Critical Reading Post Graduation

Reading is important. I don’t think I should have to tell you, but if you want, you can read all about why herehere, and here. I graduated from college 6 months ago (wow), and one of the single greatest things was suddenly having the free time to read and write for leisure. I majored in English with a Creative Writing concentration (something I will never regret), which allowed me to focus the bulk of my time on literary assignments (<3), but left very little time (ie. none) to read the Tom Robbin’s novels in my nightstand.

Although I don’t have nearly the amount of free time I thought I would have, I will say that having the ability to read for pleasure again is truly liberating, and if you don’t pick up a book now and again, you absolutely should. Oddly enough though, I still haven’t finished Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Instead, I’ve been reaching for The Great Gatsby, The Waste Land, and even the Heath Anthologies from my college days. I’ve been using this time to catch up on reading I should have done years ago, but the fact that I’m reading because I want to, and not because a teacher is telling me to, is so much more rewarding.

Although I most certainly read for fun (Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums was a fun one!), following college, I’ve primarily been reading as a way to keep learning. And although reading for pleasure is certainly noble, critical reading is perhaps even more beneficial. I like to read a fairly even amount of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and each genre serves a different purpose for me. When it comes to poetry especially, I like to dive deep into the book, beyond the words physically on the page. I like to spend my time making association maps to find connections between different poems and images in a collection. I like to note the similarities in style between different writers. I like to research the epigraphs and quotations. I like poems that lead me to other poems. And sometimes, I like to dive even deeper by writing about what I read (in my opinion, the most effective way to analyze a piece of literature is to write about it). And if I’m writing about a poetry collection, you can bet I’ve read it cover to cover at least 3 times. Doing this keeps my critical reading muscles in shape, helps me to focus on varying writing styles, and gets me motivated to work even harder on my own poetry.

I read nonfiction to keep me motivated (Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a great read for anyone struggling against resistance, ie. You want to write more than anything, but will do anything except write), and to keep me educated (I’m currently reading Autobiography of a Yogi, a great read if you have any interest in yoga, meditation, or Indian culture). The thing that’s really cool about reading nonfiction? You’ll always have something to talk about.

And fiction, I truly do read for pleasure and pleasure alone. I better bust that Tom Robbins out of my nightstand.

My point is that reading is an activity you should never stop doing. Read for fun, read for knowledge, read for personal growth.

Read books that challenge you, then read them again.

Want to see what I’ve been reading this year? Check out my reading list. What books have you been reading?


Writing Life and the 9 to 5

As I neared college graduation 6 months ago, I was most excited about the prospect of being able to spend my free time reading and writing for leisure. Although I work a minimum of 40 hours per week at a pretty typical office job (and spend another 5 hours per week on my commute), I figured I’d have an abundance of free time to work on all my passion projects (poetry, blogging, reviewing, reading, etc, etc). But there are a couple of things that make the day job/night writer thing a bit tricky.

(1) Once you leave college, no one will hold you accountable for doing your work. Despite how badly I wanted to write, it took me months to sit down and discipline myself to work hard on a regular (ie. daily) basis. It’s still a struggle. It’ll probably always be a struggle. You want to write? Then sit down (or stand, whatever) and WRITE. Seriously, go do it right now.

And (2), no matter how hard you were able to work yourself in college, you’ll likely need to change your ways once you adjust to the daily grind. In college, I regularly functioned on a few hours of sleep. Because college offers such a flexible schedule and (in comparison to corporate life) is incredibly laid back, it’s possible to get three hours of sleep, roll out of bed, and still function perfectly fine during Advanced Shakespeare. But in the “real world,” I have to wake up out 6:15 each morning, guzzle coffee, don my dress slacks, manage my hair, and be alert enough to, at a minimum, reasonably operate a computer for 8 straight hours. It’s an unnatural schedule, and more taxing than it sounds.

If you want to work all day, and spend your nights writing, you need to hold yourself accountable. I set reasonable goals for myself (ones that I’m capable of accomplishing, and that still allow me to get at least 5 or 6 hours of sleep). Some reasonable goals I try to follow:

  • Publish one blog post each Tuesday (a new goal!)
  • Write 2-3 articles per month
  • Write one book review per month
  • Read 2 books per month
  • Write every day, primarily focusing on poetry

These goals are reasonable. They give me some flexibility, because although I strive to write every day, I allow myself to write in different styles and genres. Nothing is off limits. Some days I work on my poetry, some days on a research paper, and other days on a blog post. I give myself some deadlines to work with, I put them in my calendar, and I commit to them. In fact, right now I’m missing out on watching a comedy with my family to write this blog post. After all, my calendar says “Writing Life and the 9 to 5,” so duty calls. I find it helpful to write my “assignment” directly on my calendar instead of simply writing “blog due.” Being specific about what I want to accomplish each Tuesday gives me a gentle reminder of what I want to write about, and allows me to brainstorm throughout the week.

I have long-term goals too, things like getting published in literary magazines, blogging for a literary site, writing a book, recording an audio book, becoming a poetry editor, etc, etc, etc. but I’ve found that it’s best to start with manageable goals that will help me to accomplish these bigger ones in the future.

My point is that working full time and finding time to establish yourself as a writer is no easy task, but many people do it, and they do it with kids, with extensive household responsibilities, and with far more distractions than I’ll ever have. So what’s my excuse? The goal is to someday (someday, someday, someday) be able to write full time, but for now, I’m working hard, paying my bills, and always, always writing.

Writing Garbage/ETC

I write everyday, but some days are harder than others. Some days I find myself churning out pages of inspired poetry… Other days I struggle to complete a single prompt. And still other days I barely write more than a journal entry. It’s a very novice writing life, and I sometimes get discouraged with myself, especially when I churn out pages and pages of overly personal poetry (it happens, okay). But I keep on writing. Even when my writing is trash, I keep going, and eventually I get out of my slump.

The act of writing poetry is often cathartic, and I find that my productivity increases when I’m feeling particularly emotional or “down.” I occasionally get into writing slumps. Sometimes I’m simply uninspired. There are days when I don’t feel like writing at all. And you know what? That’s okay …If you discipline yourself. Writing is work. Our passions are work. On those days when I don’t want to write, there are a few things I do to get the ink flowing:

  • Free Writing: When I’m feeling totally uninspired, I find free writing exercises to be of tremendous benefit. Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes, grab a typewriter or reliable pen and paper, and just start writing. Don’t think about it. Just let your thoughts go and write out everything that comes to mind. Don’t be judgmental of your work. Just write. Look back at it in a couple of days. The noise in your mind may actually inspire some great writing.
  • Pick a Prompt: There are times when I tend to get a bit obsessed with a particular aspect of my life, and devote all of my creative energy to that one thing (ie. during my last semester of college, I was so emotional/stressed/anxious that nearly all of my poems hinted at my anxiety for the forthcoming change). Focusing on prompts is a great way to force yourself out of the bubble and into new territory.
  • Dear Diary… On those days when I simply can’t bring myself to write or revise a poem, I grab an old journal from my book shelf and just start scribbling. I find that just forcing myself into the act of writing can be beneficial, even if the subject matter is completely worthless. The following excerpt is from Feb. 8, 2012, for your reference: “Spring break is less than a month away. It would be cool if summer was less than a month away. But I shouldn’t wish time away. Away away away.” Yay, trash! But still, it’s writing. Total garbage writing… but writing.

The thing is, if you want to write good poetry, then by all means, just write when you’re feeling inspired. But if you want to write great poetry (I do!), then you need to do the work. It’s as simple as that. Stop spending time questioning your abilities as a writer. Just write! Write garbage. Write total trash. Even the worst poem ever written is still 100% better than no poem at all.