Category Archives: Writing

Why do we read?

To Explore

Reading gives us access to new ideas and new knowledge. It lets us visit distant times and unfamiliar locations, and temporarily inhabit other lives and relationships. We explore what is happening in our world through news reports and in-depth articles. We explore skills like cooking and learning a language. Academic reading pushes us to learn by exploring, whether it’s Feynman’s physics lectures, essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And exploration happens with both nonfiction and fiction, as Bill Gates said: “A lot of the reading I do is so I can keep learning about the world. But I love the way good fiction can take you out of your own thoughts and into someone else’s.”

To Escape

Escapism has a bad rap, but sometimes you’ve got to get away and reading offers an exit. I was born in 1968 when my sister was just 13 months old. My father was a graduate student and the hot streets of south Philadelphia simmered with tension in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. My mother, a nice Catholic girl from Denver, was stuck in a third-floor apartment with two infants, no air conditioning, and no money. She credits J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with getting her through those days, as she escaped to the elves and orcs and misty mountains of Middle Earth.

Like my mom, the women of Japan’s Heian court around 1000 CE were confined, but by their culture rather than temporary circumstances. Only men were permitted to read Chinese characters and literature, but women and men communicated via written poems using the lesser Kana script, a phonetic transcription of spoken Japanese. One woman (known today only by the name of her famous character, Murasaki Shikibu), secretly learned to read Chinese as a child and went on to write the first real novel in history, The Tale of Genji. To hide her unbecoming knowledge of Chinese and protect herself from gossip, she wrote in Kana, which allowed other women to use her epic work as an escape from the luxurious forced boredom of their lives.

To Engage

With email, texting, social media, discussion forums, and online commenting, so much of our daily reading is an effort to engage with others. The 4000 or so editors in my busiest Facebook group can lure me into hours of distraction, with posts from the practical (“How do I respond to criticism from a client?”) to the ridiculous (“Check out these shoes that look like pencils!”). This engagement is compelling, even addictive. But we choose longer forms of reading to engage us, too. With the connection we build with characters and emotions in novels, we can experience grief (also known as a book hangover) when a good book ends, as book-grieving readers attested on a recent Reddit thread with more than 1000 posts.

To Empower

This purpose is perhaps the most important and certainly the most dangerous. And it gets a post of its own.


A Word about Sources
My exploration of how reading began owes a debt to the authors of several books related to this subject. My questions first formed as I read
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christoper De Hamel. I then found essential information in A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading in the West edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, The Written World by Martin Puchner, and The Book by Keith Houston. The 2006 Education for All “Literacy for Life” Global Monitoring Report from UNESCO was fascinating and valuable, particularly chapter 8, “The Making of Literate Societies.”

The Words Around Us

North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is not a destination for upscale vacations. You enter the cheap “Going out (for) business!” beach stores through the mouth of a giant shark to buy flimsy chairs, painted shells, and non-sea-worthy swimsuits. The fried seafood buffets and ice cream shops attract long lines of people hungry after a day in the sun. Mini-golf courses compete for attention – see the volcano belching smoke! Watch the animatronic pirates battle! There’s not a bookstore in sight.

During our annual week in Myrtle, I especially enjoy walking the section of beach in front of the nearby high-rise hotel. The sand there is paved with chairs, blankets, coolers, umbrellas, and bodies of every shade and shape. Plump moms in swim dresses chase toddlers while skinny teen boys hop on skim boards. Elderly locals sit and smoke, displaying their signature deep and wrinkly tans. It’s a busy place of earthly delights – hot sun, salty waves, cold drinks, flesh on parade – not a place that seems inclined toward intellectual pursuits. Yet everywhere you look, people sit and read.

For me, this silences those constant rumbles about the death of reading. You can’t fling a plastic shovel in Myrtle Beach without getting sand in somebody’s pages. And I mean their pages, not the crevices of their Kindle, because almost no one on the beach is staring at their phone or e-reader. Thick paperbacks rustle in the breeze while the tide approaches and recedes. The beach always makes me think about the inexorable changes of time, so it feels a fitting setting to consider how humanity has been reading, in some form or another, for 5000 years.

We read constantly, most of us, without any thought or effort. Yesterday was typical: I received 87 emails and read some of every single one, even if it was just the subject line or the name of the sender. One of my Facebook groups has nearly 10,000 members, editors all around the world, who post a lot, asking questions and sharing concerns. I read these posts and many of the replies. I read texts I receive. I read news articles in print and online. I read almost all day long, and then in the evening to relax, I read.

And it’s not just avid readers like me who are always reading. All those annoying people on their phones while walking, dining out, and especially driving – they’re reading. All those people with laptops in coffee shops – they’re reading away, and even if they’re writing, they’re reading. We as a society are constant readers. Road signs, nutrition information, Tweets, fast-food menu boards, fantasy football stats, TV news crawls, Reddit threads, bumper stickers. And books – fiction and non, highbrow and low. From Fifty Shades of Grey to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, in print or as ebooks, we’re reading.

Reading started in another hot and sandy region: ancient Mesopotamia, where the very first reading involved accounting and records of temple assets. When a man by the Tigris river 5000 years ago could look at the markings on a clay tablet and know the number of sheep to expect in a payment, reading – for the first time – gave power.

Fear the Reader

I only wanted to find out when we started reading – we humans, we non-royals, we non-clerics, we women. But as I pursued this information across 5000 years of Western history, I reached a conclusion much more compelling than just the when and the whom: Reading makes people powerful and dangerous – to institutions and to ourselves. And it always has.

The world’s very first readers (and writers) were the scribes of ancient Babylon, who recorded and read the data, news, and information that kings and administrators needed to make their civilizations grow and thrive. While these abilities made scribes powerful, they also made the scribes a potential threat to those in charge.

This dynamic continues today.

I don’t feel like a dangerous force when I’m enjoying a novel or bantering with other editors on Facebook. But the power that I, an ordinary person, can gain from reading becomes clear when I freely read whatever I choose from across the political spectrum. I can easily acquire information about joining with others to support change – potentially threatening the status quo. I also see that my reading could conceivably present a danger to me, if my government began to use data to constrain the reading of its citizens.

The power and the danger of reading are alive and well.

In the coming weeks, I will share a series of posts from my process of uncovering this idea.


Reading about Writing

Two books:  Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and The Writing Life by Annie DillardBird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard – how had I not read these outstanding books? But maybe it’s better that I didn’t read them before this summer. I suspect I would not have appreciated them as much.

These authors not only taught me some excellent stuff about how to write, but reminded me that, as a writer, I am not alone. Every writer struggles. Writing – forcing yourself to sit down and make something out of nothing using your own difficult brain – is really, really hard, even for people who are very successful, excellent writers.

Leading up to my two-week writing retreat in June 2018, I started “Bird by Bird,” Lamott’s presentation of what she shares with students in her writing seminars. It’s hilarious, touching, and hits the insecure nerve of anyone who has ever fought to generate the shitty draft. I set the book aside half-read, though, because I needed to focus on research for my retreat. I picked it up again on our August beach vacation and found myself laughing out loud while sitting by the ocean. Her chapter on jealousy is one of the most affirming things I’ve ever read.

Coming to Dillard’s “The Writing Life” right after two weeks of self-imposed isolation and immersion in a huge and difficult topic was powerful. “Yes!” I kept exclaiming. “That’s exactly how it is!” Again, writing is just hard. And when you’re in it, you walk the tightrope between the inescapable draw of the subject (I found that my brain kept on thinking about the work no matter what else I was doing) and the constant temptation to do anything – anything at all – to avoid it.

Although Lamott’s book in particular is geared toward fiction writers, which I am not, the truths she and Dillard share about writing in general are so valuable. And either book simply makes for an enjoyable read, even for a person without a writing agenda.


Retreating to Write – at Home

A rustic mountain cabin or lonely seaside cottage might fit the fantasy of a writing retreat. But if the cost or personal overhead of running away to write is too high – and you hate the thought of working without your usual monitor setup – a home office retreat can be a great option. I just finished a two-week, at-home writing retreat. When all was said and done, I accomplished my goal of writing 500 non-awful words each day. And that was while fighting an intestinal thing the first week and a bad (but fast) cold the second week.

Here’s how I approached the retreat.

Prepare

I chose the retreat dates around my clients’ schedules and notified clients (and friends) several weeks in advance that I would be unavailable and would only check email occasionally. I unsubscribed from as much junk email as possible to keep the inbox cleaner. I also made a comprehensive dinner plan and did a thorough grocery shop so I wouldn’t have to make many meal decisions or extra trips to the store.

I established daily and overall objectives for the two weeks and set a daily schedule. All of these went up in plain sight over my desk. Each day on a small whiteboard, I listed the day number, some motivational words to myself, and the day’s tasks.

Greyhound with books

My alert assistant helps with research.

Take the Time

Two weeks worked out to be an ideal amount of time. By Friday of the first week, I was really glad that I still had another week to pursue my work. By the end of the second week, I was really ready to be done, take a break from my topic, and get back to my regular routine.

My daily schedule was, as always, constrained by my dogs’ walks, but that meant I took scheduled breaks and got outside. I also made a point of eating regular meals and snacks to help my concentration.

Remove Distractions

Making the deliberate decision to take a retreat put me in a new mindset. I posted a sign-off on Facebook and took the extreme step of uninstalling it from my phone for the duration of the retreat. Losing that tyranny of notifications was a surprisingly wonderful feeling. I don’t use Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, but I would have taken similar steps with those. I also postponed meetings and other events during the week and avoided running errands that would break up my days.

Evaluate

Every morning I typed up goals and thoughts for the day, and every afternoon when I was finished, I wrote an assessment of the day. At the halfway point in the retreat, I read through my notes, looked at what I had accomplished, and identified what I still wanted to get done. Then I noted what on that list was realistic. At the end, I had quite a few unfinished goals, but this whole process was an experiment for me and I felt that what I did accomplish was satisfactory. Getting a fresh take halfway through was helpful and encouraging.

Unexpected perks:

  • World Cup Soccer! I accidentally scheduled my retreat during the qualifying matches, which were the perfect entertainment during lunch or snack breaks.
  • Giving up Facebook. Not having the blinking blue light and little F on my phone was liberating. I had other sources of news, and not being in the thick of responses to the day-to-day was such a break. I had to think hard about whether I wanted to reengage.
  • Fun tools. I did my morning goals typing on my manual typewriter and my afternoon summary using the Querkywriter typewriter-style keyboard for my tablet – it was fun to use these tools and get more comfortable with both of them.

Unforeseen challenges:

  • I worked hard to make sure I would be able to keep my focus but found that I got a bit lonely, in part because my husband had several evening rehearsals. One article about planning a group writing retreat recommended having participants gather and read some of their work out loud every evening. I think building in some professional camaraderie would have been helpful, so in the future I might partner with other writers and meet a few times for non-critical reading sessions.
  • Getting started with writing the first day was hard. It took some time to get into the writing mode, but having two weeks helped me not stress about some unproductive time.
  • My writing topic was way too broad and my research was inadequate, even though I had done a lot in advance. My goal was to write a long essay that I could publish as blog posts, but I’m wrestling with how best to handle references and sources in that. And I didn’t have time for the research and writing for several points I wanted to make. My second goal was to consider doing a book proposal on the topic, and I’m undecided as to where I stand on that.

Looking Ahead

To keep some writing momentum going, I’m planning to schedule two designated writing days every month for a few months and see how that works out. I’m considering another retreat for this time next year, so if you’re interested in joining me, get in touch!


If You Can Read This…

Woman readingI’ve been reading a lot about reading lately.

We’re told it’s good for us, that it’s crucial for editors, that we’re losing our ability to do it.

Reading is something I take completely for granted. To be able to function – to understand road signs, prices at the store, medication labels, the crawl on TV news – not to mention texts and social media – we have to be able to read. Here in the U.S., we automatically teach of our children to read. We worry about how soon they start reading, fuss over whether they’re reading enough, and compare standardized reading scores in our schools and across the world.

But when did everybody start reading all the time? A thousand years ago, reading in Western culture was pretty much limited to priests and monks. When did it stop being a privilege and begin to be a necessity?

And how has technology across the centuries transformed how much we read, what we read, and how we read it? Gutenberg’s moveable type led to an explosion of reading, and today’s devices are also making an impact on what, when, and how we read. I’ve laughed at postings of an 1800s screed about the dangers of women reading novels and neglecting their families, but how does that differ from today’s social media addiction?

Another compelling strand in this knot is the notion that having books around is beneficial, even if you know you can never read them all – maybe especially then. They are aspirational on the one hand, and on the other, they remind you that you can’t know it all, and therefore keep you humble.

My reading about reading has made me want to read much more about reading. And then do some writing. I’ve planned a writing retreat for next month to work on this, so stay tuned!


 

Freelance Writing Isn’t Free

Writer using laptop

We’ve all heard the old not-funny line about the actress was so new to Hollywood that she slept with the screenwriter. The writer! So unimportant! That’s hilarious! (It’s less hilarious than ever in these days of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, but that’s not my focus here.)

Without the writing—and the writer—we we wouldn’t have the movie to begin with. Or the sitcom, or the TV drama, or even the ads during those shows. Someone writes what all those anchors read on our insane 24-hour news cycle. Without the writer, we wouldn’t have novels, of course, or news of any perspective. We would live in a world without “content.” There’s a whole world that needs to be filled with words, over and over and over again.

Matt Wallace—screenwriter, novelist, and former wrestler—wrote a powerful piece about why the writing is important, why writers should never back down on getting paid, and, best of all, exactly how writers can respond to requests to work for free or cheap.

Read Matt’s rant and rebuttal guide here. The first part is angry-funny and NSFW. The second part, the how-to advice, is solid as a rock. You have value; your creative work has value. Even, or maybe especially, that mundane writing that just needs to get done has value. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise, especially if they’re asking you to write for them. Matt equips us with calm and professional responses to people asking writers to work for exposure (as a friend of mine says, “Exposure is something you die of”), for peanuts, or for pity.

* Disclaimer: I have wonderful clients who value my work and pay on time. Rarely do people ask me to write for free (my mom gets a pass) but a lot of writers in a lot of fields get pressured to work for little or nothing, as if writing was so easy (no) and so insignificant (also no) that it’s not worth much.


Recent Work | “Leadership: Not Such a Leap”

Cover of leadership article

The benefits of early-career leadership that this article explores apply well beyond the physical therapy profession. Involvement, commitment, connection, and self-reflection have universal value. This article was published in the fall 2017 issue of the American Physical Therapy Association’s Perspectives magazine.
View the complete article

Excerpt

Leadership isn’t just for the self-confident and those who already are established in their careers. Leadership opportunities take many forms, and early-career physical therapists (PTs) and physical therapist assistants (PTAs) can take advantage of all of them.

Being a leader in one’s profession isn’t limited to accepting committee assignments or taking on elected roles. “You’re a leader to your patients,” notes Matt Gratton, PTA, a member of APTA’s Early Career Team Task Force who works at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “You’re a leader within your organization just by being there on time, being passionate with your patients, and having a positive attitude.”

Aaron Embry, PT, DPT, MSCR, debunks the notion that leadership requires special abilities or resume points. Although he is president of the South Carolina Physical Therapy Association and a research associate at the Center for Rehabilitation Research at the Medical University of South Carolina, he insists that there is nothing inherently special in any of that. “What is most important,” he says, “is that I show up, pay attention, and hustle—that I work hard. If you do all of the basic, common-sense things—be inquisitive, care, and be there for patients, clients, and colleagues—you’ll be amazed at how much will happen to develop you into someone who can lead people.”

Leadership involves consistently taking on challenges, Embry says. “Do I face challenges with integrity, honesty, and bravery,” he asks himself, “and acknowledge that I might succeed, but also that I might fail? What do I learn from my missteps to ensure that they’re not true failures?” He finds, he says, that dealing with each new challenge helps him better tackle the next one.


Disabling Our Distractions

What do you do when you just can’t seem to get yourself to focus on the task at hand? To shut off Twitter, stop checking email, quit doing chores that seem suddenly irresistible, and just accomplish the thing?

When I asked my fellow editors how they stay focused, they reported that they use rewards, time-management apps, and background sound. Rewards for putting in an uninterrupted block of time might be chocolate, time for playing Skyrim, a walk with the dog, or—of course—a fresh cup of coffee or tea.

Editor Robin Marwick motivates with an app called Forest, which grows virtual and actual trees for you—provided you don’t touch your phone. But when she gets really spacey, she says, she resorts to a simple and surprisingly effective visual: a white board with post-its reminding her what she’s doing now and what she’s doing next. Other apps that editors like are Timesheet (for tracking hours) and Self Control (an actual app for blocking your own access to distracting sites).

Sound vs. Sound

To tune out aural distractions, suggested apps and websites include:

Baby Ben Alarm Clock

Since I prefer mechanical devices to electronics, my own technique is to wind up my vintage Baby Ben alarm clock. The ticking is enough to snap my attention away from electronic distractions (“That ticking! Oh, right, must focus on work”), but for some reason, the sound doesn’t interfere with my writing. Like Robin’s white board, it’s mysteriously effective.

Working with music playing is a matter of personal preference. Those who find it helps them focus suggest Pandora stations or customized Spotify playlists, baroque music, classical guitar, classical Indian ragas, or even classic rock, provided it’s playing in another room. Editor Beth Bedore turns to her trusty clock radio to manage time. “I use the sleep button and tune it to a classical music station or CBC. It’s an hour at a time of background noise. When the radio goes silent, it’s time to stand up, refresh coffee or water, check messages, and then get back to work.” Like Beth, other colleagues in home offices use music as a time-management tool by working for the length of one album or listening to the duration of one song while taking a break.

Break Time

Breaks are really important, it turns out, and research on work/break ratios points to 52 minutes of work with 17 minutes of break as being most effective. A similar approach is the Pomodoro Technique, with 25-minute work blocks, 5-minute breaks, and then a longer break after 4 blocks.

You can use breaks to train your brain to focus for those optimal lengths of time. One approach proposes giving yourself a minute or two on a timer to check your mail or notifications. Then, reset your timer for 15 minutes—notifications turned off—to work without checking in. Once you get used to 15 minutes, you can gradually extend that no-distraction period up to 30 minutes. (Read more about retraining your concentration.)

Of all the guidance I found, I was most intrigued by the suggestion that what you wear to do your work, even in your home office, affects your focus and productivity. I’m investigating that now and looking forward to polling my home-office colleagues about whether they dress for success.


Got a Goal? Use the Seinfeld Strategy

This was originally published in the “Career Hacks” column of a client’s internal newsletter; shared with permission.   

Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld surprised a struggling young comedian by sharing his secret for success: be consistent. He didn’t mean being consistently funny, but being consistent in your work to improve and reach your goal.

Each of us has at least one action that would make an enormous difference in our career if we did it every day. Maybe it’s writing. Maybe it’s spending one hour reading news in your field. Maybe it’s connecting with peers. But taking the action every day – for Seinfeld, it was writing jokes – is where the challenge comes in.

Seinfeld found a leverage technique to keep himself going even when he didn’t feel like it. He kept a large, one-year calendar hanging in a prominent place. Every day that he worked on writing jokes he marked with a big, red X. As one day followed the next, the X’s formed a chain. “You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain,” said Seinfeld. The longer the chain gets, the greater the motivation will be to not break it, and the more established your new habit will become.

Identify your action, keep track every day, and whatever you do, don’t break the chain.

Read more about how to develop good habits

Read the original story of the Seinfeld Secret