Category Archives: Lists

Reading Reboot Part 2: The ‘How To’ Bit

bookshelf instag

Some books here are waiting to be read.

In my last post about reading, I left you at the point of the story where I had resolved to start reading fiction again, but was at something of a loss as to how to re-establish the habit.

This is the good part.  The bit where I tell you what I did, so that you can do it too:

Choose a regular time of day

One of the tips I came across in starting my reading reboot was the idea that in establishing any habit, it helps to have a trigger, a specific time of day, perhaps, which you come to associate with that particular activity. I thought about my mother, who always sat down at 10.30am for a cup of coffee and the Telegraph crossword, and after her lunch at 12noon, she always had half an hour or so special ‘me time’ for reading.  It’s a routine she didn’t deviate from for more than 40 years, and in that time she must have read hundreds of books.

Most people read at night.  I find that helpful as, like many ME patients, I have a tendency to insomnia, so reading at bedtime helps me to wind down.  (NEVER read on your phone, tablet or laptop, however, since the LED display has been proven disrupt the melatonin levels in your brain, making you more awake, rather than less.

You can find the scientific proof, if you are sceptical, here.

Choose a time of day that you can set aside 15-30 minutes of pure reading time, in your lunch hour, on the bus, whenever that most suits your lifestyle, and do it every day.

Block out a chunk of time

I find I really enjoy getting totally immersed in a book, and often, if its one I’m completely absorbed in, I like a big chunk of time to really get to grips.  Sunday afternoons are great for this, but I don’t have kids, so this may not work for you.  Evenings are great, especially when your partner goes for a night out with their mates.  I make an occasion of it, indulgently laying in good chocolate, lighting candles, and maybe even playing soft music in the background.

Grab a moment

I always carry a book with me.  I hate to be bored, and any time of the day when I am on my own, perhaps waiting in a queue, on public transport, or grabbing lunch at a coffee shop, is perfect for packing in the next chapter.

Make a list

When I was at college, and, we were given reading lists.  A series of texts to wade through.  Doing my diploma, I wrote my reading list on a slip of card which I used as a book mark.  I drew a line through every book I finished on the list, and went on to the next one.  Every time I opened my book, I was presented with tangible evidence of what I had achieved, which spurred me on to read more.

This time around I generated my own list.  I happened to have a shelf full of books that I had bought but that remained unread.  You know, the ones you get when there is a ‘buy one- get one free’ on summer holiday books in Waterstones, and you read one when you are away, and the rest get forgotten.  I made a list of all the unread books I had lying around, and started on them.

Another way you could do it is to visit a bookshop with a notebook and wander round, noting down the books you fancy reading, the ones that attract and intrigue you.

Perhaps you’d like to read on a theme.  There are books which will help you with this, like ‘The Novel Cure’.

Many books on writing contain lists of recommended novels that you could work your way through – there is a fantastic one in Francine Prose’s wonderful ‘Reading Like a Writer’. (This is a book you really need to read, by the way.)

Or you could just wander around your local library, pick out a few novels from their displays, or ask a librarian or bookseller for their recommendations.  And charity shops are great for plucking out a few juicy reads at affordable prices to add to your stash.

Once you have your list, don’t forget to tick off each book as you finish it.  I like to score a line right through each title.  It gives me huge satisfaction, and gets me revved up for more.

Stay Faithful – Read to the end

I’m such a butterfly.  I have a very short attention span and I’m well-known for getting bored with a book a couple of chapters in, putting it down ‘for the moment’ and never finishing it.  I’ll end up with about 17 books on the go, and often have to restart books because I’ve forgotten the story so far.

I have found recently that I do have to resist this temptation.  If another title attracts me when I’m half way through my current novel, I now make myself plough on, with the reward of the new one in my sights.  My intention is to use my voracious butterfly instinct to flit onwards as a means to spur me on to completion.  I won’t let myself open the next title until I’ve finished the first.  Sometimes I hate it, but it always feels so great when I get to the end of a book that I don’t care.

Don’t be afraid to dump it

On the other hand … yes, I am about to contradict myself.  Sometimes there is a book that you start, and no matter how much you try, you just can’t get on with it.  Something, or everything, about it grates.

For years, people had been telling me to read ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen.  It has been sitting on my shelf, staring at me balefully in reproach.  I’ve tried.  God knows, I’ve tried.  So many times.  But I just can’t like this book, and I just can’t read it.  So I have given myself permission to let it go.  I’m never going to finish it, so what is the point in keeping it.  It made its path to the charity shop, along with Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, another book that made me want to spit bullets, and that I have tried to read half a dozen times without success.

Sometimes, it is best to know when you are beaten, and retreat gracefully.  Life is too short to waste precious reading time on books you downright hate.

Give up the Telly (At least some of the time)

Where am I going to get all this time, you may be asking?  I discovered, when I began to really get back into reading, that I had been watching a whole lot of television.  Reruns of old detective shows, documentaries I had seen before, pap that was not feeding my soul or my Muse.  It was just filling my time.  I discovered it was far more fun to switch off the gogglebox and dive into a book.  The pictures were better in my imagination, for starters!

Yes, I know it sounds impossible, but think about it.  How long do you spend staring at the TV or getting lost on the internet, looking that things that really are not exciting or entertaining you, but just occupying your eyeballs.  Just think how much more fun a good book could be.

Commitment not Discipline

Your reading list is NOT another stick to beat yourself with, another SHOULD to add to your already bulging list.  If you don’t get chance to read today, don’t tell yourself you lack discipline.  Frankly I think discipline is an evil word, used to oppress, manipulate and shame people everywhere.  Its not down to having enough discipline.  Its actually down to whether you want to do something enough or not.  And if you really want to do it, you will. So what if you didn’t have chance to read today because the baby was running a temperature, or the boiler broke down?  Commit to reading tomorrow.  Reading is for your pleasure, after all.

Congratulate Yourself

I have a list of ‘Books Read in 2017’ in my bullet journal.  When I finish a book, I write it down on my list there, as well as scoring it out on my bookmark.  It is a way of congratulating myself.  When I get to the end of the year, and look back at my list, I know I will be so proud of how much I’ve achieved, because I’ll have a concrete record of it.

There’s another thing I do.  Maybe its not so sensible, but when I finish a book, I like to treat myself.  I’ll take myself to the local café for a nice cake.  Buy myself a new lipstick or nail varnish.  A new notebook or a nice pen.  Nothing too big.  Just a little treat to say ‘well done.’  Because, let’s face it, you put a lot of hours and concentration into finishing a 300-page novel.  You deserve a pat on the back!

 

Of course, volume is not everything.  At the moment I am re-establishing the habit of reading, and the issue of what I read, and how it impacts on my writing is something for the future.  I may go back to keeping a reading notebook, as I have in previous years.  No doubt there will be future posts on the subject.  But in the meantime, I hope that something here will help you to get back into the habit of reading, if you have dropped out of it, and if not, that you can discover something new to enhance your enjoyment.

Happy Reading – and Creating,

Love EF

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The Book List

Some books here are waiting to be read.

Some books here are waiting to be read.

The other day, a friend challenged me on Facebook to name the top ten books that had most influenced me in life. It was one of those things where you give your list, and then challenge your other friends.

So far so good.

But how the hell do you choose, especially as the challenge specifies you do it off the top of the head, without thinking too hard, as fast as possible. How do you choose only ten books out of all the great novels and stories you have read over a lifetime?

My list was visceral, and based largely on what I read when I was younger. I thought about the books that had made me happiest, that I have gone back to over and over again in the course of my life. And it was interesting just to reflect on my criteria for choosing, as much as anything.

So here is my list (verbatim):

“1. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
4. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
5. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
(gosh this is hard)
5. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (kept me sane in the run-up to my wedding)
7. Antrobus Complete by Laurence Durrell
8. Persuasion by Jane Austen
9. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
10. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (obvious)”

I ended up with about 15 that didn’t quite make the grade, and if I think too hard about it, I would definitely shift a few from one list to the other.  I mean, how do you choose which Terry Pratchett?  The above was my original choice, and I think I’ll stand by it.

And then I challenged other friends. And like Japanese knotweed, lists of novels and non-fiction books blossomed out all over. Everyone had a fascinating new combination of books they raved about. Many, like Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Birdsong’ and Camus’s ‘The Plague’, were held in common. Lots of lists were biased towards ‘we did that one at school’ books. I marvelled at the wide range of stories that had influenced my friends.

And I felt like I had barely read anything worth reading since I left college.

I suppose this is understandable. When you see a list of books, you always look for the familiar ones. And if the ones you have read are in the minority, you feel like a fool for not having read the others. Especially the significant ones. On the other hand, who the hell has read the whole of Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or ‘War and Peace’? (I have to say I was impressed by the number of people who had read Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Kudos!

There are woeful gaps in my reading, despite what friends who always see me with a book might think. This is especially true these days, when I am so addicted to the quick highs offered by every morning’s new crop of fanfics. I have not read many European novels, or the Russians. I don’t know Kazuo Ishiguro or Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch or GK Chesterton. Or Kerouac, despite having a degree in American Studies. I read one book from last year’s Man Booker shortlist (Ruth Ozeki, ‘A Tale for the Time Being’), and that was because it looked like the easiest. (It was fantastic.)

Writers must read.

It is one of the basic pillars of the Craft. And you have to read the good stuff as well as the commercial, otherwise you never improve. Making this list made me realise how little decent fiction I have read in recent months. Time to get back to it.

“I mean to read myself blue in the nose.”

Virginia Woolf.

When I began my Diploma in Creative writing, we were given a list of novels and volumes of short stories to plough through as precedents, much as art students must analyse the works of the Masters, sitting in galleries for hours on end, studying Goya or Rembrandt. I found an old bookmark from those days, a list of novels scrawled on it, each title with a line scored through it as I completed it. (A couple of loose ones at the end remained unread.)

I need to do the same again.

This morning I found myself in a bookshop, gazing longingly at table after table of lovely crisp new novels. (It’s the time of year that provokes me – September draws me into bookshops still, an echo of student days of joyful bookbuying with a free conscience!) But I was good. I left the books uncaressed. I have piles of unread novels at home, you see, amongst them ‘Birdsong’, along with Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, Jonothan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’, and dozens of others, all highly recommended as quality fiction for the budding writer, and all gathering dust on the shelf. No point in buying new ones until I have ploughed through the old ones.

So I will cut a strip of paper and write a list of the books in my pile on it. And then I will begin. And each time I close the back cover a book and sigh with completion, I shall draw a careful line through the title and pick up the next.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Journal Friday: Lists

Your house and your life will be full of lists.  Most likely shopping lists, most infamously, To Do lists.  We all make them.  They are the most efficient way to remind your brain about the important, and the not-so-important things.

But did you know they can add an extra dimension to your journal practise?

We keep lists because they are an easy way to record a series of items, whether they are things we already possess, things we need to get (like shopping lists),things we need to do, or remember, or worry about, or understand.

Lists also allow us to create hierarchies within them.  You can order your list in terms of importance or urgency.  You can use each item as a heading, and include a sub-list beneath it.  Or you can just scribble items down in the order they come into your head – which is in itself a kind of order, though the meaning of that order may only be understood by you.  And yes, I do use mind maps too, but I don’t find them half so useful, because they don’t have the implied order that a list does.  You have to impose the order on them afterwards, which seems a waste of time to me – why not do it as you go along?

I like using lists in my diary to gather together thoughts that are floating about in my head which don’t really fit anywhere.  For instance, the other day, I made a list of all the items I wanted to buy which would need to be saved for:  new spectacles, a juicer, a steam floor cleaner, and other things.  Each of these items came from a separate train of thought:   ‘I can’t see to read these days, I need to get an eye test’;  ‘Maybe drinking green juice would help me feel better’;  ‘Its really muddy outside and we are trailing a lot of mud into the house, and I am fed up with mopping the floor all the time, maybe there is a quick alternative.’

None of these things really go together.  Normally, I would put them under headings like ‘Health care’, ‘Diet’ and ‘Housecleaning’.  But I don’t have a place to record any of these ideas (I confess – mea maxima culpa – I don’t keep a Home Management binder or a GTD planner, shame on me!)  They are all good ideas, but if I don’t write them down, they will get forgotten, and I will no doubt then waste valuable mental energy thinking them up again, or coming up with new solutions.  Now I have a list recorded, I can forget about it until I need it.

Something else I have been doing for years is using lists to help with emotional challenges.  I frequently get myself into a state of profound anxiety by worrying about half a dozen things at once.  Or sometimes more!  Usually, when I get like this, I find myself struck down with a migraine, so its something I prefer to avoid, if I can.  Out comes the diary, then, and away I go, writing down a list of all the things I am worried about, and why.  I may end up with pages of bullet points.  Then I revue them.  Usually I can see a pattern emerging, and I can work out that there are one or two core issues coming up that the sheer volume of worries are masking.  Once I have identified what is really wrong, I can make a list of things I can do about the problem – because taking action of some kind, however small, always makes me feel better.

When I am feeling completely overwhelmed by everything I feel I have to do, I take the time to make a list of everything.  Then I can identify the SHOULDS I am imposing on myself can rule them out, because they are usually neither Urgent nor Important* in the grand scheme of things.  Also, writing all the things I have to get through somehow makes the mountain less intimidating.  Life seems more manageable when you can get it down on a sheet of paper.

(*Knowing the difference between Urgent and Important is crucial when you have limited resources.  Urgent is something that has to be done NOW.  Important is something which needs to be done as a matter of priority for your future wellbeing/happiness/security etc.  For example, Urgent could be putting the laundry in the machine because you won’t have any clean knickers tomorrow if you don’t.  Important is getting your tax return in to avoid late filing fines.  Of course, tax returns could also be Urgent, if you are within a few hours of the deadline, and the laundry might be Important if tomorrow is also the day when you have an interview for a potentially life-changing new job!  But you can see the difference.  Urgent changes your immediate future, whereas Important is more long term.  Which is why a list helps you to identify which is which!)

I also really like using lists to explore an idea.  I give myself time to visualise the concept in my mind, for example, that of Bear energy, which I was talking about the other day.  Then I do a word association around that idea, writing down all the words and feelings and thoughts that pop into my head in a list which depicts what that idea means to me.  I can then use that list as a starting point for exploring deeper meanings and related areas.

I mainly use lists to dump everything out of my brain because I invariably have a cranium so full of stuff that something has to be offloaded or I will go mad.  Quick, thumbnail sketches of stories, plans, thoughts, worries, household jobs, recipes, things to tell my husband when he gets home, and food items we have just run out of, all end up on lists in my journal.  It has only been through writing this post that I have begun to realise how addicted to lists I actually am!

The other thing about lists is that they are easily accessible when you read them back.  Even a series of one word items can remind you of a whole Mind Palace of thoughts.  And once these thoughts are outside your head, you can use your brain to come up with lots of lovely new ones!  What liberation!

Tips for Keeping Lists:

  • Make sure you label your list especially if it is connected with a word association or particular project.
  • I often scribble lists on loose sheets of paper that I find hanging around the house, and stick them into my diary later – this means I feel I can be as messy as I want with the list because I am not messing up my nice, neat diary page. (When the list is stuck in, I can decorate it and make it nice if I like.)
  • If you make several lists on several sheets, stick them in your journal together so they make sense on reading back.
  • Give yourself space when you make a list.  There will always be something else you want to add!

Journal Exercise:

You could use any of the techniques with lists that I have mentioned above, but you might like to try this one, from the field of Gestalt therapy.

This technique can help you access unconscious feelings that are causing your trouble.

Do you have an ache or pain that has been grumbling away recently?  A dogged headache that resists all medication, a sprained ankle, an aching hip?

Take out your journal and sit quietly, away from noise and distractions.  (Give yourself plenty of time for this.)

Focus your mind now on the part of your body that is troubling you, and really dive deep into experiencing the pain, ache, or discomfort, or whatever feeling is going on there.  Let the feeling fill you up.  Connect with it.

Now take out your pen and, continuing to focus on the feeling.  How would you describe the feeling?  Whatever word first pops into your head, no matter how unlikely it seems, write it down.  Now focus again and look for the next word.  And the next.  Keep going until your mind empties and no more words appear.

Now read back your list.  Are there any words that particularly jump out at you?  Any themes that seem apparent?  Some unlikely or seemingly unconnected words may turn out to be linked to things that are going on in your life, in friendships, your career or family.  They may remind you of emotional issues you have not confronted, or point to something in your life that feels unfinished, unfair or unsatisfying.

Now take some time to journal about the words that seem most meaningful to you.  Allow yourself to explore what comes up and see where it takes you.  You may find yourself planning a new adventure, resolving old conflicts, or seeing situations in a new light.  It can be very enlightening.

You may feel this exercise is a bit mumbo-jumbo, but I assure you, it’s a great way to access things going on in your head ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak, and it can explain a lot.  You may also find it difficult to start off with, but practise and you will find it easier over time.  You might even want to have a friend help you by writing down the words that come up as you concentrate on your own body.  And if you get a recurring pain in the same place, you can go back to your list and do the exercise again, and compare the two to see if something new comes up.  You may even find, as I frequently have, that the pain you focus on is significantly reduced or even disappears as a result of its ‘being heard’.  It’s is a great way to use lists, and I encourage you to have a go.

Happy list-making,

EF