Speed Reading

When everyone around me is checking book after book off their reading list, I start to wonder if I really should take Tim Ferris’s advice about learning speed reading skills. I could get through so many books, and it would be so impressive. Imagine how smart I would get if I could finish 2-3 books a week!

Sometimes I find myself inadvertently employing some of those methods—skimming paragraphs, taking note only of the main ideas. Some books aren’t worth any more attention than this. But what I’ve realized is that the books I love deserve so much more. The best writers hide their treasures within unexpected imagery and clever wording. If you don’t take the time to unpack each sentence, then you’re missing the best part.

As I read Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, I can’t help but marvel at the depth to which her writing draws me in. If I start to read too quickly, a phrase or image will jump out and make me pause, then reread the last paragraph to find what I’ve missed.

Her words are so thick I can almost chew them. They’re so rich that I have to run my tongue over them, tasting all the subtle flavors. And they nourish me, filling up my hollow insides, giving me strength through their beauty.

To give you an example, her narrative on dealing with grief is especially poignant:

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.

I’m pretty sure that it is only by experiencing that ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way that we come to be healed—which is to say that we come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace.

While I disagree with some of the conclusions she draws in the book, her writing awakens something inside me that leaves me craving more and inspires me to try to reach others in at least a glimmer of the way she has touched me. If you want to open yourself up to this transforming art, then you have to slow down and pay attention to more than the plot line. For books like this, speed reading will ruin your experience in the same way that rushing through life will sap the joy you can gain by living in the moment.

Don’t succumb to the pressure to read faster. It’s not about the number of books you can put on your list. Instead, read deeper. Make sure you’re getting the most out of everything. If it’s a flavorless, slimy book on marketing that you just HAVE to read if you ever want to succeed in your career, then plug your nose and gulp it down like the medicine that it is. Otherwise, throw that book out the window and go find yourself some true nourishment.

Stephen King on Reading

As a child, I devoured hundreds of books. I can honestly say that without that escape, I might not have made it through middle school alive. I remember how the cruel world of reality would fall away as I lost myself in the words of Chaim Potok or Toni Morrison. I believe that what writing skill I do have comes from all those books.

I would bring a book with me everywhere I went. I truly hate the constant chorus of Luddites whining about how cell phones are ruining our lives, but I will admit that having a smartphone has caused me to read a lot less, and I need to change that.

Although Stephen King writes from a time before books became so cumbersome, his exhortation about the importance of reading has reminded me what I’m missing out on:

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books—of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. . . Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

He goes on to explain how these habits can transform your writing.

Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing—of being flattened, in fact—is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Stephen King: On Writing

As many times as my good friend has encouraged me to read Stephen King’s novels, I could never make it past the first few pages. The stories are too full of the voices of his repressed childhood trauma screaming for attention for me to enjoy them. That’s why when TK Coleman and several other people I respect recommended that I read his book On Writing, I was skeptical.

After reading over half the book in the past 24 hours, I’m pleasantly surprised. Although the writing style does not pierce my heart like Anne Lamott’s and I still don’t think I’d like him in person, Stephen King’s writing is highly entertaining and has even made me laugh out loud a few times. In the first section about his history as a writer, he tells captivating stories from his childhood and his struggles with addiction that make it clear that the monsters in his novels are indeed coming from inside of him. But just because he has not resolved his childhood trauma doesn’t mean he hasn’t mastered the art of writing.

In the second section of the book, King delves into practical advice about how to progress from a competent writer to a good writer. He says that bad writers can never become competent or good writers; if you don’t start off as at least competent, then there’s no hope for you. I’m desperately hoping I fall into the latter category.

Here’s one piece of advice that struck me:

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.

More quotes to come.