10 May 2009

Reading and writing: 2009 so far.

A few evenings ago, I stood at the stove holding a spatula, tossing around a beef stir-fry without even looking at the pan. Why? Because in the other hand, I was holding a book about two inches from my face, reading it so intently that my lips silently formed each word.

Then, I burned the poor garlic, and that is when I knew: I have officially become a reader. Not just one who reads books from time to time, but one who devours books and views them as treasures, who won't let certain ones out of her sight, and who has allowed the love of books to infuse her entire being.

More evidence of this fact: I returned from the airport on my way home from Nashville. As I began to unpack my luggage, there was a moment of sheer panic. Where was my copy of Bird By Bird? It wasn't in my backpack, and it wasn't in the bedroom. What would I do if I couldn't find it? I didn't want to replace it. I didn't want just any copy of the book. I wanted my copy, the one I had victoriously uncovered after a scavenger hunt-like search at the used book store, with the yellowing dog-eared pages and the bug splat on page 32. And then I found it - it was there, under that stack of mail on the coffee table. Phew. These are the types of neuroses you find yourself dealing with, once you have become a bona fide reader.

Yes, I've learned a lot about myself over the past five months of this Year of Reading and Writing, ever since we said goodbye to TV and sent the DISH box away with the mailman. As the unfortunate stir-fry episode indicates, I find myself wanting to read morning, noon, and night. I wake up early, make breakfast, brew a French press of Enfusia, and read. Pull up a chair by the vegetable garden on my lunch break, and read {and get a suntan}. Read after work until dinnertime, and sometimes read before bed until sleepy eyes just won’t read anymore.

Today, it’s sublimely sunny with a perfect periwinkle sky and the quiet hum of summer coming soon. My bronzed shoulders are a testament to the many hours I have spent reading outside recently while sitting in the iron patio chair that has been dragged to the back of the yard so I can observe the vegetable beds over the edges of my book pages. This exact spot is where I made it to the last page of my 9th book of the year, Blue Like Jazz, another memoir. Although I like to think that my reading interests are eclectic, I've noticed I keep gravitating back to memoirs. I am more than inclined towards them; I am fascinated with the details of other people’s lives. And not as a means of escape, because so far, I cannot say that I would really want any of their lives as my own. But I find a little bit of myself in Anne Lamott, Donald Miller, Sue Monk Kidd. And then I discover other worlds I’ve never explored, perspectives I’ve never seen.

Book #10 is Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the one I feared had been left on the airplane. In the intro, she says that writing teaches you to pay attention. “Writing motivates you to look closely at life, as it lurches by and tramps around.” And I would say the same about reading…because reading other people’s details makes me notice my life details more fully now, like the azure tint of the sky through my kitchen window at precisely 7:02pm every night. Or the way the spring wind rustles through grass like an invisible hairbrush – back and forth, back and forth.

As for the writing, well, it's a slow process. I do desperately want to write a book about my own life’s details, to tell my stories. But I find that there are so many stories, so many details, so many memories to revisit. Anne Lamott says that the writers she knows “all ended up just the tiniest bit resentful when we found the one fly in the ointment: that at some point we had to actually sit down and write.” At this point, all I have is a handful of incredibly disjointed "chapters" that end abruptly in the middle of a thought, such as "and I loved it" and "we were a little family." These are what Anne Lamott calls “sh*tty first drafts,” and I love her for it.

The writing has been therapeutic though, and more than anything I know I’m working on my writing by all the reading I’m doing. To be a good writer, you must first be a good reader – I firmly believe this.

Another revelation? Taking time to read and write has plunged me deeper into a life of simplicity. I say “plunged” because that’s how it felt – one Saturday afternoon I was happily curled up on the couch watching Giada At Home, and the next moment the TV was quiet and dark and useless except for viewing The West Wing episodes on DVD.

But then, a beautiful thing happened. My thoughts began to change. I started to be more content with my own life. I started to feel a pleasant naïveté with pop culture, not wanting to be bothered by the latest ads or another product that I somehow needed. Ads just annoy me now, to be honest. The more I've eliminated extra stuff, the more I just don't want them in my life anymore. Instead of watching shows about people cooking, I’m cooking more {even though I sometimes burn the garlic}. Instead of watching shows about fake relationships and dramas, I’m a part of my own, real-life relationships more. I realize how much I used TV to escape, to disengage with my own life. Reading and writing helps me to re-engage with my own life, rather than escape from it.

On Good Friday, we went to a friend's backyard pool in an opulently wealthy part of Dallas where shade trees are 100 years old, and sparkles of light are cast through their branches onto expansive bi-weekly manicured lawns. The pool was a natural deep blue, with flagstones surrounding it so it felt kind of like a natural swimming hole carved out of a mountain. I dipped my toes in the water and then reclined on a small strip of flagstone until I was nestled between the ornamental grass landscaping and the edge of the pool. The late afternoon sun shone on my face, forcing new freckles to pop out across my nose. In that spot, I finished Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies and knew that the book had changed me forever. Toward the end, Lamott reminisces about her own mother as she looks over old photographs from her imperfect childhood. And something was sparked deep in my soul at that moment, so much that I had to pause, and put the book face-down on my chest. I surprised myself when I said aloud, "I know for sure now that I want to be a mother" - right there, on Good Friday, laying on my back on the flagstone of someone else's back yard.

That is the power that books have, to stir those places that are somehow buried or unseeable. That is why I'm a reader, and that is why I will be a writer some day.

13 comments:

gingerswann said...

ah! at your recommendation, i shall soon be purchasing my own copy of bird by bird. :) i recently had the hardest time deciding between that and an f scott fitzgerald book... fitzgerald won in the end, but i'm going to need a fabulous new summer read for the pool soon!

Shawna said...

thankful for the constant stirring and wrestling that has taken place as you pray and ponder motherhood. i am confident God will give you mercies new each morning and grace each day. my heart smiled reading those last few lines. :)

amy said...

you're already a writer;-)

the bowlin family said...

you are an incredible writer! your thoughts always inspire me to sit and think. thanks for sharing. love this update on the year of reading and writing.

robyn a. jones said...

she is one of my favorite authors of all time. i know what you mean about panicking when you can't find something that is near and dear to you. i can't wait to read the tangerine book. i've ordered it from amazon (used) and am looking forward to it! i'm always inspired by you. it was so good to see you a few weeks ago.. it did my heart good!

Lauren said...

oh, stine! this is my favorite entry of yours in awhile <3 first of all, i just love reading about someone else (a dear friend, no less!) who *gets* what it is to be a reader :) second of all, i loooove traveling mercies. i love it on its own merit, and also on account of the fact that it plays a part in mine and robert's story <3 third of all, i gasped aloud when i read your proclamation about motherhood. you will be SUCH a great mama!!! and finally, YES- you will be a writer some day! actually, i'd contend that you are a writer NOW, and will simply graduate to the level of published author 'someday' ;)

<3

maryh said...

i loved reading this. great thoughts. i have been ignoring everything else this week during the time that grant naps and just reading - almost through with girl meets god. her other book, mudhouse sabbath just arrived, so that is next! our conversation back when you visited inspired me to read slower, so i am trying to really absorb and not race!

linda said...

I don't know what allows you to be defined as a writer but I thought I'd drop in to say I think you already are. I've been blessed and inspired by finding what I feel is a virtual kindred spirit if that is possible. This made me wish I had more time to read. Your words inspire and not every writer can do that.

lisa said...

i agree with what others have said...stine, you are already a writer! your words inspire me and others - that is a special gift :)

jenni said...

Welcome to my reader-world! And you are well on your way to becoming a writer - keep at it, always. Bird by Bird is such a good guide, one of my all-time favorite books.

Schaufensterbabe said...

This is a very interesting post. I am also a writer and know your struggle. Good luck!

Natalie Afton said...

YES. yes yes yes. i determined about a month ago to stop wasting so much time online (perez hilton, really?) and read and write instead, and within a week, i felt more contented, more thoughtful, more intentional-- and like I'd learned some. And I was reading fiction. It's easy to put books in the category of strictly leisure (easy for me, at least), but they are so much more than that. they help us think. here's to it!

stephanieamber said...

I bought Traveling Mercies to read a month or so ago - can't wait to get to it :)