The Strange Miracle of Reading

written by Melissa Connolly

Last week, my colleague Keaton’s blog dealt with the unread books that line his shelf, the sheer mass of what he calls “Mount Everest.”

The same week I read Keaton’s draft, the great blog brainpickings.org published “Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience.” This piece took the topic – what books mean to us – and reviewed what everyone from Virginia Woolf to Kafka, from Rebecca Solnit to Galileo had to say on the subject of the magic and mystery of the book.  From Solnit’s essay “Flight”: “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.”

And Herman Hesse, who writes with great beauty in his 1930 essay “The Magic of the Book,” “…there are a few who remain constantly bewitched by the strange miracle of letters and words (which once, to be sure, were an enchantment and magic formula to everyone). From these few come the readers. They discover as children the few poems and stories … and instead of turning their backs on these things after acquiring the ability to read they press forward into the realm of books and discover step by step how vast, how various and blessed this world is!”

I thought about my own bookshelves, and how I read.  I thought about the hope that sits in the unopened book. How opening a book is in some ways the ultimate act of faith.

I was talking a few weeks ago with a friend, a professor of English, who is no doubt one of the finest close readers I know. He can take apart a sentence with intelligence, humor and dexterity, find meaning in each word choice. He can map out the invisible connections to entire worlds of philosophy and culture by looking at the manner in which a sentence has been constructed, the random interjection, the adjective, the simile. He finds the buried analogy, layers of poetic meaning in almost every phrase. And it is, for me, at least, a miracle to watch him pull it all apart, word by lovely word, one discovery leading to another. He finds entire worlds in each sentence.

I wonder, sometimes, how he ever gets through an entire book, this elegant and endless close read. I admire it so much. But I don’t read that way.  I cannot.

To me, books are magic, Hesse’s “strange miracle of letters and words.”  When I read a new book, and it takes hold, I become unaware of the individual word, the beautiful phrase.  I become unaware of the physical act of reading, how my eyes must be moving along the page. Instead my mind and the words that float in front of me merge, and we are wrapped together in the world the book has made, speeding, floating along the periphery of the shadows that characters become inside my mind. I do not stop to admire the analogy, the metaphor, the hidden drops of underlying psychology in individual words.  I do not stop to eat or sleep, I forget work. Friends and family. A book can be an addiction, a new bad boyfriend, an obsession, all-consuming with its demands for time and attention.

As I have gotten older, I approach new books with caution, knowing how they can take over my life for the time I move through them.

So now, my bookshelves, like my friend Keaton’s, are lined with the books I haven’t yet gotten to, books that hold the possibility for me of love and life and journeys into the souls of those who inhabit another world. Books that will take me out of the work I need to do each day. So I hesitate before I open the next strange miracle, knowing that what lies inside could take me from my work, my purpose. Friends and family. Sleep.

But I keep all of these books, live among them, the stories I have not yet read, the characters I have not yet met.  There is hope in each one of them. And that is the miracle.

 

Sit Still, Look Pretty

written by Keaton Tennant

 

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Every three months or so, I do what I call “climbing Mount Everest,” which is really just cleaning and reorganizing my white bookcase. I call it climbing Mount Everest because I go from the bottom shelf to the top, emptying out the many books that I’ve bought and never read and passing a Clorox wipe over every surface of the painted white wood. I also regather books that I’ve bought and stuffed into the drawers of my desk, piled up underneath my bed, and hidden between coats in my closet. By the end of the first uphill climb and after spreading out all of the books on my bed, I realize, I need to stop buying books.

Seriously, there is an inverse relationship with the space in my bookcase and the amount of money I owe Amazon. I try and redirect the blame every which way and say “But I needed all of those Ina Garten cookbooks,” or say “I was going to read all of those Shakespeare plays for a project over last summer,” or say “I just really love Trevor Noah so I buy every issue of every magazine his name is merely mentioned in,” but I know I’m not the only one guilty for helping accelerate deforestation.

We read because we expect a good story. You want to finish a book and go tell your friends about it even though they probably don’t care. It’s an emotional commitment for the reader even when it’s just reading through the ingredients and steps of a recipe. In each of the books I owned, different feelings were explored through the pages, paragraphs, and every last word. Collecting these books become something of a massive repertoire of emotion, in which different combinations were kept trapped inside like butterflies in nets. Even if I don’t read them, the idea of the assemblage of feeling contained within a copy of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance or Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest or even The Taste of Home Baking Book keep me curious and attracted.

A list of the books on my shelf that I haven’t read include:

  • Healing the Angry Brain (this was given to me by a friend who says I have anger management issues)
  • 101 Cocktails
  • and the most important one, a dream interpreting book called 1001 Dreams which I bought after I had a dream that popular musician Zayn Malik cheated on me

I don’t know when, or if, I’ll just finally say enough is enough, stop buying books, and read the ones I have, but even if I never read them, they still look pretty living on my shelves.

Rejected

written by Melissa Connolly

A few weeks ago, in the email newsletter from Submittable, a compelling lead: Kim Liao urges us to try for 100 rejections per year (http://lithub.com/why-you-should-aim-for-100-rejections-a-year/)

That same week, I had gotten two rejections in one day and I was feeling pretty terrible about myself. Two! It doesn’t take much for me.

I had spent a lot of time looking at journals and very carefully submitting pieces to only a few journals at a time, remembering each of the few journals I submitted to. And every day after I’d think, maybe this will be the day I will get an acceptance. I imagined for myself a glorious future as a published writer that began at the moment that X Journal recognized my very special genius.

Of course, I had it backwards.

Kim Liao has covered the idea about coveting the rejection pretty well, so I encourage you to read this piece and embrace this idea – to aim for as many rejections as possible. To go for failure because in failure, you’ll get more practice.

The fact of the matter is, the history of literature is full of tales of famous writers rejected countless times.  Failure is simply the price we pay, the accumulation of practice.

So I’ll just say this: If I’m aiming for publication, then it’s about me, my status, my career.  If I’m aiming for rejection, it’s about the work. I’m not so worried then about what each reader at each journal is thinking, I’m not second guessing myself or thinking about what Joe or Sally wants to read.  Instead, I’m concentrating on the story and meaning. On writing as much as possible and about what I want to say.  And letting the failures stack up, becoming indifferent to rejection, as I practice my craft.

After all, if we worry too much about success, that’s what is taking up space in our head. Nothing sucks up creativity more than thinking too much about sales or awards or failure, about pleasing someone else, letting all those other voices edit you, stop you, be your muse.

If we worry about too much about the reader on the other end, we’re not pursuing a vision, we’re writing what we imagine someone else wants to read.  And that might be good, but it is very rarely great.

Writus Interruptus

written by Melissa Connolly

I had been having a long conversation with my friend and partner-in-crime of this site, Kelly McMasters, about the guilt I felt about going away on the writing retreat I allowed myself.  To be honest, I hadn’t felt guilt until I talked to others about the retreat, to which people said things like, don’t you feel bad, leaving your kids at home? And I thought, they’re teenagers, they’re celebrating that I’m not home.

But still that feeling of inadequacy lingered, that “bad mom” label.

And a day or two after our conversation, Kelly sent me a link to a great story in New York magazine, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom.”  http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/04/portrait-motherhood-creativity-c-v-r.html – definitely worth a read for anyone balancing parenting and writing, or probably any artistic endeavor.  The central truth behind the piece was that the space one needs to create, the silence, the thoughtfulness, that unknowable thing that creatives require – is it introversion? selfishness? solitude? – is almost impossible to reconcile with the neediness, the constant hum that is the parenting of young children. That the emotional and physical lives of small people and the separation required to be a writer are totally incompatible.

And I smugly thought, well, those days are behind me.

I had a day or two more of edits to get through, which I thought I could finish in my room as my children did their own thing over a long holiday weekend.  And a funny thing happened.  The children who ignore me as I read downstairs, or clean, or ask them questions, were suddenly at the closed door every five minutes as I was writing.  “Whatcha doing Mom?” I heard over and over again, an accompanying light insistent knock.

It was like they knew that behind that closed door I was with their one true rival.

And I was reminded of that great first line in Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction” – “And for what, except for you, do I feel love?”

In the middle of a writing day, it’s a question that I struggle with.

Bonfire of the Versions

written by Melissa Connolly

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Last month I took a few days for myself, a kind of retreat, to work on the edits for my novel. After three years, the novel has been through several workshops,  advisers and the occasional Tuesday night writers’ group.  In two bursting shopping bags, I brought every copy of red-lined sections and chapters I had gotten back from all my colleagues and professors, all the comments – good and bad. Together, the 2 bags weighed about 50 pounds, the equivalent of 10 reams of paper…or about 5,000 pages.

I envisioned a Bonfire of the Versions for myself, a fire quickly set, quickly burned, at sunset of my final night of the retreat, a symbolic letting go of all the versions I was leaving behind in this edit. Perhaps I’d dance around the fire, some mystic Celtic ceremony. Paper burns easily, right?

Wrong. As it turns out, 50 pounds of paper is more like a really big log. I needed kindling to get the paper going and then it kept blowing out. Fizzling out, really. The smoke was terrible, black and gray, so much worse than burning fragrant pine or clean dry beech logs.  It wasn’t a campfire. It was a smoldering pile of garbage. I worked for 45 minutes trying to get flames that could lick the sky and learned a hard lesson. That much paper is a tree.  It doesn’t burn so easily.

I put it out the smoldering, smoky gray ashes with a bucket of water, stuffed the now wet, heavy and singed paper in two big black garbage bags and took it to the dump.  The lesson being: for a writer, recycling the paper is probably a better metaphor.