Reading to write

It’s Saturday morning here and I’d been planning on having a day off from anything work related, and yet as soon as I free myself from feeling that I need to work or write, I suddenly want to. I’ve worked my way through the morning papers, had a coffee and put some soup on to burble, while outside the wind whistles through the trees and dark clouds inch their way across the sky. It looks like a nice day for staying inside and reading. I’m still reading a lot at the moment, reading to write.

I was reading Pat Goodson’s book again the other day and was looking at her section on fast writing- writing for 5 mins everything that’s in your head, generating ideas and dumping them on the paper where you can come back to them later and sift your way through to find the connections, synergies and ideas for further development. I like these fast writing moments, I’d tried a couple of 5 minute ‘shut up and writes’ from Pat Thomson’s website too and then I’d come across Inger Mewburn’s (you can find her on Twitter @thesiswhisperer) presentation on writing a journal article in 7 days (http://www.slideshare.net/ingermewburn/write-that-journal-article-in-7-days-12742195), which also had a couple of these 5 minute writing activities. There is something that frees your mind when you set yourself only 5 minutes to write. I’ve done this using focus questions suggested by Thomson, and I’ve done this with nothing other than a blank page before me. Each time at the end of 5 minutes I have a page scrawled with inky black words. I can’t do these writing dumps onto the computer screen – I have to have a hard copy notebook, a glistening white page just waiting for words to appear on it (I wonder why? This is something I need to think more about).

Going back and looking at what I’ve written in my 5 minute brain dumps I’m reminded of what my husband says about the way I mow the lawns. He thinks I mow like I’m pushing a shopping trolley, seeing one thing, zooming over to it, grabbing it and then zooming in the other direction, so that my mowing (like my shopping) becomes a criss-crossing of paths and intersections as I see something new to grab. My 5 minute writing activities are like this too. When I look back on them I see they are a criss-crossing of ideas, as my brain flits between one concept and the next. This flitting and jumping between ideas is one that happens to me when I read as well. I read something and suddenly my brain is taken on an adventure where I begin to think of the ways I could use, transform, challenge, link the ideas that I am reading. Sometimes I wonder how I might get back to the starting point.

It is then that editing and sifting becomes a key part of my processes as a writer – the point where I need to take control of my messy thoughts and mold them into a shape that might be worth reading. I’ve got a chapter in a new edited book ‘Pedagogies for the future’ which has just been released (you can find out more about the book here if you’re interested: https://www.sensepublishers.com/catalogs/bookseries/other-books/pedagogies-for-the-future/ ) that shows me how I need to do the sifting.  When I wrote the first draft of this chapter it was like my 5 minute writing pieces- full of what at times seemed like disparate ideas as I tried to get as many thoughts on paper as I could. The re-drafting process was central to me getting a chapter that had a sense of coherence and I spent some time visually mapping the progression of my chapter so that I could work out which ideas to strip away and which ones to flesh out in more detail. I hope I’ve been relatively successful in doing so and getting to a final product that links effectively between concepts- I’m still not convinced!

But as today’s blog suggests, today I’m reading to write. As an English teacher I tell students all the time that reading is an important way of improving their own writing. Yet, I can fail to take my own advice. It’s easy to get caught up in the all the things we need to do and all the reading that needs to be done as part of my academic and school teaching lives, and reading for pleasure or for discovering the ways that other people write can get lost. So I’m taking Goodson’s advice and spending some time reading about writing, in order to write. One of my favourite lines from her section on reading about writing is ‘Don’t waste precious time reading material that doesn’t help, motivate or touch you. Life is way too short to read all the good writing available let alone to waste time reading what doesn’t help’ (p. 35). In the same way that filling my body with transfats and sugar makes me feel stodgy and bloated, filling my brain with words that lack beauty, clarity, incisiveness and meaning makes me feel slow and sluggish. I love it when I read something that is so beautiful it makes my teeth ache, or something that is so perfectly constructed that I get a pang in my stomach. These are the things I want to read more of, and in my academic reading, I want the stories that reinforce the meaning of people’s lives. I want writing that shows me people, the world and myself in new and interesting ways. I’d like to write like that too, and so as I turn off my soup, I’m heading to the couch and I’m suspending the outside world for a while as I read to write.

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2 responses to “Reading to write

  1. Your writing “reinforces the meaning” of my life, for sure! Don’t ever stop (either the reading or the writing), please, and thank you for the gifts they represent.

  2. 🙂
    Thanks Pat – a lovely comment, which has made my day!

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