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I’m all about self-editing. I’m all about encouraging writers to write that first draft, get down everything they want to say, then go back and massage the words. It’s at that point that you determine if you’re saying what you really want to say. It’s at that point that you can search to replace a blah word with the perfect word, play with some alliteration, try an unexpected metaphor or simile.

I teach a Public Speaking class this semester, and I encourage my students to play with words as they write their speeches. I also require them to watch and study several great speeches.

I mean, what if Martin Luther King, Jr. had said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by what they look like but by who they are.”

Instead, look at this brilliant alliteration: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Now that’s a memorable line!

Speaking of memorable lines, we have a great example of President Franklin Roosevelt self-editing a speech that made it one of the greatest speeches of all time. This year, December 7 will be the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The surprise military strike by Japan on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, resulted in the loss of 2,403 American lives; the sinking of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers; and the destruction of 188 aircraft.

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USS Arizona Memorial, built over the sunken ship and the graves of 1,102 sailors and Marines killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The next day, December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. The first draft of his speech began this way (italics mine):

Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history, the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Instead, by editing just two words in this first line, FDR gave us these stirring words (again with my italics):

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

You can see a copy of the typed speech with FDR’s handwritten edits here at the National Archives website. On the three pages, you’ll see several places where he crossed out typed words, wrote in new ones, wrote in new words, and crossed those out.

In the end, on that day of great shock and fear, the president offered strong words of resolve that united a nation.

So there you have it. Now watch the actual speech. And remember those who died 75 years ago on December 7 and those who subsequently died fighting for freedom on both sides of the globe–in Europe and in the Pacific.

And remember the power of words.

Whatever you write, take the time to edit. Go back and look at every word, making sure it is the right word, the best word, the perfect word.

It will make all the difference.

 

I’m so excited to share some of the work my students have been doing so far this semester.

I teach a class called “Building Your Author Platform.” The focus is to help our Professional Writing students who want to write books or in some way work with books build that platform so needed in the publishing world. I designed the class a few years ago after I studied under Professor Cathy Day at Ball State University in a class that focused on literary citizenship.

Much of the writing world is online—and as my students become a professional writers and/or prepare to be professionals in the publishing world, they need to be in that online community. In my class, I try to help them understand what it means to join the writing world “out there” and professionalize themselves in their writing careers.

I teach them about becoming good literary citizens and being ready to enter the literary world upon graduation. They learn how to use social media strategically to build networks with the people they need to know, to add to the conversations going on in their field of interest or writing genre, and to understand what to say and the best avenues to say it.

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Here we are at Maranatha Christian Writers Conference.

They spend the first part of the semester figuring out who they are and what they’re passionate about. They build a personal website centered around that passion. They look for other websites and blogs by people they admire–other writers or publishing professionals. They join Twitter or learn to use Twitter more strategically by building their tribe. They write “charming notes” (explained further here).

They each reported on different social media platforms and how they might use them to expand their tribes (Facebook pages, Reddit, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Goodreads), and we talked about where each of them might best need to “hang out” depending on where their tribe members are. We played with newsletter programs and created sample newsletters.

And every year I learn something new from them. This time around, since I do have a book coming out next summer, I realized that I need to do some polishing up of my social media presence. I learned from a student about Goodreads author pages–so I went in and built one. I’m also working on creating a newsletter. (Stay tuned!)

Here’s what my students have been up to:

(1) My student Jessie is a constant learner–someone who might suddenly have a question and can spend several hours researching and learning about something new. She decided to call her website Pioneer Curiosity, and there you will enjoy following along with her to learn about the next new thing.

(2) Taylor wants to be an editor (be still my heart), so she has created a website dedicated to the things she’s learning, the magic of words and great books, and the work she is ready to do for you! Check out Taylor Editing for her writing about this love of words–as well as her pricing for freelance work!

(3) Laura can write just about anything, but she loves writing about local people and things that get her out talking to someone interesting or visiting something amazing. Local is anywhere that you are, so she writes about Exploring Local and finding the fascinating things in your own backyard!

(4) Ari’s special interests include world-building and languages. She’s a fantasy and science fiction writer, a world-builder, and a conlanger (a person who constructs original languages). So over at The World-Maker’s House, she’s talking about those worlds that live in the minds of writers, worlds they’re trying to get on the page for their readers.

(5) Becca is graduating soon (as in a few weeks), and she has discovered a passion for helping young women with the pesky details of “adulting.” Tackling issues like budgeting money or polishing a resume or handling stress, her Extraordinary Young Women site will be helpful for any extraordinary young woman about to embark on the adult world.

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When you take students to a writers conference and wi-fi is an issue in the townhouse.

(6) Chrysa has already been around the block a few times–she came into class with an active blog and strong social media presence (oh yeah, and a couple of completed book manuscripts that she has pitched at writer’s conferences). Her delightful blog, Chrysa’s Corner, includes book reviews and advice on munchies to eat when reading and details of her journey as she tries to get her books published.

(7) Alycia also came into the class with a blog already up and running. Over at Just Be Lovely, Alycia talks about the things that happen in her world and offers to bring you along on her journey. You’ll find thoughtful, heart-breaking, and delightful posts on many different topics.

(8) Marshall, our one lone male in the class, is a gamer and a writer of speculative fiction with a “slight lean toward the darker things” as it says on his Twitter profile. This is a totally foreign world to me, but Marshall has given me new appreciation for the story aspect of gaming. Find out more at Stories from Dice.

I’m always amazed at how creative my students are. This talented group of men and women will soon be unleashed upon the world.

Look out.

 

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Thank You, Veterans

Today is Veteran’s Day. Today we honor the men and women who are part of our American military.

I know that so many people wish that we just didn’t need you—that there were no wars to be fought. That we could all just get along.

One day, yes. But that’s a description of heaven. That’s not what we have here on this imperfect planet. Have there been unjust wars? Yes. Have wars been fought for stupid reasons? Yes. Is war terrible? Yes.

We could get into a big discussion about that here. But I’m not going to.

I’m also not here to talk about the merits of various wars. I’m not here to honor or condemn any particular commander-in-chief.

I’m here to thank the men and women who swore to protect our freedoms. I’m here to thank the men and women who, answerable to their commander-in-chief (for anyone who might not know, that’s the president of the United States), do what they are called to do. I’m here to honor the men and women who take that job seriously, who are compassionate when they need to be and deadly when they need to be. I’m here to thank the people who fight for freedom.

I wish that we didn’t need you, that everyone in the world could just get along. Unfortunately, that is just not a reality. The best way to preserve freedom is for our country to have a strong enough military that says, “Don’t mess with us.” You who go into harm’s way to help preserve that freedom, who protect us, who help the rest of the world know that to mess with us is to bring the greatest nation in the world down on them—thank you.

I wish that more people understood the sacrifices you make—in families separated for long stretches and, when not separated, in families uprooted and moved to new places; in facing enemy fire; in PTSD and things you can’t unsee when you close your eyes to sleep; in doing all of this for pathetic pay.

You make these sacrifices because you believe in America.

Thank you.

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My dad, Col. Philip Chaffee (USAF-Ret.) circa 1967 while serving in Vietnam.

We just came out of a very divisive election. The country is split. But you know what? That’s what voting is all about. Some win; some lose. I have cried my eyes out over a few elections; I’ve sighed with relief at others. To those of you out there protesting that the new president is not yours, look around for two seconds and realize that you are allowed to do this. You are allowed to feel this way. No one’s going to put you in jail for your opinion (unless you start doing something illegal). You live in the greatest country in the world. You’re FREE!

You’re FREE!

And here’s the bottom line: One election cannot destroy a free people.

Take a look at our history to see what we’ve survived.

This is what you thank a veteran for. Too many people just don’t seem to understand that freedom isn’t free. It has to be protected.

But here’s the other side of the coin. With freedom comes a huge amount of responsibility. We’re free—but not to hurt one another. Not to make fun of one another. Not to badmouth those who disagree with us. We’re free to express opinions, but we must always do so respectfully, realizing that the person across from us with a very different opinion came to that opinion in his or her own reasoned way just as we did.

Has America had some very bad policies? Oh yeah. Have some presidents made some really bad decisions? Heck yes. Does America have some really big problems to work on? You bet.

But it has always been that way. Always. No country is perfect just as no person is perfect. We are all fallible and the best we can do is, when we see a problem, decide that we need to fix it. And we start to figure out how to do that.

We need all of the voices in the conversation—but there is no conversation if everyone is offended or upset or name-calling. The way we get to the best decisions is when we sit down and hear one another.

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He’s my hero; he’s my dad.

And for everyone upset about this election, realize that for the rest of your life, you’ll win some, you’ll lose some. Also, realize that most voters look at a way larger picture and take into account way more things—especially those of us who are older and try to look at the office and the nation and the future, which are way bigger than a single man or woman. And take a quick look at history. This country swings back and forth between Democrat and Republican presidents and Congress. If we don’t like what we have, we are able to vote them out next time around.

That’s what you thank a vet for. Helping preserve that freedom for the last 240 years.

Many of the greatest changes that happened in our country have not been top-down decisions from a president. That’s the genius of our system of government—a system people have fought and died for. Change happens when FREE people voice their opinions and work for change and vote in the lawmakers who could make the changes happen. In at least one case in particular, we fought a horrifying war on our own soil because of those differing opinions.

And if those lawmakers don’t win? Then stand strong on your principles, keep your respectful voice being heard, and keep working for the change you feel needs to happen.

Thank a vet for that.

Thank a vet that we are still a free country where we can have vastly different opinions and live together, work together, serve together, worship together.

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The best way we can honor our veterans is being worthy of their sacrifices.

So instead of letting our opinions divide us, instead of being angry that there are actually people who think differently than we do, why don’t we instead find ways to make positive change—in our personal lives, in our families, in our communities and workplaces, in our world? Why don’t we now take a deep breath, listen to one another, learn from one another, understand the very deep feelings on both sides, and work together to make whatever needs to be improved better?

Our country has made a lot of mistakes, but I can say without hesitation that the United States is the greatest country in the world. But FREEDOM is a privilege that must be handled with great appreciation and great care. We have come a long way. We still have a long way to go. We will always have a long way to go. There will always be huge new problems to face. But we won’t face them down by refusing to listen to one another or refusing to learn from our own history.

Today, I thank my Uncle Howard (who has passed away) for his sacrifice in World War II, and I thank my dad, who bravely flew a hundred missions over North Vietnam and faced enemy fire.

Thank you, Dad, for serving our country. Thank you, Mom, for providing a haven wherever we moved, for making each new house a home.

So why should you thank a vet? Because these men and women sacrifice for an ideal—the ideal of freedom.

So you can be FREE.

Thank you, veterans, for serving and preserving this great country. May the rest of us learn from your example.

I love to haunt old bookstores. Even at Goodwill or the local resale shop, you’ll always find me, head turned sideways, scanning the titles of those used and lonely books.

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When scanning bookshelves, I look sort of like this.

There’s just something about used books. Our shelves at home are groaning under the weight of books because, when my husband and I want to go “shopping,” we both know that we’re heading to a place where we can look for books.

We bring them home, often wondering why we thought we needed more and, more importantly, where we’re going to put them. But that’s just a minor issue for us book lovers. We always find a way.

This past summer I came across this wonderful little textbook that I must share with you. It’s titled Language Etiquette, copyright 1949. From what I can tell, it’s an elementary school grammar text.

Here’s the cover. First, I have to say that I just love this snotty girl being rude to the friendly red-haired guy, tipping his hat at her. What is that about?

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Umm, I guess the guy used bad grammar?

Then, as I work my way through the book, I’m treated to rules of grammar and usage laid out in numbered lists, quizzes, and several poems to, you know, drive home the point. Like this gem titled “Etiquette”

You wouldn’t tolerate “B.O.”;
You dread the stigma that it lends;
But one thing you seem not to know;
That sloppy, careless speech offends.
You preen yourself to make a show;
You’re most meticulous in dress;
Though outwardly you’re all aglow,
Your slouchy words make you a mess.

You check your etiquette each day;
You guard with care your ev’ry act;
You’re sure your manners rate okay;
You pride yourself that you have tact.
But keep in mind there’s danger yet
Your fine impression to impeach,
For there’s no law of etiquette
That sanctions careless, sloppy speech.

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I have no idea why the drawing here features golfers.

Or this one, titled “Super ‘Guy'” (I really don’t know why “guy” is in quotation marks):

You know that you’re a super “guy”–
Your mom has often told you so;
In looks and brains you rate so high
No triumph that you may not know.
Though you’re so sure you’re “on the beam”
To high performance that you’d reach,
He seen and knowed may spoil a dream–
There’s sabotage in vulgar speech.

Though you possess a super mind
And strut in fashion ev’ry day,
If speech you use is unrefined,
You’re still considered just a “jay.”
Of highest triumph you’ve no doubt;
You’re sure you look like Robert Young;
But you’ll be rated super lout
While you’ve a careless, sloppy tongue.

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So, the guy in the suit speaks better than the guy in the wagon with the donkeys pulling it . . . apparently?

Well, if that doesn’t convince you not to be a lout, I don’t know what will!

But I have to say one good thing about this little book. Several pages have lists with guidelines for having good manners in conversation. So this was more than just a textbook about grammar and grammar usage, it was also offering to those elementary-aged minds advice on being decent human beings when it comes to speaking and having conversations.

Some of the points are a bit dated (i.e. “A lady keeps her voice low and quiet”), yet overall, I find a few pieces of etiquette advice that we ought to take to heart. Today, some of my students were sharing in class about various other social media sites that writers might want to use as they build their platforms. We were warned about a couple of them because of “frequent vulgarity” or just plain “meanness” by users.

What is wrong with our world? What happened to decency, niceness, etiquette? So for our edification (and maybe a few politicians might take heart, along with the “mean” folks on social media), I offer a few chosen language etiquette rules circa 1949 yet so needed today:

  1. You are judged by your conversational manners.
  2. He who talks most loudly is not necessarily he who talks best.
  3. No gentleman enjoys talking smut with a girl. (Is this not priceless?)
  4. Your conversation shows what you are–regardless of exterior signs.
  5. Don’t be an overwise, know-all.
  6. Always congratulate your successful rival.
  7. Malicious gossip appeals only to little minds.
  8. It is difficult to be a good listener, but it pays to try.
  9. It is much better to be silent than to say too much.
  10. Use tact and common sense–lest you hurt someone.
  11. Don’t interrupt or contradict without a very good reason.
  12. Try to say that which gives pleasure–don’t cause pain to others.

A little etiquette might go a long way. And I think today, in our social media world where we can say whatever we want either anonymously or without having to deal with a person face to face, we have become far too “vulgar” and “mean.”

I may think the poetry is hilarious, but many things in this little book are on the mark.

If you could create language etiquette rules for today, what might you include?

 

Cat image courtesy of: https://goo.gl/images/TvMfdR

My Own EdBoWriMo

I don’t know how you novel writers do it. First, I am always astounded by fiction writers–people who can weave a tale, build a plot and sustain it, create believable and likable characters, keep the suspense going, and then end with a conclusion that satisfies.

Seriously. I admire you more than you know.

So as the month of November approaches, and with it NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I can hear weeping and gnashing of teeth from my Professional Writing students who are trying to decide if they can take on the beast that is NaNoWriMo.

If you don’t know, NaNoWriMo is when novel writers everywhere commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. To translate, there are about 250 words on a standard double-spaced typed page. So 50K words = 200 pages, divided by 30 days = roughly 6 or 7 pages a day. That’s a day. Anyone who is a writer will tell you how difficult it is to sustain that kind of momentum for very long. Not impossible, but tough. Especially when you have, you know, like, a life. Like classes to take and homework to do and food to eat and sleep to enjoy.

My student Chrysa discusses her past experience with NaNo in her blog post this week. And Jessie is trying to decide if the commitment is worth it:

If nothing else, the commitment of NaNo helps writers see what is possible. Whether they get to that magic 50K number or not, they have discovered that setting a goal and working steadily toward it have their own rewards. Basically you just do it and see if, well, if you can do it. There are no prizes, no awards dinners. Doing the task is reward unto itself.

Only writers understand that.

Which brings me to EdBoWriMo.

I don’t write novels. Never have. Never will. I am content to be astounded by my fellow writers who do. However, as I shared last week, I’m under contract to write a book about editing. So I decided to join my novel writing friends in making a commitment to myself to make this “Editing Book Writing Month.”

And since I know my abilities, I’m not shooting for 50K words; instead, I think I’m going for a more modest 22,500 words, which works out to 750 words (or about three pages) per day.

you-canSo what about you, my fellow writers? Do you have something you need to work on, but NaNoWriMo doesn’t quite fit? Then create your own! Let’s join with our fellow novel-writing friends and commit ourselves to a certain number of words per day (or per week if that’s better). Create your own acronym. Create your calendar.

And on November 1, let’s commit to seeing how far we can finally get on that project.

So tell me, what could you work on this November? What languishing project could you breathe new life into? What project could benefit from your sustained attention during the month of November? Tell me about it in the comments below.

So here’s some exciting news!

This past summer at the Write-to-Publish Conference, I pitched a book to a publishing company called Bold Vision Books. For several years I’ve wanted to write a book about editing–a book that combines much of my work for the past three decades along with the research I’ve been doing about the great editors (some of which I’ve been sharing here on my blog) and turning it into a book I can use in my future editing classes at Taylor University.

And I hope it’s a book many writers and aspiring editors will want to read.

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Students in my editing class warming my heart as they studiously do their worksheets on how to work with Chicago Manual of Style.

And the publisher accepted it! So now, in addition to writing my thesis (about editing), I’m also writing a book (about editing).

Needless to say, this is exciting and exhausting. There are several great books about editing already out there (as I discussed in this post), so I feel both humbled and honored as I take on this task.

The publisher has asked that my book help writers with self-editing, so my audience is writers who are trying to make their manuscripts the best they can be before sending them off to agents or acquisitions editors or before self-publishing on Kindle or CreateSpace.

If you’re interested, here’s what it looks like so far:

Introduction—Take This Quiz! A Bird’s Eye View of the Publishing World
This is a publishing quiz that pulls from numbers in the publishing world (number of books published in a year, number of returns, general number of each title sold, etc.). Multiple choice.

Chapter 1—Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
Takes you through all of the steps in the publishing process—from manuscript idea to bound book. Helps the reader understand how many people touch the book, how many decisions must be made along the way.

Chapter 2—A Passion for Words
What editing is all about, what makes a good editor, why everyone needs to self-edit and have others edit their work. I explore the stories of two great editors—Tay Hohoff and Maxwell Perkins—and their work with Harper Lee and F. Scott Fitzgerald respectively.

Chapter 3—First Impressions
The supreme importance of a manuscript’s first pages. Explanation of how agents and acquisitions editors only have a few moments at a conference or busy schedules at their offices and if the writer doesn’t grab them in the first few pages, they won’t read any further. How can you edit those first pages to make them intriguing?

Chapter 4—Content Editing (The 10,000-foot View)
This chapter focuses on what content (or developmental) editing is and how it takes a different mind-set from both writing and copyediting. It explores ways to content edit yourself and others, and the questions to ask as you’re editing (separating fiction and nonfiction).

Chapter 5—Copyediting (The 1,000-foot View)
This chapter has several functions just as a copy editor also has several jobs in addition to just reading the manuscript. I will help those who are putting together their manuscripts to understand how to build the front matter and back matter for their books (such as what they should go ahead and put on their copyright page and TOC), how to use templates and create style tags (which will make the editor at the publishing house want to kiss them)—in short, how to deliver a clean and consistent manuscript.

From there, we’ll cover some basic grammar and punctuation rules and guidelines—keying in on the errors I tend to see all the time (hello! No double spacing between sentences!) and how to fix them. I will advise on some of the Microsoft Word tools that will be most useful (not everything in all detail, but the key tools).

We’ll also learn about the bible—The Chicago Manual of Style—along with style guides and style sheets. They will have exercises to do to try to find various items in CMS and with a style sheet from a fake publisher. I will include some exercises for them to practice grammar and punctuation, along with some very funny dangling modifiers to fix (“We saw a dead deer driving down the road.”).

Chapter 6—Proofreading (The 10-foot View)
We talk about proofreading in a couple of ways. First, we can proofread a manuscript on hard copy—and this is where we’ll learn about proofreader marks. I will show the readers what these are and provide some practice pages to work with proofreader marks.

Second, we’ll talk about proofreading on pdfs of typeset pages and how to use the markup tools in Adobe. In this phase, there’s more than just proofreading the text; proofreaders have to check the layout of pages, page numbers for the TOC, placement of elements on pages, etc. I will provide a checklist of items to look for in this proofreading phase along with a practice page.

Chapter 7—Working with Bible Text
Even though this is not necessarily a Christian publishing book, that has been the major part of my experience so I will include advice on working with Bible text. This will also include practice exercises. As much as we Christians love and use the Bible, it’s amazing how authors so often are not careful when they quote from it or refer to its stories in their writing. In this chapter, I give some personal experiences with thirty years of Bible publishing and several tips on working with the Bible text.

Chapter 8—If You Want to Try to Self-Publish . . .
We’ll talk about the world of vanity publishing—pros, cons, and things to look out for. For example, if they decide to build a book for Kindle or use CreateSpace, what do they need to know, and how they should format and price their books. However, I would always advice all of those editorial steps above.

Chapter 9—Child’s Play: The Special World of Children’s Editing
Editing children’s books is a very different skill. In this chapter, I discuss the kind of mind-set needed to edit children’s books, with a discussion of Ursula Nordstrom, editor of such books as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Where the Wild Things Are, and Harriet the Spy. I also will interview some children’s editors for further insights into this special world.

Chapter 10—If You Want to Try an Editing Career . . .
Here I talk about how to prepare for an editing career, how to build a portfolio of work and where to find that work, how to practice, what to charge if you freelance.

Thoughts? Am I missing anything? You writers out there, what would you want to read in a book about self-editing? Let me know in the comments below! And thanks in advance for your help.

Addicted to Reading

I hyperventilate when I go into used bookstores. For thirty years my husband has dragged me to antique stores and the only saving grace to these excursions (where eventually every antique begins to look the same) is that sometimes the booths will have books. I zero in on these, turning my head sideways to read along the spines. I don’t feel the same way in my local Books-a-Million, although if I have to go shopping that’s where I want to go.

There’s just something about the smell of used bookstores and the possibility of treasures to be found. If I’m going to by one of the classics or a book on my list, I don’t want one of those repackaged recent releases or (God forbid) the ones that put on the cover not the person but the movie star playing that person (seriously, a book about Julia Child with Meryl Streep on the cover?). And I’m not all worried about getting first editions or signed copies. Instead, I just want to pick it up and know that I’m giving it new life. It was written (by hand, in the case of those classics), edited, typeset (when typesetting was really setting type), printed bound, and sent out into the world. Someone bought it and put it on a shelf. Sometimes that person’s name will appear handwritten inside the cover. Chances are, that person read it. I love it when evidence of that shows up with underlines or marginal comments.

I love the feel of those books. I will often buy it if it feels right in my hands. I look forward to reading it just so I can hold it and turn the pages. The last time the book felt that was when that person decades ago did the same as I am doing now. It’s a kinship. We read the same words, get engrossed in the same story, get pulled away into the world that writer created.

What is it that pulls us into books? Why do we read, anyway? In her book, Ruined by ruined by readingReading: A Life in Books, Lynne Sharon Schwartz muses about why we are willing to spend hours of our lives with tales others have spun.

I have read for so many years but, like Schwartz, I wonder at why it is I cannot recall so much of what I’ve read. Thus I’m glad to know that others have been in the same boat. Schwartz writes, “I don’t remember much of what I’ve read. My lifelong capacity for forgetting distresses me. I glance at a book on the shelf that I once read with avid interest . . . and while I struggle for the details, all I recall is the excitement of the reading. . . . What do I have, then, after years of indulgence? A feel, a texture, an aura.”

Precisely for this reason of forgetting what I’ve read (and the accompanying distress), a few years ago I gathered up some of those lists of “must read” classic books. I began to work my way through it, hoping to recapture the wonder. As I began pursuing an advanced degree in English, I realized that I had to be able to actually discuss the classic works, not just pretend that I had read them or, even if I had, pretend that I remembered them. So the past few years I dove into Moby Dick and This Side of Paradise and The Old Man and the Sea and Portrait of a Lady among many others of the great classics. Some I enjoyed. Some I wanted to pull my eyes out (hello, Moby Dick. I’m sorry. I probably need to turn in my credentials to speak such blasphemy). But I felt accomplished reading them and saying I’ve read them and being able to, while perhaps not remembering all the details (a problem I wish I could overcome, but maybe no one remembers every detail), at least remember the basic story.

And that makes me feel something.

What is that feeling? And why do I feel it? When I finish a classic work, I join a club—a club of readers across months or years or decades or centuries who also have gently opened the cover, absorbed the words, turned the pages, finished and imbibed the story. No matter what I do, it’s there forever. Of course, not all the details (as I’ve already established) but the story. I am forever changed, I have a new view on the world, I learned something.

That tends to be my “divining rod” (as Schwartz calls it) helping me work my way through the morass of books stacked in teetering piles in used bookstores. I go straight to the reference section to find books about writing that I can use in my teaching. Then I’m over in the classics, then memoir, then the books of essays. I have never been a reader of romance or popular fiction. (On a visit, I once picked up a copy of a Danielle Steele at my mother-in-law’s house. By the fourth page I was so appalled by the terrible writing I laughed out loud.)

When I read, I want to learn something. And if a book isn’t pulling me along with its lyrical writing or keeping me turning pages or giving me info that helps me see the world in a new way, then I’m not interested and am not above putting it back on the shelf unfinished.

Life is too short to read a bad book.

But I feel like I came late to the reading game. I wasn’t precocious. In fact, I remember being mortified that many of my fellow fifth graders were reading from the advanced areas of the reading box when I was down in the “average.” I stunk at math and hated science, but reading? I loved reading. I felt like I should have tested right into those higher levels. It didn’t make sense.

I didn’t go to grad school until I was in my fifties and felt the sting of both not having read the classics and not being “up” on even recent authors. So I made my list of the must-reads and began to work my way through it.

Now I read voraciously, as if trying to make up for lost time. Which I am. But, again, why? It gets back to that feeling of knowing¸ of learning. Is my life better for understanding the whaling culture explained to me (ad nauseum) in Moby Dick? Actually, yes, I think so. Do I have a better understanding of writing from studying The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby? I do indeed. Is my writing life inspired by the writing of Flannery O’Connor and  Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekov? Yes.

In short, I read because it inspires me. Sometimes it is the grace of the writing. Sometimes it is the very encouragement I get to live better and be better and write better.

So tell me, what is it about reading that enthralls you?

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