceptions. Objects in that area must either find an actual use Right Then and There, or they have to leave the house immediately via trash, recycling, or donation.
  •  What’s on it is what’s in it – labeling conventions are your friend.  This works for folders of school work to files on your computer.  With folders or files, especially in undergrad, I liked to do it like this:

Class Number Semester Project

ENG 258 Fall 2010 Shakespeare Paper

In the case of computer files, I’d add what stage I was at right in the filename, then hit save as and rename when I was ready for a new draft:

Eng 258 FA 2010 Shakespeare draft 2.doc


Mental cleanup

As you clean up excess and reimagine your personal spaces, it’s a good idea to evaluate how you spend your time and money as well.

  • Schedule:  I find it helpful to use Google calendars to track my schedule, and note when I have work and family commitments coming up.

Apps like Asana are really helpful in breaking down large projects into manageable chunks.  If you want something low-tech, there’s nothing like good old fashioned pen and paper.

Sometimes I make to-do lists on large sketch pads so I can tack up a page and visualize every project I have going on.  With all the blogging I do, it helps to keep topics and research straight!

  • Budget: As for money, I keep track of not only how much I make in a month, I keep a running tab of bills. I’ve put the due dates for those bills on my calendar.

This is especially helpful for large bills like student loan or car payments – I know that on week X I have a significant chunk of change coming out of my balance, so I know to take it easy until the next check.

  • Commitments: Family – either family of birth or family of choice – means commitments.   Invitations can start piling up this time of year, as well as the expectations that you will attend All The Things.

Using a calendar routinely can help you not just keep track of when you have plans, but also to budget your time.  Commitments are not just things other people expect you to do – it’s what you promise yourself.

Gym time, study time, prayer or meditation if that’s how you roll – commit early on to keep some time to yourself.  It makes life so much easier to build this into your schedule.


Emotional cleanup

I’m not a counselor, or any sort of professional, and I barely hold myself together most days.  But I’ve been through a lot early on, so I know what it’s like to deal with emotional issues.  It’s not easy, and there will be good days and bad days – and that’s ok.  You’re allowed to have bad days.  But taking stock of your feelings every so often, and considering if there’s better ways to react to what life is throwing at you – that can be very, very helpful.

  • Accepting change: The cliche says that change is the only thing that stays the same.  And that’s very true.  Nothing will ever stay just the way it is.  Developing ways to deal with constant change and thrive despite it will help you go far in life.

 College is a great place to practice your coping skills, because there is still change, but the rhythms of class, research, and homework provide you a good core.

  • Moving step by step: Noone can shit out the Mona Lisa.  Noone is perfect, and noone ever knows completely, 100% what they are doing at any given time.  Give yourself a break – you are learning, and you always will be learning.

While you should strive to improve, learn to make small attainable goals for yourself so you get used to knocking them out of the park (eg improving study habits to pass a test).  Then when it’s time for the big stuff (scholarship app, degree, or transferring to a larger school) you are able to run that marathon rather than try to sprint and get burnt out.

  • Learning new responses: I had a lot of trouble with this myself, due to my upbringing.  We were on assistance, and my mother was very ill for much of my teen years.  Things were hard, but this changed.

When I had my own household, I still felt like that little kid in the ER or on the line at the local welfare office.  With time, I learned that I was still making choices and responding to life as if I was that kid, even though I am now older with a different set of circumstances.  to remind myself to act differently, I regularly take stock of where I actually am (socially, financially, etc)  and emotionally “clean house” on a regular basis.

  • Continually redefining success: Speaking of taking stock of reality, this is another thing that helped me, having a different idea of success.  While I don’t advocate settling, I think we do ourselves a disservice to talk about one way of life being the image of success: house, mortgage, car 1, car 2, constant buying.

My definition of success right now is: Are the bills paid?  Are the lights on?  Do I have a little savings? Am I and my loved ones happy and healthy?  Do I have time to enjoy simple pleasures?  OK, good, achievement unlocked!

 So, we’re at the end, then…

This is something I started doing when I first had my own household, and now that I’m (allegedly) grown-up, it takes on more importance. It’s a series of things I’ve picked up after years of trial and error, so I thought I’d pass it along to anyone who wants to riff on it.  Some things may work for you, and some may not – that’s quite alright!  Take all of this as a jumping off point and find what works for you yourself!