How to Read More (by Leveraging Compulsions)

There are two ways to become a better writer.

  1. You have to write.
  2. You have to read.

Those are the rules, and you have to do both.

If you’re a writer, I’m going to assume you have a set of hangups and compulsions. Some are idiosyncratic, some are things you have in common with a million other people.

I have OCD. People who don’t have OCD think it’s some kind of Marie Kondo superpower. If only.

I treat my OCD and I would say I’m healthy. But I still have compulsions. They’re no longer all-consuming, thankfully, but they’re there in many ways, just below the surface.

Last year, I decided I was going to read the most books ever. I started strong with James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and Bessel van der Kolk. I read a good bit of Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens and other poets. But somewhere, let’s call it March, I lost my zeal. Something happened somewhere; something else took precedence, I got distracted, and I forgot about my big plans for reading thirty million books.

Writers and other creatives talk a lot about flow. It’s real and it’s ecstatic. It turns out my flow state is best primed by really good reading. I suspect as much is true for almost any writer. Sometimes I feel out of words, completely tapped. Reading fills the cistern with new images, new idioms, new ways of seeing things.

I’m reading a lot this year. I know it’s only the end of January, but there’s something different about my appetite. I am more energized and more committed than I was at this point twelve months ago. I think there are three reasons:

  1. I’m reading more widely. Great literature, stellar nonfiction, books on craft, even the kind of motivational books I’ve tended to avoid.
  2. I don’t force myself to finish one book before starting another. I keep a relatively even pace across a few different titles and genres, and I’m incrementally getting closer to finishing them all.
  3. To keep track of my progress, I use an e-reader. Knowing exactly how close I am, percentage-wise, to my goal of finishing a book allows me to redirect idle, time-sucking compulsions toward a goal I actually want to achieve and actually helps me. Seeing my progress helps my subconscious mind create and recreate the compulsive itch into something worth scratching.

I’m not saying this will work for everyone, and it’s not some cure-all suggestion for managing your mental health. I’m not making light of compulsions worse than mine. I do, however, think that learning to rewire our neural pathways through positive habits is a good thing, and I know how it’s helped me. A word about those self-help books. They basically teach the same thing. The reason the habits of highly effective people work is because neuroplasticity is real.

If you struggle with compulsions, depression, anxiety or other things, please seek proper care. The right help will make a world of difference, and you’ll be freer than you’ve ever been to train your mind to work in tandem with your heart and spirit.

That’s been my experience.

Thanks so much for reading.

Ray Bradbury Could Work Anywhere

I love this image:

“I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.

Pay typewriters. Who knew? Reminds me of the computer stations in the Sbarro in Port Authority. If I missed the early bus, I’d log on for a while. I don’t remember if I wrote anything decent, but the thing was just to write. Still is. Off we go, then.

On Being Daunted in Public

For whatever reason, one of my favorite pieces of dialogue in The Sun Also Rises is Bill Gorton going on about never being daunted in public. It’s almost a hundred years old, but it’s still funny.

There’s nothing wrong with being daunted in public, of course. And I guess old Bill has nothing against being daunted in general. The trick is, don’t stay there.

Here’s the exchange:

Certainly like to drink,’ Bill said. ‘You ought to try it sometimes, Jake.’

‘You’re about a hundred and forty-four ahead of me.’

‘Ought not to daunt you. Never be daunted. Secret of my success. Never been daunted. Never been daunted in public.’

‘Where were you drinking?’

‘Stopped at the Crillon. George made me a couple of Jack Roses. George’s a great man. Know the secret of his success? Never been daunted.’

‘You’ll be daunted after about three more Pernods.’

‘Not in public. If I begin to feel daunted I’ll go off by myself. I’m like a cat that way.’

I like what Sally Skinner has to say about it:

“Sparkling, pitch-perfect dialogue or what? The drunken swagger captured phonetically in almost hiccuped fragments of speech; the different shades of meaning taken on by the word ‘daunted’; the easy, natural wit. More than a little daunting to a novice writer…

There’s a carefree hedonism that blows through this book like a cool breeze. This makes it refreshing sort of read, even when the character are drunk, or brawling, or lapping up the violence of the bullfight. But it’s worth reading purely for the dialogue.”

Sally is absolutely right.

As for being daunted? Bill seems to know it’s impossible to never feel this way, so he mitigates by slinking off. (Notice how Hemingway mercifully does not use the word slinking, but cuts right to the chase with “I’m like a cat that way.”?)

It turns out being daunted in public can be a great way to build community, especially in lieu of French cafes and Gertrude Stein. I’m talking, of course, about finding support, commiseration, encouragement, and inspiration in the company (perhaps virtual company) of other writers. In many ways, being daunted in public is another way of saying publishing or sharing your work, or of sharing a part of yourself. A writer who has never been daunted or isn’t willing to be daunted in public most likely ends up with Six Feet Under Par: A Chip Driver Mystery. Amazing title aside, what a waste.

Writing and Publishing Year in Review

Thank you to the editors who have published my work this year, and to the readers who have read it!

Taken together, there are some very clear themes to this year’s published work. I am honored to have been published at every one of these journals, and I’m grateful to The Shore for their Pushcart nomination and to have been selected for print anthologies by Nick Virgilio Haiku Association/Nick Virgilio Writers House and Hippocampus Books.

Here’s the list of published works for 2021, again, with my profound thanks and appreciation.

Great Dams on the Land at Belt

Stop Me if You’ve Heard this Before, Superego at The Daily Drunk. This piece was also noted by the Existential Poetics newsletter.

Doorjamb at Bandit Fiction.

A Poet of Hope at Appalachian Review

On Billy Joel and Thomas Pynchon: It Was Always Christie Lee at The Daily Drunk.

Salvator Mundi at Still: The Journal.

Prepositions at VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, Vol 32, Issue 1.

Ospitalità (Nonno Flirts with Death)  at Schuylkill Valley Journal.

The Effects of Ground-Level Ozone on the Ecology of Pennsylvania Highways and Ode to Wallace Stevens at The Shore. The editors at The Shore nominated “The Effects of Ground-Level Ozone…” for a Pushcart Prize. I am very grateful.

Bear and Mountain and Well Past the Harvest at Dodging the Rain.

Last Standing the Closing Country, which first appeared at Brevity, was selected for publication in “Main: An Anthology” by Hippocampus Books. Here’s the description from Hippocampus: “Main: An Anthology, part of The Way Things Were Series from Books by Hippocampus, celebrates small town America. The collection features stories about family-owned businesses, such as the stores and specialty shops that used to rule Main Street America. Our contributors share how these businesses define themselves and their family members, how the efforts evolved over time, through the generations.” Read more here.

Wage Slave was selected for publication in the Haiku in Action anthology by the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association and Nick Virgilio Writers House. From the publisher: “This collection of contemporary poems from around the world includes hundreds of haiku in its various forms, from the traditional style to senryu, monoku, and more. The anthology is perfect for lovers of haiku who want to read poems focusing on the events of 2020 from an international and diverse range of both established and emerging poets. More than just a collection of poems, this book also features haiku categories, writing prompts, essays from the NVHA staff, and an extensive lesson on haiku writing from renowned teacher, Tom Painting.”

Co-wrote the lyrics for “Radio Jesus” with John Hardt. Performed, recorded, produced by John Hardt.

Three Good Things That Happened In the Last Week

Three good things from the past seven days or so:

I found out I’ll be included in the Haiku in Action Anthology published by the Nick Virgilio Writers House. From the publisher:

This collection of contemporary poems from around the world includes hundreds of haiku in its various forms, from the traditional style to senryu, monoku, and more. The anthology is perfect for lovers of haiku who want to read poems focusing on the events of 2020 from an international and diverse range of both established and emerging poets. More than just a collection of poems, this book also features haiku categories, writing prompts, essays from the NVHA staff, and an extensive lesson on haiku writing from renowned teacher, Tom Painting. Pre-order now so that you can be one of the first to receive this important anthology!

I found out that a short creative non-fiction piece of mine will be include in the new Main anthology by Hippocampus.

Main: An Anthology, part of The Way Things Were Series from Books by Hippocampus, celebrates small town America. The collection features stories about family-owned businesses, such as the stores and specialty shops that used to rule Main Street America. Our contributors share how these businesses define themselves and their family members, how the efforts evolved over time, through the generations.

My poem, “The Effects of Ground-Level Ozone on the Ecology of Pennsylvania Highways” was nominated by The Shore for a Pushcart Prize.

I am so grateful and thankful for each of these developments and for everyone at NVWH/NVHA, Hippocampus and The Shore for making things like this happen and everyone who has read these pieces and supported these and other small presses.

Thank you all!