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The Restoration of Balance

I stumbled upon an extremely well-written and informative article this week: 10 Tips on Writing the Living Web, by Mark Bernstein, which I encourage you to read in its entirety. Continuing to think about the topic I have focused upon the past couple of weeks, why so many folks are blogging these days, I was fascinated by his very first suggestion: “Write for a Reason.” He admonishes us to write not just about the mundane details of our lives and life experiences, but about why those details matter. Perhaps most importantly, he reminds us to write honestly and “for yourself; you are, in the end, your most important reader.”

Another recommendation that resonated with me is “[r]ead widely and well, on the web and off, and in your web writing take special care to acknowledge the good work and good ideas of other writers.” When I signed on this evening to write this post, I perused the past week’s entries from my colleagues here at Write Stuff, as is my custom. I was intrigued to find that, once again, my teammates and I seem to be “in synch.” d.challener wrote in his March 6, 2007, post, “The Need to Read,” that he has been, of late, in the “longest creative reading droughts of my adult life. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to read. It just seems that over the last several months my traditional reading times have dried up.”

I have been experiencing the same phenomenon. Although it seems that I read constantly, I finally took stock of the number of unread books that have managed to pile up on my bookshelf, nightstand, desk and even the end table in the living room. What sparked this inventory? The arrival yesterday of yet another new book from my book club, Zooba. When I signed up, I thought it would be a very manageable and economical way to read because, like Netflix, you create a queue, listing the books you want to receive in the order you want to receive them. Then, once each month, for the standard price of $9.95 (with no charge for shipping), you receive the hardback edition of the book that is in first position in your queue. I thought that I would finish one book per month easily since I have always been a voracious reader and this would allow me to simply add books to my queue as I heard about them without having to go shopping. (Although there is no shopping I enjoy more than a leisurely stroll through a well-stocked bookstore.) Of course, I buy additional books from time to time, so I actually purchase more than one per month.

Things worked out as envisioned for the first year or so that I belonged to Zooba. But I have really been slacking the past few months and have not read nearly enough books to keep up with the combination of their shipments to me and my other purchases.

Why? I have been spending a lot of time not just working on my own blog and this column, but also reading other people’s blogs, in addition to my usual daily fare of newspapers and magazines that I read on-line. And I have been allowing this form of reading to overtake my reading of fiction. To my own eventual detriment, I fear.

d.challener observed that “the mental process of taking others’ words and creating a moving picture in you head, is uniquely wonderful practice for taking the moving pictures in your head and encoding them into the written word.” That is a wonderful way to describe what happens to us when we curl up in a comfortable spot and begin a good novel. There is nothing that compares with being transported away to the place described on the page, acquainted with the people who live there, and mesmerized by the events in their lives and the way in which they respond to those occurrences. Although I love the process of getting to know new characters, I am a “creature of habit” and am addicted to the comfort of routines and famliarity. For that reason, I particularly love reading fictional series, my two favorite being Janet Evanovich’s hysterically funny books about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum and the stories of Father Cavanaugh, his wife Cynthia and all the other folks who populate the fictional little town of Mitford in Jan Karon’s books.

Although I have yet to notice that my decreased reading of fiction has impacted my writing, I worry that, like d.challener noted vis a vis his own writing, that will be the result if this trend is allowed to continue.

I always mean to sit down and read, but somehow I get distracted. I made good progress on my “to read list” for a long time because I made a New Year’s Resolution that, beginning January 1, 2006, I would take a lunch break at least four days out of five (I gave myself one day per week to enjoy going out with coworkers and allow for professional situations where my resolution could not be carried out) during which I would actually take myself out to lunch — no eating in my office — and spend that time reading. If you spend forty-five minutes or so reading at least four to five days per week, you would be amazed at how much material you can digest during your lunch hour (sorry for the bad pun . . . couldn’t resist).

However, toward the end of the year, I found myself falling back into the old habit of not stopping for a lunch break in favor of eating at my desk while working. I need to resume my old routine because it not only assured that I completed more reading, it also gave me a refreshing mental break in the middle of the day which I have also found myself missing.

Gradually, I also began spending more time reading on-line and . . . you know how that works! It is late at night and you tell yourself, “I really must get some sleep,” but you want to finish reading that wonderful blog you just stumbled upon and then, of course, you must leave a comment! But then you find an intriguing comment left by another reader and you just have to see what else they have to say in their blog, so one more click before you retire won’t hurt. And then you read five or six posts, rather than just one, and find yourself commenting and reading the comments entered by other visitors, and notice another comment which makes you think about things differently. So . . . better check out his/her blog, too . . . until the next thing you know it is 1:30 a.m. and Conan O’Brien is signing off in the background as you finally stumble toward your bed, thinking, “I’m going to be so sorry when the alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m.”

Mr. Bernstein wraps up his article by advising writers to relax and enjoy writing. “Find a voice and use it,” he says. “Establish a rhythm, so your writing comes naturally and your readers experience it as a natural part of their day or their week.”

I am convinced that, in order to establish and maintain a rhythm, we must first maintain a healthy balance in our lives between pursuing our own creative ventures and experiencing and learning from others’ artistry. I have been a musician for virtually my entire life. For the past three years, my particular passion has been the flute. Determined to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a flutist, I purchased a beginner model, commenced private lessons, and soon began performing as a soloist and in ensembles. Part of my journey to becoming the best possible flutist I can is gaining an appreciation of the artistry of the world’s most renowned flutists. It would be impossible for me to even achieve mere competency as a flutist were I not exposed to the playing of other, highly accomplished flutists in order to understand their technical prowess, experience their emotive playing, become informed about and attempt to model their rehearsal methods, etc.

And so it is with writing. To find one’s voice and its rhythm, it is absolutely vital that we read the work of other writers who demonstrate exemplary technical skills, observing the various mechanisms they employ to inspire and move us.

During any given day, I listen to and play many different kinds of music, all of which informs my own music-making on various instruments. So it is with writing . . . to be an effective writer within one’s own genre, it is important to be exposed to as many different kinds of writing as possible in order to learn from each.

A few months ago, Tammi shared an article in which the author challenged writers to stick to a writing routine, selecting a time and place and working for a designated period of time each and every day. She suggested “writers follow the 45:15 rule. Basically, work for 45 minutes and follow the session with a well-deserved 15 minute break.” I wrote then that I did not believe that kind of rigid schedule would work for me as a writer, but my track record proves that a “45 minute rule” does work for me as a reader.

So, like d.challener who declared that he is “making a concerted effort to fill up the creative tank with some of the books from the two foot stack of books in [his] nightstand,” I am embarking upon a campaign to restore balance to my reading life. I am reaffirming my resolution to read from the many fictional works in my book stacks for at least forty-five minutes each and every day of the week, whether it is during lunch, just before bed or at some other time.

And now I am signing off to begin adhering to the “45 minute rule” with the top book on the stack: Wicked by Gregory Maguire.

How about you? When do you read and what types of works do you enjoy? How do you maintain a healthy reading balance in your life? Is this something with which you also struggle? If so, I challenge you to give the “45 minute rule” a try and then let me know how it works for you by leaving a comment!

Originally published at Write Stuff.

1 Comment

  1. I have tried the 45 minute rule, but I don’t feel that I can do it consistently and maintain my usual level of competencies. However, I tried it for painting and I was surprised by the outcome. With a time limit, I was able to produce more work and found it easier to resume painting after the 15 minute break.

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