Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Reading, Writing, Guilt, Fear

                I’m trying to decide if I should feel guilty about a recent development in my reading habits. For about the past year, I’ve noticed myself doing more of two things. I very seldom used to simply skim things, trying to pull out only the essential gist. Now I do so quite regularly. That one doesn’t trouble me too much; in fact, it’s probably a pretty essential skill in developing better filters as the information cascades over us faster and faster. The other development nags at me. If I am not enjoying a book, I find myself racing through it so I can finish. Sometimes, I am loath to admit, I don’t even bother finishing.
                Many people may see this as no big deal. I also could rationalize this in many ways. I’m busier than ever, and there is more to choose from than ever, so I need to be more selective. After all, with so many books and so little time, we have to be choosy. Plus there are now blogs and Twitter streams to follow, websites to browse, and on-line reviews to check before deciding to purchase anything. I wish I could argue that as my mind has developed, I have become much more discerning as a critic. I’m certainly quicker to say something is not very good and thus not worth my time.
                That never used to happen. I had a personal rule: if I started a book, I was going to finish it. Why? Out of respect for the author.
                Like many young people who grew up reading a great deal and later majored in English, I imagined myself becoming a writer. I would even call myself a “writer” in certain circumstances. And I was writing, sort of. Fragments of stories, even a few finished short tales. I had notebooks full of ideas and character sketches. I published a few brief reviews of things. For my classes I wrote very creative grammar tests and even a textbook. Later on I published a few longer articles through the years. Now I try mightily to keep this blog evolving in interesting ways.
                But to write a book…that strikes me as so incredibly daunting. I’ve been told that this blog has the seeds of a book, and that may be true; I can’t see it. The sustained effort, the massive combination of breadth and depth, the linear development, the stylistic fine-tuning—these things and so much more have to go into it. As legendary sportswriter Red Smith said in response to a question about the demands of producing a daily column: “Writing is easy. You just slice open a vein and bleed.”
                So that’s where my guilt comes in. I don’t feel right being overly critical, literally dismissive, of someone who does something that I can’t see myself ever accomplishing. I’ve dreamed about it, thought about it, made tentative stabs at it…but I’ve never truly gone for it. The reasons are numerous, and they share a common denominator—fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of starvation. Fear of discovering a lack of talent. All part of our lizard brain.
                As a school leader, an educator, and a parent, I think one of the most crucial things I can do is try to help people confront fear and move through it. True growth requires genuine and honest introspection, and that demands courage. The criticism—bad and good—must, to a degree, turn inward.
                One reason I like writing this blog is because I feel a twinge of fear about each post. But I have to put myself out there. It somewhat justifies my criticism of some writers.  And perhaps someday I can write that book; maybe the seeds in the blog will sprout and blossom. The idea still scares me, but I have hope.


doug0077 said...


I follow librarian Nancy Pearle's advice. Give a book a 50 page chance and if it hasn't grabbed you, put it down. If you are over 50, subtract your age from 100 and only give the book that many pages to get you hooked. Life is too short to stick with bad books. I would say that I finish 90% of the fiction books I start and usually on 25% of the non-fiction. Most non-fiction books would have made better long articles in magazines - way too much filler.

As to writing, I have always subscribed to the "Do what you do out of love for the thing itself" advice of Anne Dillard. If you love writing, you will write and you will find readers. Or as I say, write to amuse yourself first!

Good luck,


Mark Crotty said...

Thanks for the comment, Doug. I may start to use that advice from Nancy Pearle. And grat point about writing!