Tag Archives: writing

The Fear of Being Derivative and of Not Fitting In

I (obviously) haven’t been blogging much. What I told myself was that I was afraid to put anything out there that was too much like the writing that some of the big-name fat activists, like Ragen Chastain and Virgie Tovar are writing.

Almost a year ago, I emailed Ragen some photos for a video montage (I’m at :42, 1:07, and 2:59) and thanked her for giving me the words to say what I want to say about fat acceptance and fat civil rights. But I also I told her that I was afraid to blog too much for “fear of being too derivative.”  Ragen encouraged me to blog, even if I said the same thing as she does, in my own words.

So what’s this fear?  The fear of sounding like everyone else?  Of not having anything original to say?  The fear of being derivative doesn’t even come up in Google suggestions for “fear of being  d . . . ” The actual fear of not being or sounding original only shows up once in the top ten websites in a Google search of “fear of being derivative.”

To flesh out the fear a little more, I feel like I don’t have anything original to say.  I read books and online constantly, so I’m afraid to start writing because I feel like I’ll just be parroting back something that I’ve read–not something that I’ve thought of myself.  And then I think that even if what I say isn’t quite the same, do I need to be writing if I’m almost like someone else?

But isn’t everything derivative?  Isn’t there only one universal Hero’s Journey?   How do you get over the fear of sounding like everyone else?

So I did what I always do:  Look for answers in a book.  In Bird by Bird: Some Thoughts on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott acknowledges that her students often take on someone else’s style, that another author’s style is “a prop that you use for a while until you have to give it back.  And it just might take you to the thing that is not on loan, the thing that is real and true: your own voice.”  She says that “the great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within.”

And then it hit me: My “cold, dark place within” is the fear of not belonging, of not being like everyone else.  I’ve found myself taking great pains to try to fit in, and I even created an extrovert, at odds with my bookwormish and somewhat socially-anxious self, to attempt to fit in.  As a fat woman, I’ve been subject to appearance-based stigma for just about my entire life. Last to be picked on teams, never had a date in high school, blah, blah, blah.  The world tells me I don’t fit in when chairs or desks are too small or I can’t find clothes to fit me.  The fear of not fitting in is probably one of the most universal fears, but for those of us who are fat, it’s not just a fear. It’s a reality.

But if not fitting in is my big fear, then how can I also at the same time fear being derivative, which is being just like everyone else?

Having both of these fears at the same time is completely irrational.

Seth Godin calls it the resistance–that fear that tells us to go slow, to compromise, that creates writer’s block.  I realized that that’s what my fear of being derivative is–the resistance has been winning for too long.

No more.

Katie Heaney’s Memoir and My (Still Unfinished) Memoir

Katie Heaney wrote and published a memoir, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, before she turned thirty. Some people find that tedious, but I found it inspiring. See, Katie’s story is interesting because she has been single for her entire life. Yet she is heterosexual, and for most of her twenty-five years “there has been at least one boy [she] was thinking about and hoping to date, in the abstract….[and] there has been a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind more often than there hasn’t been.”

I wish someone my age had written this kind of memoir when I was in college, and that I had found it then.  I have twenty years on Katie, but I get her completely.  The writing that I’ve been doing is similar in scope and theme to her memoir.  She wrote about every crush from grade school forward, describing her experiences with boys and lack thereof.  I’m writing about every relationship, however ill-advised or doomed, to try to figure out why I’ve felt the need to do what Katie has done–have a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind most of the time–or go even further– have an actual boyfriend or husband a good portion of the time.

It’s funny how the image we have of ourselves when we are teenagers never seems to go away completely, or is really hard to change.  I was the boy-crazy one, the fat girl who was always chasing someone but never catching anyone.  Like Katie, I didn’t date anyone in high school, but in my case, it wasn’t for the lack of trying.  Many things came together so that it never happened for me.  And when it did happen, I wasn’t very picky about who was interested, how I really felt about him, and how he treated me.  That came much later.

Katie got to an “end to the era in my life when I might have felt the need to do something for the first time to get it over with” and ended up writing the book as a twenty-five year old who hasn’t had sex.  She refers to Tina Fey saying that she was twenty-four when she had sex for the first time because she “couldn’t give it away.”  I may not have had the exact same experiences, but I know the feelings.

Why am I writing and thinking about this now, more than twenty years later?  I’ve been deliberately single for more than three years.  This is the longest period of time since college that I haven’t been in a relationship or trying to get into a relationship.  I still think about men often, both specific men I might like to date and in general when I see them out and about.  But at the same time, being with someone after three years of not being with anyone makes it all seem theoretical, like it happened in another life to another person.  And I have a hard time imagining how a man would fit into my life with everything I have going on such as work, raising my daughter, my family and friends, and the things I want to do, like reading and writing.

But I’ve also realized that I’m writing about my sordid past relationships because I’m trying to change the story I tell myself about myself.  I’m not that fat girl who couldn’t get a date any more.  I have dated and married and divorced and broken up and been broken up with.  I’ve got almost two hundred pages with all of the gory details.  Katie’s memoir spoke to me because she has realized a lot of the same things I’m trying to, without the twenty-five-year detour.  That’s why I wish her book had been available to me when I was in college.

The status of a relationship, whether I am in one or not, or dating or not, does not define me.  Katie writes, about dating: “Why would I want to go out to dinner and a movie with someone I’m not completely crazy about when I already know how much I like eating dinner and watching a movie by myself?”  When a friend finally recovers from a bad breakup, she does so partly by realizing that “she could do whatever she wanted, work wherever she wanted, and live wherever she wanted…she didn’t have to think about anyone else’s goals or desires and then try to make them work with her own…It’s not that she wouldn’t do those things.  It’s just that she didn’t HAVE to. She could live for herself and herself alone.”  Katie realizes that her friend never felt this freedom before, but that it was “the same freedom I’ve always had, for my whole entire life.”

Last night, Friday night, there were two other possible things I could have done instead of what I did.  A female friend had an extra ticket to a gala that would have been so much fun, to get dressed up and go downtown to a fancy ballroom and people-watch.  And an online friend was in town with her husband and wanted to try to meet for dinner.  Either would have been enjoyable.  But my daughter isn’t old enough to stay home in the evening by herself, babysitting is expensive, and I am using a lot of my childcare “credits” with friends right now because of a two-week fall break.  So I didn’t do either thing.  Instead, after work, I changed into my sweatpants, made pizza from scratch, and then my daughter and I watched The Voice episodes we had DVR’d from the week, while I knitted a scarf I owe for a charity auction.  Then she went to bed and I read for a blissful hour of peace and quiet.  I don’t know how dating would fit into all this, and that’s all right.  Like Katie, I am “sure of who I am and what I want (and don’t want) in other people.”  I can take wisdom from anywhere, even from a tall, awkward girl twenty years younger than me.  Thanks, Katie.

 

Finally, “After”

It’s May! We are now firmly into spring, after a very long winter. Part of what made it so long was that I didn’t make very much time to do the three things that keep me grounded–reading, writing, and walking–so I was somewhat off. Between work, family, and church commitments, the time I took for self-care had gone by the wayside. But, the year-long church commitment is now over, with a successful result.  I’ve been back to the gym in the past month on the treadmill and at the weight machines, and I’ve found 30 minutes to get outside and walk during the work day about half the time. I am reading at least four books simultaneously right now, including an audiobook in the car, and I’ve been journaling daily for a while. I’m on my way back.

In my journal, which I do first thing after I wake up, I find myself writing a quick recount of the past day and giving myself a pep talk about what I need to get done that day. Lately, journaling hadn’t brought me amazing new insights and seemed kind of ho-hum. I’d start writing, but then stare off into space and stop. The siren song of my phone and social media has been hard to resist.

I found at The Gift of Writing the idea of listing several writing prompts at the front of your journal, so that when you come to a point that you’re not sure what to write, you just flip to the inside cover and pick a prompt.  I did that with the journal I started in November, with fair results.  The prompts were things like “What does your heart say?” and “What can you do in the next couple of days to get you closer to where you want to be?”

I started a new notebook recently, and thought I’d go one step further.  If you’re looking for writing prompts, go no further than The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron.  He has collected over 800 of them there, ranging from introspective to prompts designed to help you work with a piece of fiction or nonfiction you’ve already started.  As if having the book right next to me while I journaled wasn’t good enough, I went through and picked out the prompts that seemed appealing and listed them in the front of my new notebook.

The other day I decided on this prompt: “What is your five-year plan?  What would you like your life to be like in five years?”  If you’ve known me for a while, you know that I have to have a plan.

For a very long time I had the habit of daydreaming about my life “after” something–long ago it was “after I lose weight” or “after I’m done with school” and then it was “after I meet someone” or “after I have a baby” then everything would be perfect and my life would be wonderful.   Of course, that’s no way to live because life is never the way you expect it would be after.  After can’t meet those high expectations.

When I did the five-year plan prompt, I realized that in five years, I don’t want my life to be any different than it is right now.  I want to live in the same house, have the same job, the same friends, and go to the same church.  I want the peonies I rescued from across the street a few weeks ago to be getting ready to bloom, and my daisies to be getting ready to turn a good portion of my lawn into a cutting garden.  I want to take my daughter to school down the street, listen to an audiobook on the way to work, lift weights and feel strong a couple of times a week, and turn my face to the spring sun as I walk off the long winter.  I want to continue to cook on the weekends so that I don’t have to during the week, and I want to keep talking to and spending time with my beloved sisters and friends.

Oh, sure, I’d love it if the clutter fairy came to my house to put everything away and work against the forces of chaos and dirty dishes.   But I don’t see that happening as long as I make reading, writing, and walking a priority after taking care of my daughter and making sure we have a roof over our heads and food to eat.  And it would be nice if the powers that be determined that public service jobs deserved pay that was more on-par with those in the private sector.  And there is still great injustice and suffering in the world that requires a lot of work from a lot of dedicated people.  And there’s no guarantee things won’t change because of factors beyond my control.

But, all in all, I realized that I’ve got everything I need right here, right now.  There is no “after.”  This is it, and it’s pretty damn good.

What I read in 2013 and what I want to read in 2014

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Stephen King, On Writing

Ever since I read On Writing in 2008, I have taken Stephen King’s words to heart.  He admitted that he reads 70 to 80 books a year, so that has been my goal.  In 2013, I read 85 books, 12 more than in 2012.

When I analyzed the books I read in 2013, the numbers came out generally like this:

  • 20-25 Memoir/ Autobiography
  • 35+ Novels, including 7 “Classics” and 3 Childrens/Young Adult
  • 10-12 Writing Craft
  • 10-15 Nonfiction (including self-help, history, but not writing craft or creativity)

I loved the classics that I read, especially Pride and Prejudice, The Moonstone, Girl of the Limberlost, Hard Times, and Tom Sawyer.  Most of them I read on audiobook through LibriVox, through which volunteers read, record, and make available free public domain audiobooks.  In that future life in which I will have enough time to volunteer for all of the things I want to do, I would love to contribute my own reading and recording.

I read a lot of memoirs in 2013, primarily because I realized that the writing I have done and want to shape into a book is really a memoir, so I’ve been studying the form.  I still have a lot to do, but I’ve read many great examples that also include family history, including: What We Have, Missing Lucile, Nola, Ava’s Man, and The Lost.  I loved to read about Sonia Sotomayor in My Beloved World and Marcus Samuellson in Yes Chef, although I’m sure both books were ghostwritten.  To me, that didn’t diminish their journeys.  Other books were a combination of memoir and nonfiction, such as Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Wolf’s Vagina, and Pollan’s Cooked.  Each provided insights that I hadn’t considered.  I want to read just as many memoirs in 2014, and I have plenty of lists to start with.

When I compiled the 2013 list, what surprised me was how many books on writing craft I read.  I realized that it’s much easier for me to read about writing than to actually write.  So I think the reason I read all the writing craft books was avoidance.  Don’t get me wrong, many were very useful, especially the ones about plot, journaling, and memoir writing.  I learned a lot about how I need to shape my material.  And The Icarus Deception, by Seth Godin, was life-changing and paradigm-shifting. Although it isn’t about writing per se, it’s about creating art, so I included it in this list.    In 2014, I want to read less about writing, and write more.  

Fiction.  A portion of the novels I read were for my library book club:  Defending Jacob, An American Tune, Blue Asylum, Goldberg Variations, Cup of Gold, Devil’s Trill, Goodbye for Now, and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Most of those were books I probably wouldn’t have picked up myself, and I continue to treasure the opportunity to expand my book horizons and discuss them with other book lovers.

My favorite novels of the year were probably An American Tune (Barbara Shoup’s novel set in Bloomington and MIchigan between 1969 and the recent past); The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (what happens fifty years later if Alaska had become a Jewish protectorate in WWII, minimizing the effect of the Holocaust?); The Last Days of Dogtown (outcasts and forbidden love in the early 1800’s, including all of the savagery and cruelty of the time); MaddAddam (Atwood’s final book of the dystopian future trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood); and Kindred (written in the late 1970’s, Butler wrote about slavery and time travel that seems to combine aspects of the later Beloved and The Time Traveler’s Wife).

Novels that had an interesting twist:  Defending Jacob, Goodbye For Now, Gone Girl, and The Perfect Ghost.  I enjoyed the surprises each of these books gave me.

I’ve realized that I like a lot of books.  There aren’t very many I don’t care for.  There were only two this year that I can say I wish I hadn’t read:  Cup of Gold and The Lost Get-Back Boogie.  Cup of Gold was one of Steinbeck’s early books, and I didn’t care for the sexism and conquer-the-natives exploits of Captain Morgan.  The book was well-written, and kept me interested in finding out what happened, but I didn’t like what was happening.  Boogie was also well-written, but I had anticipated that it would be a mystery.  Instead, it was a crime novel, tracing the activities of an ex-con and his drugged-out friend.  It wasn’t what I expected, and I don’t care for drug scenes in movies or books.   (Years ago, I started but couldn’t continue with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces for that reason.)

Although I can’t say I wish I hadn’t read them, I continue to read Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, but just for the pure entertainment.  I don’t expect the characters to say anything profound or come to life-changing realizations when I read this series.  Although they were great mysteries in the beginning, they’ve become formulaic and I’d just like her to pick between Ranger and Morelli, finally!

My wish for 2014 comes from Seth Godin, from The Icarus Deception:

Sometimes, courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say.

I hope what I read in 2014 helps me to speak my truth and that you are able to do the same.

Reading as a Spiritual Practice

This is a sermon I did at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hendricks County in Danville, Indiana, this morning.  

Anna Quindlen, in her short book How Reading Changed My Life, says about her childhood, that “at the time I surely was, the only child I knew, or my parents knew, or my friends knew, who preferred reading to playing kick-the-can or ice-skating.” Raise your hands if you felt the same—I know that I did. She goes on, “In books, I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but, into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself.”

Quindlen tells the story of Oprah Winfrey, who remembered being admonished by her mother “You’re nothing but a something-something bookworm. Get your butt outside! You think you’re better than the other kids.” Quindlen explains “I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth.”

Reading has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can’t remember ever NOT reading. I have books everywhere: in the car, at the kitchen table, in the bathroom, and in piles by my bed.

I’ve found that in some ways, what I read reflects my state of mind. For example, when I was a teenager and very boy-crazy, most of what I read were romances. (Note: I don’t read romances any more. Romance is the one genre that doesn’t seem to give me much spiritual sustenance.) But my state of mind also reflects what I have read. So many times I just happened to be intrigued by a book, and it held exactly the truth I needed to hear at that time in my life.

Why is reading a spiritual practice? I think that a spiritual practice is something that you do consciously that brings you comfort, centers you, or helps you find meaning. It could help you connect with others or make a difference in the world. When I read, I am present right now, not obsessing over the past or worrying about the future. I learn empathy—what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. I become connected to the author by reading what he or she has written. Stephen King calls this telepathy. I also become connected to anyone else who has ever read the book. I get to experience the past, present, future, at home and in faraway places, and also go to places that never existed and may never exist, hopefully. (Think The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.)

The pile of books that is too big for my bookcases.

I don’t know moderation when it comes to books. I just can’t seem to say no to more books, even when I have a stack that is more like a pile or a mound or even a heap of books—at any rate, this assemblage of books I want to read cannot be contained in a bookshelf. Every book is the possibility of another world. Or it might hold a truth that will be critical to understanding my life. How do I know until I actually read it?

I love it when books surprise me with their insights—like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. This book is not for everyone, although it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2007. How was I to know that a book set in the New Jersey barrios and in the Dominican Republic would give me a way to describe my lonely adolescence and reassure me that my experience wasn’t completely unique to me? It confirmed that I wasn’t the only person who felt like she was left out of adolescence—Diaz described Oscar being the nerdy fat kid in high school “like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.”

A few years ago, while I was taking the Build Your Own Theology class here, I realized that reading is one of my primary spiritual practices and the main way I practice the Fourth Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Every piece of literature or nonfiction makes some statement that rings true in my own life. By reading, I’m searching for the meaning in my life and trying to figure it all out.

One of the first books I read when I was beginning to admit to myself that I am a writer was Stephen King’s On Writing. It was one of the best choices I could have made. He makes the point that writing and reading is telepathy, in this passage:

“…let’s assume that you’re in your favorite receiving place just as I am in the place where I do my best transmitting. We’ll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well, yet that presents no real problem. . . . Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To color-blind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a lot of room for individual interpretation For one things, it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes. . . .

The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room . . . except we are together. We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.”

Reading has allowed me into others’ minds and allowed me to experience more empathy than I would have had, had I not read about people who are not within my direct experience. For example, I am caucasian and haven’t had much experience with African-American communities. But, by reading Beloved, by Toni Morrison, I was able to feel some fraction of the heartbreak, all-encompassing sorrow, and hopelessness that being a slave must have entailed. Toni Morrison didn’t live through slavery, either, but her imagination, experience as a black woman, and gifts as a writer allowed me to feel the horror. By reading the mystery author Walter Moseley, who is biracial, I learned some of what it was like to be a black male in East LA. in the 1950s. By reading The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother, a memoir by James McBride, I learned that my Jewish grandmother, who married my Christian hillbilly grandfather in the 1930s, couldn’t have had things so bad. She and my grandfather were both white. McBride’s parents were black and white in the 1940s, and McBride’s story is so compelling I read it all at once when I had intended to read a little before I went to bed.

Reading also has the power to allow others to empathize with us. I’m in a book group through the library. Most of the women in the group are much older than me. Upon my suggestion, we recently read What Came First by Carol Snow. It is the story of three women and a man connected in a way that can only occur in the past couple of decades. Laura is a lawyer, a single mom by choice to an eight year old, who she conceived by donor insemination. Wendy is a stay at home mom to twin five year olds who were conceived by in-vitro fertilization. Vanessa is a twenty-something dental receptionist whose clock is ticking but her boyfriend of five years seems to be unable to commit. I’ll leave it up to you to guess how they’re connected.

When I read this book, I felt compelled to write to the author and tell her that she wrote my life. Even if the characters never existed in real life, the mere fact that this book was written shows me that the author “gets” me. I’ve never met her, but she understands who I am, and how it feels to be me. That’s what I want when I read—to feel that commonality of experience that I am not alone. Carol Snow told the story of my life and the decision I made to become a single mother by choice more perfectly than I could have explained to my friends in the book group if we had just been talking.

Last fall, I read The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. It had very mixed reviews because it is nothing like Harry Potter—there’s no magic and it is very realistic. It’s the story of the town of Pagford after councilman Barry Fairbrother’s death. Conflicts arise between members on the town council who want to keep The Fields—a low income housing development—as part of Pagford, and those that want to de-annex it and allow a larger city to care for its inhabitants. Fairbrother had been from The Fields, was someone who –quote—made something of himself, and was in favor of keeping The Fields within the town. Others had been plotting to cut it off. All of the characters are intertwined—the adults and their teenage children. It deals with adult themes—there are portrayals of death, infidelity, heroin addiction, teenage sex, cutting, bullying, mental and physical illness, child neglect, and domestic violence. But Rowling writes truth.

A social worker, Kay, mother to a teenager, Gaia “watched the sleeping face and recalled the beautiful little baby who had slept beside her, sixteen years ago….Kay remembered the fantasy she had nurtured (with hindsight as silly as four-year old Gaia’s wish for a unicorn) that she would settle down with Gavin and give Gaia, at last, a permanent stepfather, and a beautiful house in the country. How desperate she had been for a storybook ending, and a life to which Gaia would always want to return, because her daughter’s departure was hurtling toward Kay like a meteorite, and she foresaw the loss of Gaia as a calamity that would shatter her world.”

I’m a single mother, my daughter is almost ten, and I’m learning how to be satisfied with being single. When she wrote that passage, I knew that Rowling gets me.

Another resident in The Casual Vacancy, a family practice physician, is on the town board and had been close friends with the man who died, Barry Fairbrother. In the ensuing political ugliness, she tries to maintain her equanimity and she falls back on her Sikh religion as she tries not to get drawn into the fray. She remembers the story of “Bhai Kanhaiya, the Sikh hero who had administered to the needs of those wounded in combat, whether friend or foe. When asked why he gave aid indiscrimately, Bhai Kanhaiya had replied that the light of God shone from every soul, and that he had been unable to distinguish between them.”

I love it when a book I don’t expect contains such truths, things I can relate to and remember. “The light of God shone from every soul.” What more do we need to remember?

I have always been a voracious reader, but I had the problem of not remembering what books I’ve read. That changed in 2008, when I found this little journal. It’s titled “Books I’ve Read, A Reader’s Journal.” I have journaled off and on for my entire life, but I’ve had the problem of consistency. I’d start journaling every day, then something would happen and I’d fall off the wagon. When I saw the book journal, I thought, like you do with a New Years’ resolution that “things would be different.” For each book, you only had to write a page—what would be a tiny 3 x 5 card’s worth of thoughts. I thought it would be journaling that would be manageable for me.

Well, things have been different. I’m on the 6th journal in the 5 years I’ve been keeping a book journal. My book journals document 385 books that I’ve read in the 5-plus years since April 2008. Why do I keep doing it? I love to page through the journals and remember the quotes I wrote down or the way the stories made me feel. I love the feeling of accomplishment I have when I look back on what I’ve read. My books are like friends I can return to again and again. Sometimes I read the entry I made for a particular book, and I can remember what else was going on in my life when I was reading that book. Like the book I started at bedtime on a Friday night and stayed up until 3 am to finish. Whether I was on a trip when I was listening to the audiobook, and where I was going. And when I’m talking with someone and think of a book that would be good to mention in the conversation, I don’t have to rely on my memory—I can go back to my book journals to find out what book I was thinking of. Keeping the book journal has helped me to summarize in others’ words those things that provide a source of meaning for me.

Anna Quindlen, in How Reading Changed My Life, talks about “those of us who comprise the real clan of the book, who read not to judge the reading of others but to take the measure of ourselves.” “All of reading is really only finding ways to name ourselves, and, perhaps, to name the others around us so that they will no longer seem like strangers.” “I am not alone. I am surrounded by words that tell me who I am, why I feel what I feel.”

Pat Conroy, the author of such books as The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, also wrote a memoir about reading called My Reading Life. He admits that “I selected all my books for the possibility of some flare of candles along the road toward illumination or enlightenment.” and “Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf.” Me, too, Pat, me, too. What books have changed you utterly?