Tag Archives: Reading

New books are like locomotives

A week or so ago, a friend turned me onto a podcast that I’d never heard of. On Being is an exploration of the Big Questions of life, where Krista Tippett, the host, interviews folks from varied backgrounds and uses their experiences and perspectives to explore what it means to be human.

The first episode I listened to was an interview with Martin Sheen, an actor I’ve followed my whole life who may be better known these days as the father of Charlie Sheen.

I knew that Sheen is a devout Catholic and activist, but knew little more about it than that and a movie he co-produced with another son, Emilio Estevez, called The Way, which is very good.

The conversation was an engaging and seemingly open exploration of Sheen’s pivot back into the Catholicism he grew up with, which came during an emotional, physical and spiritual crisis that famously came to a head during the filming of Apocalypse Now.

Around that time, he re-connected with Terrence Malick, the director who gave Sheen his first big break in the movie Badlands, with Sissy Spacek. Malick became a sort of spiritual guide for Sheen as he found his way back to faith in God. It was during this time, as the two were living in Paris, that Malick gave Sheen a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s doorstopper of a masterpiece, which Sheen says transformed his life.

The Brothers Karamazov
My copy of “The Brothers Karamazov”

Hearing Sheen’s passion for the book, as well as Tippett’s own perspectives on it, piqued my curiosity. For days, the book floated in and out of my mind until I finally decided that I had to read it. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten lazy in my reading habits; enough so that I made a resolution to be more intentional about reading books in 2016.

New books, especially “important” ones, are intimidating things to begin. At least for me. I’m a completest, and once I set out on the course of a book, I hate to give up on it. I’ve never read any of the Russian novels, and approached this one like one might approach a great physical undertaking, like hiking the Appalachian Trail. I knew there would be easy stretches and hard stretches; moments of elation and moments of wanting to give up and go back to social media. But I also knew that if I stuck it out, eventually I’d come out the other side, just as hikers eventually emerge from the 100 Mile Wilderness and approach Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

I also knew that, just as hikers experience a kind of depression over the final miles of the AT, knowing that the experience will soon be relegated to mere memory, I’d probably grow to love this book and experience the same reluctance to closing it for the final time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today, I’m on page 4, struggling to find my rhythm. I started the book two nights ago, very late, and stopped reading on page 4 when I got too sleepy to go on. The next night, I picked up where I’d left off, but had no recollection of this Fyodor Pavlovitch and why the narrator despised him. So, I went back and started over and got back to nearly the same stopping point as before. Today, while having lunch at my desk at work, I picked up the novel again and remembered how I’d gotten there.

That was comforting.

To me, getting a new book started is like getting a locomotive up to speed. Rarely does it happen quickly. Entering a new book is entering a new and alien landscape, which takes a while to get my bearings. One of my favorite novels is Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, which I first read when I was in college. I recently re-read the book, and because of it’s familiarity, I fell into it as easy as one might slip on a favorite old sweater or an old pair of running shoes.

But the first time I read Kesey’s book, I couldn’t get past those first pages that set the table to save my life. I couldn’t get his rhythm. I didn’t understand why or how he was building this world and why the Wakonda Auga River was so important to describe in the way he described it.

So, I started it, then stopped, then started again and stopped again. This went on a few times until I finally made up my mind that I wasn’t going to abandon the book and pushed through those early pages, those first few miles of trail, until my rhythm and Kesey’s fell into lockstep. It was a magical experience, that first time through that book, and I remember being so proud of myself for having pushed through an uncomfortable and clumsy beginning to discover a jewel of a novel that no one else seemed to know anything about. I felt like Columbus discovering The New World.

In a few hours, I’ll climb the stairs and crawl into bed with this big, green book and pick up the thread and journey a few more miles into this strange terrain, looking for guideposts, marking my way and learning the lay of the land, confident that one night soon, I’ll know my way around and then the miles will start to fly by and I’ll experience the bliss of getting lost in a great book.

Be a Doer, Not a Talker-Abouter

I was looking through some old files and found this essay from 2006 that I wrote for “Business First.” It’s a good reminder for me.  Maybe it is for you too…

6064828421_02499ee2f6I recently attended the funeral of a cousin who had been a big part of my youth but had slipped to the fringes of my adult life.  She was fifty-two and left a husband and three children between the ages of nine and twenty-five.  Her death was sudden and terrible and brought the extended family together to mourn and remember.

At the service, I sat in the back, and as the preacher worked his way through the message, I watched the family and friends gathered there and wondered what they thought.  I also wondered about my cousin, her regrets and what they might have been.  After a while, I turned the question on myself and gave it serious thought.

About a year ago, I made a leap of faith and acted on a desire that I’d been putting off for years.  When I was in my twenties, it was easy to avoid things – there was always tomorrow – but the back end of my thirties had left me with some looming regrets that were getting harder to ignore.

The biggest of these was an unfulfilled desire to write, to tell stories about things that were important to me.  I grew up telling stories and dreaming about having them published, but feared the vulnerability that comes with putting thoughts to paper.  I had made a few lame attempts, but retreated to my books and journal at the first twinge of exposure.

The pangs of regret were slight, at first, and easy to ignore, but they persisted and grew to the point of distraction, until my fear of regret overcame my fear of being judged and goaded me into action.

There were many false-starts.  After a lot of shuffling around the house, I realized I couldn’t work there.  The distractions were too much.  Evenings were the same.  The intrusions on my schedule forced me to consider other options, and I ended up at a local coffee shop, hanging out for a couple hours each morning before work.  I hated to give up sleep, but it was the best option.

Those first weeks were spent reading and thinking about writing.  I didn’t put a single word to paper.  I didn’t know where to begin, so I read how-to books by Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and John Dufresne, as well as countless pieces gathered from the internet.  I pored over each text with a red pen and yellow highlighter, looking for clues and gaining some much needed discipline.

One morning, a few months later, I showed up, as usual, but when I grabbed the book I’d been reading, I felt weird.  I opened it and struggled to get through a single page.  I couldn’t focus.  I tried again, but my mind kept drifting off to a story idea.  I couldn’t shake it, so I put the book away and took out a legal pad and started writing.  Within moments I was drawn into an alternate reality and became so focused that I was late for work.  I went back to the story at lunch, that day, and couldn’t wait to pick it up the following morning.  I was on my way.

A mentor encouraged me to keep busy and produce as much work as I could, believing that a high volume of output would help to speed up the learning curve.  He also believed in the pressure of deadlines and suggested setting fake ones until real deadlines came along.  I followed his advice and soon found myself juggling four deadlines with the stuff I was doing for myself.

There’s a quote by Woody Allen that goes, “80% of success is just showing up.”  I love that line and repeat it often.  I have great faith in the idea behind it because, after showing up at a coffee shop every morning for more than a year, reading and thinking and staring out windows, I finally had a breakthrough.  I put a word on a piece of paper, and then another, and then another until I had many legal pads filled with words.  It’s difficult work and I still worry about what people will think, but I’m having too much fun to stop now.  My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.