Do Not Adjust Your Browser

Like an episode of the Outer Limits, you might be tempted to adjust your browser, assuming there must be some mistake at the sudden appearance of material on this blog.

To say I have been dealing with a malaise of the mind and spirit is to oversimplify. I have, for the last few months, been completely burned out, especially when it comes to coalescing words into sentences, or even words in general. I haven’t written more than a word or two of fiction in months. Months. It pains me to no end to admit that. I get a perverse sense of satisfaction from writing fiction; it’s therapeutic, invigorating, and fun. But between the stresses of work and the real world, the last few months I just haven’t had the energy to spare to create fiction. Or, for that matter, to blog. Or even read. I set out this year with some simple goals, but somewhere along the way I got slowed down.

But, finally, the weather outside is changing. Today is a cool, drizzly day here in the Pacific Northwest, and the beast within my mind stirs to embrace it. Sure, it could be the boost in vitamin D I’ve started taking, but I suspect it’s equally a seasonal response. This is the weather I yearn for. This is the weather I most associate with reading books and writing fiction. This is the start of the Writing Season.

So gather close, friends. The most glorious season of the year approaches!

The Act of Reading

The pixels are still warm on my post about Cummingswrites, and here I am writing about reading. Such is life.

At the start of the new year, I tried a little experiment with my reading habits. Feeling a need to disconnect from the digital, I switched to reading only paper books. There are many reasons to make this switch, but here’s a handful of the ones that I muttered to myself:

  • You cannot escape that when you hold a book, you know you’re holding it. There’s something about that weight in your hands, the visible progress as the pages left begin to thin in comparison to the pages read.
  • Not everything’s digital. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t popularize enough to digitize, or maybe the rights aren’t available. Whatever the reason, there are actually books that aren’t available for downloadable purchase. Shocker.
  • We have a used bookstore nearby. Half-Price books has been wonderful for finding treasures. Granted, it’s not only the closest bookstore, it’s the only bookstore in the area. We live in a desert of brick and mortar books (unless you’re looking for religious tracts or new age manifests, which I am not).

At first, things were grand. I had (and still partially have) a stack of books to read. What could go wrong? As it turns out, I’m spoiled, and that was the beginning of my downfall.

  • The first thing I didn’t anticipate was the weight of it all. Most books I read fall somewhere between 300 and 1,000 pages. When your laptop is already back-breaking, adding the weight of a heavy book along with all of the other trappings of commuting – well, you begin to look for things you can drop from your back. Sitting or standing on the BART is fine, but you also have to carry that for the walk. Bah. I wasn’t up for it is the short of it.
  • I also quickly learned the pain of misplacing a book. As it turned out, it was hidden in my backpack, but not after spending days thinking I’d lost the book. With digital books, I have them synched across most of my devices. Misplace a device? Use another, it’ll pick up right where you left off.
  • A not inconsiderable factor: satisfying the Yearning, that mood, that itch needing scratched, that compels to me to drop whatever I’m reading and pursue something. Eleven at night is not an ideal time to go to a bookstore, if there was one, and if it was even open.  But in this digital age, for all its faults, we can at least download samples to see if a book will satisfy our craving.

And so I ultimately failed the paper only diet. Spoiled, perhaps, but I just can’t forgo using digital books in my life. Wiser friends have pointed out that it’s possible to read both formats – some paper, some digital. I call witchcraft. And concede that that is probably my path too.

For this reading challenge, I challenged the format I read. Next, I think I want to challenge what I’m reading. For too long, my diet has been like the country western bar in Blues Brothers (the original movie – no remakes over here!). I’ve subsisted on a diet of two closely bound genres for too long. It is high time for some exposure, some broadening of the mind.

Some non-fiction.

Yeah, I said it – non-fiction. Books about real things with real people – or at least involving real people, though that won’t always be the case (I can think of a few pure science books that won’t even involve humans except as a footnote). I can’t say whether reading non-fiction will be my only diet – as in the case of trying to read only physical books, the path to success is one tempered in moderation, I suspect. I believe the health nuts call this a balance. Pffft. But we’ll see. New ideas expressed in new ways, about real things? Tell me more.

Because I’m enjoying this writing thing. Sure, I’ve been trying it for over a decade now, but I really feel like I’m starting to settle into my groove with it. But reading (what feels like) the same tropes repeated over and over can only result in fiction inspired to retread the same tropes. The argument that there are only so many stories, and we’re all just retelling the same story in different ways.

But then I look at humanity, and all of the different and fascinating – and horrific, and beautiful, and mesmerizing – things we do, and I figure, there has to be a few more stories out there we haven’t written down yet.

So maybe this post was about writing after all – because reading helps us find the stories that we tell each other.

The feel of a book

I know it’s been a while since my last post – apologies. Tomorrow is the big day for me (following that post about my kidneys) – tomorrow I go in to see a kidney specialist. Nothing may come of this visit except more tests; or I could be facing a new diet, lifestyle, tests, who knows. I don’t. I find that a bit scary, to be honest. I sometimes like writing creature feature stories, even a little horror on occasion, but nothing is as frightening as an unknown visit with a specialist. Pretty sure Stephen King tried to capture that once or twice, most recently with Doctor Sleep.

Needless to say, being able to focus on my writing hasn’t been a thing the last few weeks. I’m too distracted by real world concerns to focus like I should. I feel guilty about it, but mostly because I know I have half worked pieces that need finishing, stories to share, and feedback to gather.

What have I been doing to fill the void and distract me? Reading.

“But you’re always doing that,” you might say, and you’d be half right. What makes this reading a bit different is that they have all been physical, paper in hand books. Late last year I went through a phase where I stopped myself from buying new digital books and focused on decluttering my digital to-read pile. While there are still books in that pile, largely guides to writing, the fiction half is just about done. Most of what remains are one-offs that I grabbed because (frankly) they were a dollar on special and I knew the day would come when I would need something to read.

But starting this month, I’ve been working on reading actual paper books. You might say it’s become somewhat of an obsession. I’ve read five books so far and started or sampled three others. I don’t remember having this super power in the past, but something about reading the paper edition is easier on my brain. My eyes have to strain more than with digital – no easy font adjustment here! – but I’m ripping through books at a rate that is surprising even to me.

As I read, I am reminded of something I’ve never really discussed with anyone before. I’m reminded that some books have a taste in my mind. I won’t claim its synesthesia, but there are certain flavors to books. A fun, quick to read space opera will have a completely different flavor in my mind than deep epic fantasy. In fact, it’s often this mental taste I’m after when I’m “in the mood” to read something. Sometimes I’m looking for the taste of a romp with ancient, forgotten alien civilisations. Sometimes I’m in the mood to follow an epic quest. Each one tastes different to me, resonates differently in my head. They have a different flavor in my mind.

And what, pray tell, brought this up? This week I acquired Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch quadrilogy (tetralogy? The verdict seems to be out on what a group of 4 books should be called.). I think I might have read book one before, but it’s been a long time, and I know I never read the sequels. What struck me as I started the first book is the thickness of the book mentally.

I am, admittedly, a horrible speed reader. They say the secret to reading faster is to look at the words, not subvocalize them. I’ve played with that approach, and it’s true, it’s quicker, but I have a deeper resonance with a book when I’ve recited it in my head. Given how fast I read books as it is, my inner voice must talk a mile a minute. Books like Shadowmarch aren’t high literature by any means (sorry, Tad!), but they have a brooding sense where I find myself reading each passage slowly and with attention. Tad likes to throw hints and subtle clues in the most innocuous places, so reading one of his books should be done with due diligence. To these kinds of books, my mind assigns a taste of deep and thick. I don’t know how else to describe them. Space operas, my other favorite examples, have a jumpy, springy feel in my head. Which makes using the word flavor to describe them wrong too, come to think of it, but it’s the best word I have for it.

Anyone else feel that way about books?