Reading and the Clean Plate Club

If you had parents who grew up in the Depression, or went through other hardships, you remember the “Clean Plate Club.” You cleaned up your plate at every meal.  Hungry or not, you ate. You finished your meal. old-fashioned-thanksgivingSomehow, I translated that to reading books.

I find it almost impossible to abandon a book I’ve started, no matter how unsatisfactory.  I keep reading, even when the plot is weak, the characters uninteresting, or the premise vague. There is no good reason I do this. But I do.

I just finished an audiobook, and when the female protagonist (a flighty, timid, weak soul who is always “rooted to the spot in fear,” “numb with indecision,” or  “quavering  with hesitant hope”)  gets into yet another scrape, I begin to root for the villain to do her in. When the writing is weak, I keep hoping for a change.

Maybe the next chapter will pick up. At some point, I should know better. It’s not patience, it’s not tolerance. It is a good lesson in the difference between patience and endurance.

There comes a time in every situation when the excuses are used up, the reasons for staying the course unclear. That’s the time to stop listening, stop eating, and look for another source of  satisfaction. If satisfaction is not found in what you are dealing with, it time to stack the plate, put the CD back in the case, and start the search for more satisfaction.

–Quinn Mcdonald has moved on to another book. A far better one.

The Simple Joy of Reading

What I wrote: We were the only family in town with a library in the house. When the carpenter put up all the shelves in the combination dining room/library/office for my Dad, he asked, “You opening up a grocery story or what?” When we told him it was for the books, he grunted and said, “Past the Bible and the Sears catalog, don’t have much use for them myself.”

The room was soon filled with books, top to bottom. I learned to read early, and

Reductive art: graphite, eraser on pastel paper. © Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved.

Reductive art: graphite, eraser on pastel paper. © Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved.

after I mastered the comics in the newspaper, and the Betsey McCall section of my mother’s McCall’s magazine, I began to read National Geographic.

One day, I considered all the books in our library and asked my father if I could read one. (It wold not have occurred to me to simply take a book without asking. Different times, very different upbringing.) My father told me, kindly, that I wouldn’t understand them.

“Why not?” I asked. “I can read English.”
My father smiled and handed me a physics book. “Read this, then,” he said.
I worked through the introduction, getting the words right, but with no idea about the ideas in the book. At 5 years, physics isn’t a familiar concept.

I remember the mix of awe, anger and concern that I could not grasp the material. It was English. I knew how to read English. Why couldn’t I understand this English?

Slowly I came to understand the difference between reading and comprehension; between seeing and knowing. The complex relationship between seeing words and understanding concepts came slowly to me, but I began to read more, eager for the ability to link words to concepts.

There are still many books I don’t understand, and many I don’t try to understand, but the joy and mystery of reading can fill me with a joy that few other things can reach. I hope the love of reading doesn’t fade away, replaced by electronic pastimes. Reading was my comfort, excitement and cure for loneliness. It still is.

What is your first memory of reading?

Quinn McDonald is pretty sure that people who are good writers also love to read.

Books on the Nightstand

Do you have a pile of books someplace–a waiting list of books that you want to get to in some order? My pile is balancing precariously on the nightstand. Some of them are partially read, some new and waiting.

We read for many reasons–to learn, to relax, to satisfy curiosity. I belong to Goodreads, and you can certainly categorize and chat about book choices there. But I’m curious about that stack and why you are reading what you are reading.

Here’s the top seven of my stack, along with reasons:

Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams. About half read. Just started it. A book about the loss of a wildlife habitat combined with the loss of the writer’s mother to cancer. The balance of loss in nature and in family is carefully written, never mawkish. I’m a naturalist, and this book is a natural for me.

A Thousand Names for Joy by Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell. A gift book and one I’m curious about. After discovering “the work” that Katie does, I’m interested in this topic: Living in Harmony with the Way Things Are.

Creating Time: Using Creativity to Reinvent the Clock and Reclaim Your Life by Marney Makridakis. An interesting collection of essays on re-imagining time and how to make it appear to slow down or speed up. Lavishly illustrated by the coaches Marney trains. I love other people’s perspctives on time and how time controls your life.

Stung by “B”s by Theresa JK Drinka and Jeni Synnes. A survival guide to help identify and overcome the damage of the disruptive people in our lives. When you are a coach, reading books about people who push your buttons is an excellent idea. Just ordered it, but am delighted to know it’s on the way.

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry. The workplace is taking on creativity as a desirable trait, and I can see it being pushed into little cookie-cutter shapes already. I’ve heard of “disruptive ideas” and it makes me roll my eyes. I also read a lot of books on creativity so I can listen knowledgeably to people who speak about it.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. Suspense novel. Lippman worked for the Baltimore Sun and her novel takes place in Baltimore. I’ve lived there, so it’s interesting to hear the details I recognize about the city. This novel is a page turner and I’m hooked. The woman who should be a protagonist is not likable, and may be a narcissistic liar or an innocent victim. The male protagonist is a cynical cop. I’m almost done and have no idea who did what. I like the Tess Monaghan novels, and I like this one.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston. A fascinating collage book. Preston collected vintage (1920s-1930s) ephemera and then created a story around it. You turn the pages of the book like a scrapbook, get caught up in ticket stubs, photos, photos of old cans and labels as well as the story of Frankie, a young woman with a wandering heart and a Corona manual typewriter. Great concept.

What is in your reading stack? What’s the one you are choosing next?

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who loves to read.

Read much, believe little

I am broken, need fixing, I’m dumb. Or not. I’m a blog omnivore, so I read a lot of advice, thoughts, and beliefs of other writers and artists. And it’s a wide range.

The last two days, I’ve been reading about other people’s success stories about blogging and book promoting. (I have a tendency to read about what’s on my plate). Interesting what happens in my brain (maybe yours, too) when we read something new that we don’t agree with. We believe the other person. Particularly if we don’t know them. Because no matter what our experience is, surely the other person is smarter, richer, wiser, and a better human being.

I’m amazed at my own gullibility. “Content is no longer king,” says one blogger, and I gobble up his article, afraid that one of my basic truths has vanished. “The reader is king!” he proudly proclaims, “content doesn’t really matter.” Oh. And what is King Reader reading? Content. And why will King Reader read the content? Because it is interesting to King Reader. So, finish the circle, content is still king.

“If you are still doing book signings, you are over 60 and a dinosaur,” says another blogger. Her idea is that everything is virtual, and social networking sells books. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure people buy books for lots of reasons, and a good reason is to meet the person who wrote it and talk to them in real life, if they are available. And that means I want to make myself available. Because people who are satisfied tell others. (Not as many as people who are unsatisfied, which is motivation enough.) But can’t I do both? I’m planning a virtual blog tour and a real event tour. (Signings are fine, but making art is more fun, so I’m doing art-making signings.)

Before you believe everything you read (I call this “the last person I talked to is an expert syndrome”) run it through your value-meter. I’ve been writing for a long time, and content matters. If an article is cheap starchy filler, I leave faster than a barefoot pedestrian crosses a freshly-tarred street.

My value-meter knows that meeting people face to face and hearing their stories is what made me write my book in the first place. I heard so many people say, “I’m not creative, I can’t draw,” while hungering for some meaning in their lives, it was impossible for me not to write the book.

Of course, I also learn a lot from reading blogs. And not just facts or behavior-shifts that I already believe in. I’m happy to explore new ideas, and I’m a big fan of change. But change for change’s sake rarely sticks. Change is fueled by current failure, pain, or general misery. That’s what makes change possible–what we are doing now isn’t working. What works for someone else might not work for me. And if it doesn’t match what I know to be true from my own life, it’s probably not true for me. My life is a big circle, and I invite a lot of people in. But it doesn’t mean I have to follow their advice.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach whose coaching practice is based on working with deeply-held values and, well, change.

Newspapers: Refusing to let go

More and more newspapers are disappearing. Not enough young readers. Not enough middle-aged readers. Not enough advertisers. “We can read it on line,” I hear. And, “I’ve given up reading newspapers, they just overwhelm me with bad news.”

from mixedink.com
from mixedink.com

Would you give up going to the grocery store because cinnamon rolls make you fat? Didn’t think so.

Reading on the Web takes 25 percent longer than reading on the newspaper, so it’s not the time it takes to read a newspaper. It’s the depth of the news. We don’t want to know the details, we want the overview or the bottom line, the stuff in the middle is too hard to figure out.

Oddly enough, it is not too hard to figure out the complexity of celebrity coupling, uncoupling and sniping–in 2009, according to Google, “Michael Jackson” was the most searched name, followed by “Susan Boyle.”  Swine flu was a meager third. (I know, it’s not a name, but it is an interesting progression.)

What about the bad news accusation? We can’t read the newspaper because of all the bad news? Then why are we scooping up magazines that overflow with celebrity scandal, rehab and failure? Why are reality shows–the worst of the bad news–so popular? It’s not the bad news we fear. It’s the lack of control over our lives.

In the end, the “Sad Jen,” “Bad Kanye,”  “NBC Comedy slugfest” triangle is worse than our lives, and we can walk away from it, but we can’t walk away from rampant disease, political treachery, and endless, groundless wars. We are part of them. We voted, we didn’t vote. Either way, we had a hand in it. And we can’t control it all. We can’t even control some of it. So we don’t want to know about it.

Our need for control works when we over-schedule our own time, our kids time, our pet’s time. But we turn away from the news because we feel we have to fix this mess and don’t know where to start and don’t want it on our desks. Or worse, our conscience.

I’m in full agreement that if you are too plugged in to news, reading headlines, catching up on reports on your cell phone or PDA, a break is necessary. No would blame you for turning off the TV, radio, CD and DVD players and crawing into bed. A little rest is good for everyone.

The next day, however, it’s time to start thinking. Maybe you can’t solve the world’s problems, but not knowing is different from not wanting to know. Being informed keeps you from blaming yourself, but it helps you make better choices, better votes, and a better environment. And while you can’t solve the world problems, you can do tiny things with enthusiasm. They add up. If we all do it, we can save the world.

In this super-connected world, wouldn’t you pay to have the latest news brought to your doorstep, complete with interesting photos, summaries in the first paragraph, readers leaving comments, and gossip? It’s not out of your reach, a daily paper delivered is less than $5 a month in most cities. Before they become extinct, before you lose control, grab a newspaper. Read it. Do one thing.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and life coach. She reads newspapers at the kitchen table every morning, then reads a few more online.

Memory of Reading

We were the only family in town with a library in the house. When the carpenter put up all the shelves in the combination dining room/library/office for my Dad, he asked, “You opening up a grocery story or what?” When we told him it was for the books, he grunted and said, “Past the Bible and the Sears catalog, don’t have much use for them myself.”

The room was soon filled with books, top to bottom. I learned to read early, and after I mastered the comics in the newspaper, and the Betsey McCall section of my mother’s McCall’s magazine, I began to read National Geographic.charcoal mouse

One day, I considered all the books in our library and asked my father if I could read one. (It wold not have occurred to me to simply take a book without asking. Different times,  different upbringing.) My father told me, kindly, that I wouldn’t understand them.

“Why not?” I asked. “I can read English.”
My father smiled and handed me a physics book. “Read this, then,” he said.
I worked through the introduction, getting the words right, but with no idea about the ideas in the book. At 5 years, physics isn’t a familiar concept.

I remember the mix of awe, anger and concern that I could not grasp the material. It was English. I knew how to read English. Why couldn’t I understand this English?

Slowly I came to understand the difference between reading and comprehension; between seeing and knowing. The complex relationship between seeing words and understanding concepts came slowly to me, but I began to read more, eager for the ability to link words to concepts.

There are still many books I don’t understand, and many I don’t try to understand, but the joy and mystery of reading can fill me with a joy that few other things can reach. I hope the love of reading doesn’t fade away, replaced by electronic pastimes. Reading was my comfort, excitement and cure for loneliness. It still is.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches others to write through training programs. See her work at QuinnCreative.com Image: Mouse, charcoal on paper. Quinn McDonald. (c) 2008-9 All rights reserved.

Book Meets Perfectionist

A friend recommended a non-fiction book, a scholarly work on cultural adaptation in America. Being trained as a folklorist, the idea was appealing. The book was well-written, but it didn’t build ideas. “Too much spinning, not enough weaving,” I thought.

Last night, I noticed I’ve been reading it since early February. It’s about 300 pages, and I haven’t managed to flog myself through it. Each night, I’ll read a few pages at bedtime, then put it down. Each time I buy a book I’d rather read, It gets put at the bottom of the stack growing by the side of my bed.
stack o booksWhen the stack got precariously high, I had to admit that I wasn’t enjoying the nonfiction  book. I felt I was reading the same 50 pages over and over. Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, I thought. But I’m a recovering perfectionist, so how could I abandon a book? No, I must finish it. I tortured myself for another week.

The habit of completing what you start is a good one. But when it comes to books, it doesn’t apply. (At least not once you aren’t in a class with a reading list.) It’s not virtuous to finish a book that you started in good faith when that book is turning you to a curmudgeon. Drop the book. Quit reading it. Abandon it. Leave it in a basket on someone’s doorstep. Just because it seemed intriguing, just because someone recommended it does not bind your honor to reading every last page.

Tonight I read the last chapter. It was much like the others I’d read. I didn’t miss the 100 pages I’d skipped. And then I cheerfully, grinningly, reached for Anne Lamott’s book, Grace (Eventually), which I hope to enjoy a great deal, for every page.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2008-9. All rights reserved. Image: school.discoveryeducation.com