reading season*

Why I thought that launching my children’s writing career would be easier after my first baby arrived eludes me.

I had this idyllic image in my mind: I am typing on a vintage typewriter, a steaming mug of coffee to my right. I am wrapped in cashmere, my hair piled in a mussy, yet sexy way. I occasionally rock my baby’s bassinet to keep her from fussing as I create an inspiring book that would have parents reaching for their wallets and writers thinking, “That’s the book I should have written.”

The reality: I don’t own a vintage typewriter, I gave up coffee to breast-feed, cashmere and babies don’t mix, my hair is more messy than mussy and the bassinet did not rock so much as provide a perfect place for me to stub my toe.

Another pesky detail: I lost my desire to write after my daughter arrived. Devoting all my energy to her left me with nothing for the page.

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After the blessed event, I fell from sight: no more monthly writer get-togethers, no more inspiring weekend workshops, no more energy for writing.

When I finally hauled myself to a writer’s event, I heard myself apologetically saying, “I’m not so much a writer as a reader right now.” That was my red flag that something needed to change.

I decided to get serious about what I was reading, rather than beat myself up about not writing.

During the first few months of my daughter’s life I read stacks of writer interviews. Every writer emphasized that it is crucial to read and read and read a lot. In one of those interviews an author recalled how she got serious about writing. She said, “I read for an entire year.” How much hope that one sentence offered this new mom! That little island of a sentence amidst a sea of writing advice made my decision to start a reading journal legitimate.

Of course, the problem wasn’t that I wasn’t reading; the problem was I wasn’t reading in a skill-enhancing way. Pre-reading-journal, my slipshod routine was to grab a bestseller, select something from one of the library displays and hit the new releases shelf. I was fortifying my literary foundation exactly zilch.

I approached the library the same way that I approached grocery shopping at age 18 and with similar results: I came with no plan and left with bags full of incoherent junk. I was reading the literary equivalent of Twinkies. I needed to be reading pomegranates, quinoa and dark chocolate.

If I was going to turn my reading season into something of value, I needed focus and discipline. I needed to read the kinds of books that I want to write. My reading journal gave me the impetus for that.

My life-with-a-newborn reality was that I could read while breast-feeding. I could glean wisdom from the lines of masters on only three hours of sleep. When my daughter fell asleep on my chest, I could read without waking her. Better yet, I could read aloud to her. And reading gave so much back to me: companionship, hope, ideas.

Reading was much less demanding than writing. Writing, pulling words from my muddled, sleep-deprived mind remained an impossible punishment.

I can hear childless people and more proficient mothers thinking, “Write while your baby sleeps!” To that, I say, “Good idea.” I just had no creative energy to put pen to paper during those first six, OK nine, months. Everything extraneous, everything beyond sleeping and eating fell away. I was in survival mode. The only thing I was writing were thank-you notes. And I was OK with that. What I wasn’t OK with was being shut-off from words and ideas.

I know this isn’t everyone’s I-just-had-my-first-baby experience. And good news gentlemen, you don’t even have to have a baby to start a reading journal. You can start one just because you want to be a better writer. Of course, sometimes life conspires to bring our writing efforts to a screaming halt. We find ourselves spending weeks in a hospital ward or thrust into an unknown territory called divorce. Whatever the cause, you must temporarily put writing aside and deal with the crisis at hand. A reading journal is the perfect stopgap. It can serve as a compass, a welcome anchor, at times like these.

Not that you must have a crisis to start a reading journal. I encourage all of you with a more balanced life than mine to start one and reap its benefits.

Getting started is easy. Pick a notebook that suits you. The science-loving part of me selected a laboratory notebook for my reading journal. The pages are formatted as if I am conducting some fabulous experiment, which I am. It’s called, “Make Kelsi Not So Ignorant.”

Give yourself a boost. I printed the list of books that I’d checked out in the past year from my library and jotted some of them in my journal so that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the yawning emptiness of blank pages.

Make your own reading list. In the back pages, I pasted a list of Newbery winners, I printed my personal list gathered from notes, I taped in a newspaper story in which Ann Patchett recommends books and authors. I wedged in a list of 100 books from the BBC, a few of Cynthia Crossen’s “Dear Book Lover” columns and other lists gleaned from who knows where.

And then, I started reading.

When I finish a book, I list its title, author and publisher. I jot down the date. Then, I articulate what the book offered me as a writer. Sometimes, I transcribe beautiful passages or words (with their definitions) I had to look up in the dictionary. Maybe I note the way the author organized his ideas, maybe it’s something she did that I found distracting. Sometimes it’s the tone that takes my breath away. If I start a book and don’t finish it, I still record it, noting what made me put it down. Each book offers lessons for me to learn.

Keeping a reading journal has had some unexpected benefits:

  • Formalizing my reading endeavors has made me take my craft seriously. I don’t feel like it’s a treat to read instead of mop the floors. I am developing my vocabulary, studying form, learning how to write.
  • This reading journal is my history. On the Tuesday before Christmas I may have gone to the grocery store. But, I also finished “The Grass Harp” and was struck by its perfect beauty and the way Truman Capote characterized Dolly.  My life is not just about managing the tsunami of daily chores; I now have proof of this.
  • I have become a book-title hunter. Reading the first volume of “The Paris Review” interviews was an entirely different experience with my reading journal. I kept it next to me and added names of authors whose interviews were riveting.
  • My reading efforts are organized. I know exactly where I put that book title my friend said I must read. I don’t have to search for it. When my daughter and I go to the library, I just slip my journal into the diaper bag.
  • Reading is an efficient way to vicariously experience things. I can move to Germany for an afternoon without learning the language, selling my house or relocating my family. This is a great perk for someone who often stays home because it’s easier than packing mounds of baby gear.
  • Recording and reflecting upon the books that I devote hours of my life reading guarantees that they don’t disappear from my life. I know them. I pin them down like preserved butterflies and they are less ephemeral. I remember their names.

I have accepted, no, I have embraced this time period as my reading season. I hope you do, too.

*This is the original version of a story that, after a massive overhaul, was published in the Nov./Dec. 2010 SCBWI Bulletin. You can read that version of the article here.