I had a rough go of things last fall, taking on so much work that I was forced to give up my regular writing practice. And yet, reading about my struggles to stay on top of my teaching and job applications all while thinking that it might be my last year in higher education strikes me now as blissfully unaware of what was lurking just around the corner in 2020.
These past nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster that has tested my mental and physical endurance like never before. #AcWriMo also bridges the end of a fifteen week sprint of a semester that has stretched both me and my students to the breaking point.
And yet, I’m still writing. Not as much as I’d like, but more than I have any right to complain about under these conditions.
The reasons I’m writing more are varied, but rather simple. I’ve had some movement on a few projects such that I now have concrete deadlines. I objectively have less teaching this semester (and a smaller paycheck to prove it). The teaching I have is concentrated in the afternoons four days a week, which often leaves me time to write in the morning even when prep bleeds into that time. I’ve been better about jealously guarding my time such that I consciously schedule more breaks and thus have more energy to write. I also find writing meditative such that turning off anything with updates (email, news, social media) for the time I’m writing gives a nice reprieve from the fever pitch of, well, everything.
In this vein, I am setting for myself some AcWriMo goals that both reaffirm and expand on my annual writing goals, if not following the formula of setting specific and measurable projects to produce.
One hour per work-day dedicated to academic writing projects, with workday defined as Monday through Friday. I hope to use this time to write, particularly once the semester ends, but this time can also be used for reading or researching, as Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega suggested today on Twitter. My writing and research processes are already deeply intertwined, particularly at later stages where I’ll pause the writing to build up a note or clarify a paragraph.
Four posts of substance (TM) for this site, one per week in November. In part this stems from a larger goal of writing here with more regularity, but also just to stretch my writing. I don’t exactly know yet what this goal will result in, but the first two topics I have in mind both develop a point or comment I made on Twitter and are related in some form or another to my various academic interests.
That’s it. Writing is a habit that begets more writing, so I’m keeping my goals modest in the hope that I can blow past the targets.
Note: this is a navel-gazing post offering some reflections on my reading habits an how I keep track of what I read.
I have always been someone who gravitates to books rather than other forms of media. Many of my fondest memories involve sitting, lost in a book, and basking in the untroubled freedom that accompanied an existence where my concern at that moment was whether my seat on a rock or against a tree was comfortable enough.
Of course these days only ever exist in memory.
A funny thing often happens in graduate school for the humanities: reading for fun withers, if it doesn’t disappear altogether. You read so much for work that when you finally get a break, it is much less mentally taxing to play a video game or watch TV than it is to pick up a book. If you do read, it is entirely understandable to read familiar, comforting books. This phenomenon reached its climax for me in early 2013 during my last semester of coursework and the run-up to my comprehensive exams. These exams are designed to prove that you have a grasp of all of the scholarship in your chosen fields, usually by providing a long list of important texts (as determined by your examiners) and culminates in multiple days of written exams followed by an oral defense. I read three books that January, all before the start of the semester, and then not another book until May.
By contrast, I have had only three months total since then that I haven’t finished at least one book, each time caused by reading or attempting to read a particularly hefty book (Don Quixote, War and Peace, Infinite Jest) while also keeping up with writing my dissertation and teaching.
I started reading fiction again almost as soon as I finished my exams because it made me feel more normal, but it took me years to start reading non-fiction again on a regular basis other than what was required for work.
Now, I am a firm advocate of reading in general, but this goes double for anyone who wants to be a writer in any genre. As experts like John Warner are fond of saying, the two foundations of becoming a better writer are 1) read more and 2) write more. I might add reflective practice as a third pillar in that it helps you become a better self-editor, but the first two are both spot on. No idea, however brilliant, is worth much if it can’t be communicated, which is one of the frustrating things about reading some academic prose.
However, the point of this post is not why people should read, but about the reason I can point to specific months when I read nothing or can see how my reading habits developed.
Once upon a time I tracked all of the books I read in a simple list, but then graduate school happened and I stopped. I started this list again in January 2013, this time on Google docs, and that list has undergone several revisions until now where the list has two components, both kept in Google sheets.
Part one is a cover-sheet that shows all of the year-over-year data for (a) books read by month and a sum total; (b) monthly page-count totals; (c) averages for both categories; and (d) the information for specific categories I’m tracking (more on this in a minute). This year I also added a radar chart.
Part two consists of an annual sheet that keeps the list of books read and all of the information I’m tracking that then automatically fills in the data back to the coversheet.
I also created a separate list not yet incorporated into the cover sheet that tracks the academic books that I read in a given year.
If all of this seems overly-structured, well, it is. I find this oasis of order soothing amidst the chaos of existence, but the actual switch to sheets was largely so that I only had to enter data once and the rest of the systems could be automated (I do update the formula the calculates the monthly totals).
The change also allowed me to update and adapt the data I collect about my reading habits, which functions much like a calorie counter for anyone watching their diet. My initial categories were somewhat arbitrary: books by Nobel prize winners and number of original languages, but has expanded to better reflect my reading goals. I still keep tabs on the number of books by Nobel Laureates and the number of original languages, but I have added to these books by African and African American authors, books by women, the countries of origin for the author (English-language literature from India is going to have a different flavor than from the US), and non-fiction books.
Once I started tracking the information, for instance, I learned exactly how few books by women I was reading and so started setting annual goals, such that this year I’m at almost 50%. I still lag behind where I’d like to be in other categories, but the net result is that my reading habits are becoming gradually diversified as I make a conscious effort to seek books by people I had not traditionally read. I don’t like every book I read—that is not part of the deal—but I both enjoy hunting online for new books with interesting sounding plots and have been blown away some of the ones I found.
I might be obsessive about this sort of documentation, which I use to track my writing time and exercise information, but I cannot recommend this general practice highly enough. I appreciated seeing the anti-racist reading lists people put out over the past several months, but, to my mind, that is only a first step. Read the books that are on the trendy list if that is your thing, but building a reflective practice around reading can help fundamentally diversify a reading intake and create long-lasting change.
I’ve developed a routine of setting goals in roughly three categories: quality of life, writing, and reading. At the same time, I returned to meticulously tracking the non-academic reading I do, including raw numbers of books and pages, genres, languages, and author demographics. In general terms, I do pretty well in terms of cultural diversity in my reading, but the practice of recording demographics have revealed exactly how AWFUL I am at reading books by women.
This is not on purpose; to be cliche: some of my favorite authors are women! I am sure that my tendency to track down foreign literature that is translated into English doesn’t help these numbers, but it is a fact that most of what I read is by men. So I’ve made it a particular goal to read more books by women.
Turns out, setting goals and rigorously tracking your progress works! Since first setting to fix this situation, I’ve increased from 2 (6%) to 4 (7.5%) to 8 (13.5%) to 9 (26.5%) so far this year. I am tracking to hit my target for this year and then some, seeing as I am just one book off, but the current pace also has me reflecting on how pathetically low I set this goal even if it represents an improvement over last year. With this in mind, here are my revised goals:
First, I want to start measuring these reading targets in terms of percentage of overall books read, you know, in case my pace slows for whatever reason. For this year, the new minimum bar is 25%, but I would like to raise the percentage to 30-33% or more.
This will mean increasing my already-raised pace, but I think it is doable because, second, every book I start in August will written by a woman. (I may extend this through September, too, if, as I expect, my reading time gets slashed because of coming of the academic school year.)
There are a number of reasons for me to do this, including that it helps cover a clear weakness in my reading habits, but it isn’t an onerous task by any stretch. I am very much looking forward to this to-be-read pile, which includes:
Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher
Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb
The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan
Always Coming Home – Ursula K. le Guin
Birds of America – Lorrie Moore
The Vegetarian – Han Kang
But first I have to finish Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.
Three news stories I’m following going into this year
Civil war in Syria the devolution of the “rebel” forces
Ongoing violence and French foreign policy in Africa
Unrest in Turkey about Erdogan’s government
Two things that, in 2013, I discovered I no longer cared about
Four books I am particularly looking forward to reading in 2014
The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa
My Antonia, Willa Cather
Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The Plague, Albert Camus
Seven books I would like to reread in 2014
The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John Le Carre
Bridge on the River Drina, Ivo Andric/li>
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Four books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Four “resolutions” for 2014
Write more, in a variety of places (including here)
Cook more often and more adventurously
Spend less time dwelling on things beyond my control
Smile more often
I did not like 2013; for everything that went right in the year, it seemed that two things went wrong. Flipping the calendar to 2014 is an arbitrary milestone, but I am optimistic about this next chunk of time all the same. Noted above, one goal I have for this year is to write here more frequently, and I have a few topics on the back burner, though the only post I have planned for the near future is to revisit my list of top novels, which could appear as early as next week.