Tag Archives: writing

Varieties of reading: drawing in and pulling away

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I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Headwhich I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.

My current reading list: not so much a list as a pile

My favourite part of the day. Coffee and something from this pile.

We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our  “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.

Still reading “Still writing”

What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingwhich I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year.  Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).

I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.

[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

 (Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).

I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.

But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.

So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.

IT tips #11: Use dummy text to help you write

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This much I know – it’s much harder to write an article of 250 words than one of 2,500.  The word count of articles I’ve written for Dance Gazette over the last 12 years has gone from 1750, to 1,000, 750, to 500, to 400, and now 250, and it gets more difficult with every reduction.

What I do now for anything under 1500 words is to create a dummy article so that I can see how it’s going to look on the page, and decide how to arrange the paragraphs – a short opener, thick middle and brief conclusion? Five equal paragraphs? 4 of increasing size plus a one line ending? You get the idea.

For long articles, I use the Lorem ipsum generator (lorem ipsum are the first two words of standard dummy text used in publishing). If it’s just a mini task in Word (‘write no more than 50 words of description’) I use Word’s in-built dummy-text generator, one of my favourite party-tricks

Zotero guide from The Old Bailey

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This is the advantage of following Zotero’s twitter feed – you find out about brilliant resources such as the guide to using Zotero from The Old Bailey (yes, that Old Bailey).  It’s concise, clearly written and laid out, and tells you everything you need to get an overview and get started.

Zotero book on its way

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Just as I was wondering when there would be such a thing, here’s the news: Jason Puckett, blogger over at Librarian X (tagline: with great power comes great bibliography) is writing  Zotero: A guide for librarians, teachers and researchers. If you can’t wait until the ALA Annual conference (June 2011) when publication is slated, you can get a sneak peak at the chapter overview and the bibliography on the page linked in the last sentence.

There are some great Zotero resources on Jason’s Zotero page, well worth checking out.

Mark Simpson: “the world’s most perceptive writer about modern masculinity”

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I have been saying this ever since I bought It’s a queer world in 1996, and I say it every time I read another book, another weblog, every time I see him on one of those otherwise inane  100-top-this or 50-worst-that compilation documentaries. But who am I to say? Thankfully, I have the full weight of the ‘science of cool’ website www.scienceofthetime.com to back me up, since they’ve just listed him as No. 1 of their top reads for the weekend on the topic of males, and published this near-perfect eulogy to my hero:

Mark Simpson is probably the world’s most perceptive – and certainly the wittiest – writer about modern masculinity. Mark Simpson is by far the sharpest mind when it comes to changing masculinities. With a worldwide reputation, a long story of excellence and many international publications he is simply world wide leading.[from www.scienceofthetime.com here – nice article, too]

They go on to give an overview of his books and a selection of his best bits to get you salivating. My favourite is still his article, ‘Walk like a man’, which I quoted in another blog post (Why we need Stonewall), and I still pick up and savour It’s a queer world often. His ideas are so singularly perceptive and against the tide, reading him is strangely like being listened to at the same time as you’re listening to him. And as befits someone who thinks and writes so incisively about masculinities, I have to say I find something deeply erotic in his  unique balance of  insight, intelligence, humour, strength, vulnerability, balls and gentleness, gravitas and worldliness, moral courage and healthy filth. Whenever I read his work, I think of the way that Sontag praises Barthes:

He always wrote full out, was always concentrated, keen, indefatigable. […] it is work that, strenuously unwilling to be boring or obvious, favours compact assertion, writing that rapidly covers a great deal of ground.
(Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes reprinted in Where the stress falls, p. 65)

It’s writing that has a punch and a musicality that inspires me and that I aspire to, even if I rarely achieve it.  Good on you, Mark, and thanks for letting us know.

How to write

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From the Guardian, Ten Rules for Writing Fiction starts off with Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules, and then lists 10 do’s and don’ts from another ten authors. Leonard’s are the most entertaining. Advising against using adverbs, he says ‘I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”. Annie Enright says “The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.” I like Roddy Doyle’s advice about using a thesaurus:  “Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.’

In fact, I like all of it. Anything that keeps me from actually writing for a bit longer.