For All You Thinkers Out There

Last weekend, as hordes of marathon runners went by my window and a boisterous crowd cheered them on, I was reading a book about quiet.

For anyone who even slightly identifies with being an introvert, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking will be a revelation and a relief. Ever bemoaned the fact that people who talk the most get the most respect? Wished for a more private workspace so you could get important work done? Felt that collaboration killed creativity? Has Cain got some proof for you!

First, let’s be clear that introverts aren’t people who hide from the world. According to Cain, introverts “may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas.” Check, check and check. To me, quiet people aren’t necessarily shy – they’re just more about meaning than volume.

If that sounds like you, then how about this? Cain has a 10-point manifesto for introverts that includes “#7 – It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.” Well, phew, because I do that all the time. (Should I be admitting that?)

Cain also delves into the quiet person’s compulsion to act more social than they feel. Is it fake to turn it up a few notches in your work environment or at a party? She explores the idea with psychology professor Brian Little, who feels there is nothing wrong with behaving like an extrovert in certain situations: “He views self-monitoring as an act of modesty. It’s about accommodating oneself to situational norms, rather than ‘grinding down everything to one’s own needs and concerns.’” As long as you’re still giving yourself time and space for the things that really matter to you, there’s room for a little pretend extroversion.

What about the fear of public speaking, which Cain worked hard to get over? Extroverts feel it too, and it may be a primal human reaction:

One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get the hell off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in the predator’s eye.

Cain’s point throughout the book is that there’s no need for thoughtful people to feel hunted by our extroverted culture. And she makes her point beautifully. Her sharp, clear writing reminds me why words are my favourite thing in the world. (My partner likes to joke that I like books more than I like him. That’s not true . . . they’re totally different.) Sitting down with Quiet is like having a long, satisfying talk with a smart friend. Just add pajamas.

Read Your Way Through

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing collecting all these quotes. I find them in articles and books. My friends say them or I overhear them in the grocery line. But what are they for? Why am I such a writer-downer? I have boxes full of scraps of paper scribbled with words I once found magical. You’d think maybe I wouldn’t ever look at them, but quite often I go looking for a particular quote and end up lost in wordy bliss.

But do these boxes of words have more of a purpose? I found an answer in Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books, a collection of essays on the role of books in our lives:

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England. … It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. … Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

It makes so much sense when you think of it that way – recording things not just to remember and enjoy but to understand.

Whenever I’m looking for inspiration about writing, I spend some time with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. She’s another fan of writing it all down:

When I reread my notebooks it never fails to remind me that I have a life, that I felt and thought and saw. It is very reaffirming, because sometimes writing seems useless and a waste of time. Suddenly you are sitting in your chair fascinated by your own mundane life. That’s the great value of art – making the ordinary extraordinary. We awaken ourselves to the life we are living.

Inspiration about writing can also come from movies, though a good bookish movie is rare. I just watched Stuck in Love, written by Josh Boone. Greg Kinnear’s character, an author struggling to write something new, is speaking to a group of writing students:

My favourite book is a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and in the closing lines of the title book, Carver says ‘I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.’ And I think that that’s what writing is. It’s listening for that beating heart. And when we hear it, it’s our job to decipher it to the best of our abilities.

So, with all of these lovely words in mind (and in the box), maybe my resolution this year should be to write it all down. Capture my life. Take what others have said and find deeper meaning by adding my own words.

That, and to read 30 books. If I can get to 25, I can get to 30. Two down, 28 to go.

Resolution Recap

So, it’s almost December. Who remembers their New Year’s Resolutions? Anyone, anyone?

I know a lot of people who don’t like to make them. They have various reasons, like:
a)    they never keep them anyway,
b)    if there’s something they want to do, they just do it (not sure I believe this one), or
c)    they’re tired of people like me asking about their resolutions.

Me, I love resolutions. I found a list from a couple of years ago that ambitiously outlined a dozen goals for the year, on a sweeping range of topics. Clearly I’d been feeling very motivated. I think I even did half of them.

This past January, I scaled back and made only two resolutions. Make a website (check) and read 24 books. That’s two a month, which seemed doable, but considering that the scores for the last four years were 14, 11, 16, and 9 (yes, I keep track), 24 was going to be a stretch.

I am happy to report that, with five weeks to go, I am halfway through two books that are vying to be lucky #24!  The first is the very serious A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, author of the enthralling You Deserve Nothing, which I wrote about earlier this year. It’s a read-a-bit-at-a-time book for me, maybe because it’s an unhappy story, at least so far. I’m not very good at unhappy – usually, if Oprah’s raving about how gut-wrenching a book is, you can count me out. But Maksik’s writing is beautiful, and You Deserve Nothing still won’t let me go, so I persevere.

The second book on my current pile is Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. I’m a bit late to the party on Cheryl Strayed. It seems everywhere I look someone is reading or talking about her hit memoir Wild, but this is the first time I’ve read her. It’s definitely not going to be the last.

Strayed is the formerly-anonymous advice columnist Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of her best work. It’s a perfect purse book – you know, something to carry around in case you have to take a bus or wait in line and have time to read a few pages.

The letters are heartfelt and complex, and you’ll marvel at Strayed’s responses. She writes pages and pages to these strangers, often sharing very personal stories from her own past to help them find answers. She’s funny and smart and she’s a delight. Many of the letters are from writers, and she finds beautiful ways to motivate them:

Writing is hard for every last one of us . . . Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

Most of Strayed’s lovely advice boils down to plain old trying:

What’s important is that you make the leap. Jump high and hard with intention and heart.
. . . It’s up to you to make your life.

I couldn’t have picked a better #24.


“It was Sunday afternoon, never a good time for me, especially in winter. Old sorrows visit me then, and shabby old guilts, and a restlessness born of scattered Sunday papers, cold coffee, overheated dens, unmade beds, too long in the house, and the sure and certain knowledge of a weekend frittered away and Monday morning looming. . . . I know that Sunday afternoon can be fought, with long walks, cooking something French, or just getting out of the house, but the effort even to dress is enervating. Nevertheless, if my husband and I are both exceedingly Sunday-stunned and in imminent danger of having a fight out of sheer boredom, I will consent to go, gracelessly, to a movie.”
John Chancellor Makes Me Cry, Anne Rivers Siddons

I have a tendency to get Sunday-stunned. So do some of my friends. One friend’s husband called me in desperation on a gray afternoon, begging me to come up with an activity that would take her off his hands. He was sort of kidding, but he was right that outside intervention is usually needed in order to become un-stunned.

Even dogs feel it sometimes. In Garth Stein’s charming dog-narrated novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, furry wannabe-human Enzo gets bogged down in dog life until a fluke occurrence turns things around:

I wallowed in the emptiness of my lonely days. . . . Until one day when a fortunate accident happened that changed my life. Denny turned on the TV in the morning to check the weather report, and he forgot to turn the TV off.

Let me tell you this: The Weather Channel is not about weather; it is about the world! It is about how weather affects us all, our entire global economy, health, happiness, spirit. . . . Absolutely fascinating.

Now, I’m not advocating TV as the solution, though Enzo does use it to educate himself:

I tried to teach myself to read by studying Sesame Street, but it didn’t work. I achieved a degree of literacy, and I can still tell the difference between “pull” and “push” on a door, but after I figured out the shapes and letters, I couldn’t grasp which sounds each letter made and why.

Right about now, you may be thinking Do I really want to read a book about what a dog is thinking? The answer is a resounding Yes. I adored this book. It’s smart, funny, and full of love. This idea caught my attention: “Any problems that may occur have ultimately been caused by you, because you are responsible for where you are and what you are doing there.”

Is that really true? I guess if I’m in a bad situation and choose not to do anything about it, my problem becomes my fault. Or rather, the lack of problem-solving is my fault. The world is full of endless possibilities, so why do we hide and worry instead of taking action?

Hmm, so if I’m grumpy and lazy and haven’t done the breakfast dishes, it’s probably up to me to get going and do something with my day. But really I’d rather just read. . .


P.S. I went swimming instead. Just as good for the soul but more refreshing after being cooped up all day.

But It’s Not Really A Book

My friend the automated-library-lady called the other day to say I had three requested items available for pickup – an unheard of delight, even for someone with a never-ending list of requested items. (Number 95 in line for 5 copies? No problem!) Off I went to retrieve my prized paper friends, only to find that one of them was an audiobook. Hmmm. Do I want an audiobook?

One of the great pleasures of reading is setting the scene. Cozying up with a slightly rumpled paperback. Window seat. Afternoon sun. Mug of tea. Or even more idyllic, let Alexander Maksik and You Deserve Nothing take you along for this early morning read in Paris:

I crossed the bridge and stopped to watch the sunrise over the dull industrial buildings to the east. I walked up Boulevard Henri IV until I came to the Place de la Bastille and took a table at the Café Francais. Waiters were still arranging chairs when I sat down. The wind was very cold. I ordered a crème and a croissant. The waiter didn’t speak. The coffee and milk came in separate pitchers, both scalding hot, and the croissant was still warm. I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. I ate very fast and then, remembering Silver, poured the coffee and milk very slowly.

The first thing I thought after my hunger had subsided and the coffee began to brighten me was that he’d approve. He’d like that I was sitting there alone, so early in the morning, paying such careful attention to simple, beautiful things. Paris morning, coffee, milk, pitcher.

Ah, Paris. I’m pretty sure my new 9-disc box set and my laptop would ruin that moment.

What do you do with your eyes when you’re listening to a book? Look at the screen? Stare into space? Can you get lost in a book the same way Maksik’s young Gilad does?

I read the way you read when you’re young. I believed that everything had been written for me, that what I saw, felt, learned, was discovery all my own. I read for hours without rest.

When I looked up, it was nearing eleven. I ordered an omelette and another coffee. The café had begun to fill. I was surprised to find people around me, reading newspapers, chatting. I was part of that place, part of that moment, one Saturday morning.

My long-awaited book is apparently a gripping thriller, a real page-turner. So what happens if I want to listen faster? At least I won’t be able to cheat and flip ahead a few pages to see what happens.

I don’t know why I’m resisting so much. Having someone read to me could end up being my new favourite thing.

Ok, here I go. Pressing play.

If You Invite Me, I Will Come…

Last month I accidentally went to a baseball game. My friend gave me two tickets she couldn’t use, so I grabbed my most baseball game-ish friend – you know, the one who’s sporty enough to call it a “ball game” – and off we went.

Who knew it would win me over within minutes. The crack of the bat, the popcorn-scented air, the promise of cold beer delivered right to you by the yellow-shirted BEER GUY. Summer air, but with a hint of rain and fall, kids jumping up and down maniacally to draw the cameras, Sweet Caroline filling the air between innings. Darkness descending, the home team getting that final out as the crowd roars, fireworks sizzling up from the field and dancing along the backstop.

Any true baseball fan has read at least one of W. P. Kinsella’s books. His writing sings with love of the game. In Butterfly Winter, he writes that “properly played, baseball consisted of mathematics, geometry, art, philosophy, ballet, and carnival, all intertwined like the mystical colors in a rainbow.” And when explaining why he loves writing about baseball, he has said it’s because “on a true baseball field, the foul lines diverge forever, eventually taking in most, or all of the universe.”

Writer’s Dread

Does this sound familiar? You’re about to sit down to write, and you’re nervous, feeling a soul-deep dread. Doubts fly through your head.

Maybe I don’t know how to do this. Maybe I won’t be able to think of any words. Maybe that perfect sentence I thought of when I was brushing my teeth is gone from my mind forever, and I’ll never think of anything as good. Maybe I won’t be able to keep writing during the whole 5 minute freewriting exercise, even though the writing teacher said we could just write “blah blah blahbeddy blah” if we run out of words.

In Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland speak of every creator’s ultimate fear – “the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.” Why do we doubt ourselves so much? How bad could it be if we just tried?

Bayles and Orland also reassure: “Art is made by ordinary people.” Of course you’ll be able to think of words. Of course you can write another beautiful sentence if you forget the tooth-brushing one. Writing is endless. It’s new and different every day. The power is in the trying.

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork… Your job is to learn to work on your work.
Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland

I am a Hungry Reader

Sometimes food writing is so powerful that reading about mashed potatoes at nine in the morning sends you to the kitchen to whip up a batch.

Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle, which is largely a dark and dramatic book, surprises with some of the most vivid, charming food descriptions I’ve ever read. I think it’s the verbs — where else does food drown and lounge? A writing teacher of mine emphasized the importance of active verbs (what’s more boring than starting a sentence with “there is”?), and Davidson’s writing shows this off perfectly.

Bastardly plump green olives, fat with red pimiento stuffing, lounged contentedly in a yellow bowl. A plateful of tomatoes soaked in black vinegar with snowy nuggets of bocconcini. Sheaves of pita and cups brimming with hummus and tzatziki. Oysters, crabs, and scallops drowning a wonderful death in a marinara ocean; little wedges of lemon balanced on the plate’s edge like life preservers waiting to be thrown in. Pork sausages with peppercorn rims. Dolmathes, trying hard to be swarthy and macho in their little green suits, scented with sweet red wine. Thick rings of calamari. Souvlaki shared skewers with sweet buttered onions and braised peppers. There was a shoulder of lamb so well cooked it fell apart if you only looked at it while thinking about a fork, surrounded by a happy little family of roast potatoes.
– The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson

Scribbled Words

Sometimes you read a sentence and it just storms through your mind. What happens in writers’ brains, what kind of magic do they add to ordinary words, to create a sentence that thrills and resonates?

When I find words that are impossible to forget, I grab the nearest scrap of paper and write them down. Of course, the next best thing to saving perfect words is sharing them. So, whenever you need a dose of inspiration, stop by and check out the books I’m quoting. Think of it as taking a quick swim in a fresh lake of language. Here are my favourite passages from the beautiful book of the day, Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Jump in.

“… and she laughed, a sound like violins gone wild.”

“I have no idea of this man’s tastes. He is a complete blank to me, a man-shaped darkness cut into air.”
Chocolat, Joanne Harris