The closest I’ve come to understanding the hoarding tendency is through my habit of collecting books. I am a hoarder of words. I take comfort in books- the words, the covers, the sight of them filling a large bookshelf, or waiting for me on my nightstand or on my desk. Most of the books I read come from libraries, (I don’t own a kindle), but I’ve still managed to acquire a significant collection of books over the years. The thought of parting with some of these books has made me reluctant, greedy, as though my actual cells might suffer. They are only books after all, but I understand the life force that went into creating them, and the salubrious effect words can have, raising people above ignorance or setting in motion imaginings that can have lasting and ripple effects. They can transport a person to another time and place or simply bring them back to themselves.
I go through phases of reading certain types of books. One book leads to the next and the next and I just can’t stop. Often I will stumble on the mention of a book that makes it to my ‘to read’ list and if I like it, I will read others by the same author. When I’ve exhausted that author, I move on. Or if I really, really like the author, I read all that I can find about that author. My memoir -reading phase lasted months, perhaps a year. It started with The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, a New York City journalist who was sent to interview a farmer in upstate New York. She fell in love and left the city to join him in the hard labor of farming. I find it intriguing to read about people’s life altering decisions, and how they come about. Kimball’s whole life changed when she went to interview this farmer. Weary from her New York City life, I guess she was ripe for this change. Perhaps they were destined to meet. She became a farmer- or rather discovered she is a farmer, whichever it is. She and her husband (they married and had two children) now feed their community and their family organically, a labor of love and tenacity. Kimball’s dramatic change fuels her writing. http://www.kristinkimball.com/the-dirty-life
Despite all my reading, I think I may have been the last person to read The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr. At a recent writing workshop, the facilitator handed out excerpts from this book, and said “I’m sure everyone here is very familiar with this book”. I was familiar with it, but only because I happened to have read it the previous week! Leave no book unread is what I took away from that. Published in 1995, The Liars’ Club dramatically revived the art of memoir. Mary Carr’s command of the English language, along with her honesty, grit and courage left me in awe. I read Carr’s other memoirs as well and by the end of the last one I actually felt a sense of grief parting with these real life characters I had gotten to know so well. I read interviews Carr had given, and in one of these there was mention of another memoirist, Augusta Burroughs, which led me to read his books, including Running With Scissors. Fun fact, I found out he lives in the town where my daughters attend college. Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini is fiction that reads like memoir. Like a lot of fiction, the author’s real experiences are on the page. Calling it fiction allowed his father, the tyrant in the story, to temporarily deny its truth. Conroy offers up his angst to the page, one scene at a time. Like Mary Carr’s, his words do not convey self-pity, but rather a detached yet descriptive unfolding of his history.
I like reading anything about the brain and how it works and changes, and affects behavior. And then there are some of the classics that I skimmed in school and want to reread. The Catcher in the Rye brought me to another memoir, At Home in the World, written by Joyce Maynard, an author who broke the silence on her relationship with the famous J.D. Salinger. As sometimes happens with writing, her honesty triggered both praise and ridicule from readers.
I came across the name of Caroline Myss whose work appealed to my interest in health. Her book, Sacred Contracts, touches on the remarkable lives of Jesus and Buddha and so many saints. Using a new theory of archetypes that references the works of Jung and Plato, Myss describes an intricate map of how we can interpret our own sacred contracts, finding the purpose and meaning in our seemingly ordinary lives. Near the end of her 366 page book, I am struck by the simplicity of these words: “Each choice either serves your highest good or detracts from it”. There you have it. Every day decision making stripped down to the essential in that one sentence.
Then there are writing books. So many books on writing, and just when I think that surely I’ve read them all, I uncover ten more. The War of Art, the Artist’s Way, Bird by Bird, First Draft in 30 Days. There are also the books that are both memoirs and books on writing, like Stephen King’s On Writing and Theo Pauline Nestor’s Writing Is My Drink. Plus all the technical books on writing. There is a lot of helpful writing advice out there, but I have concluded that by far the best advice is this: apply ass to chair. And reading does eventually bring me back to the chair, to the page, where life and thoughts and history and all the words I’ve hoarded churn out into something of my own.
Reading can be a way to avoid the work of writing though. Devouring others’ stories is surely easier than writing our own. I think most of us have ways of procrastinating, avoiding that difficult project for just one more day. Why is it sometimes so hard to sit down and face the page? It’s the sitting down and starting that is often the hardest. In Working It Out is a book of essays written by 23 Writers, Artists, Scientists and Scholars who reflect on their lives and work. In this book, Virginia Valian writes of her struggle to sit down and work on her graduate thesis. Eventually, after much procrastinating and anxiety, she commits to fifteen minutes a day. “A nice solid amount of time, an amount of time I knew I could live through every day”, she writes. Her long essay in its entirety can be found here: http://writingismydrink.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/1977workingitout.pdf
During a brief lull in my reading, I got the idea that I should be able to speak about my writing. I hope this isn’t another tactic of mine to distract me from my writing. But here’s how I justify the idea. Though I talk about my writing in a writing group, I need practice in a more formal setting, as in really speak about it; leave the comfort of the page and face a visible audience, and present something that I have written. One never knows when this may come in handy. Writers like to write. But don’t we need to talk about our writing too? So I joined Toastmasters, a club that supports the task of improving ones public speaking skills, and I gave my first speech. This initial presentation, called the ice breaker, can be on any topic that reflects the life or interests of the speaker. I chose the topic of how simplifying enhances creativity. I took many of the words for my speech directly from this blog. Despite the mixed audience, my speech was very well received. It flowed. People were interested and inspired. This was encouraging. I surprised myself. I can write. I can put a few sentences together. But speak? I hardly knew I could speak. It was only a six minute speech, given to a small room of friendly people, but I liked the idea of contributing something to an audience, even in some small way.
So back to the books. Releasing some that I owned, that I don’t think I’ll want to keep coming back to, was my most difficult step in simplifying. Really, it has been my only difficult step in letting go of stuff. I still own books. And I still read compulsively. But I now give less importance to the tangible book. It’s what it leaves me with, how it expands my mind or fuels my own writing that is the real gift in its pages. Holding it is nice. But releasing it is better.