About that Face to Face Book Group: On Reading and Writing

I live on the edge of a very small town in Sussex County, Virginia. It is the home of those staples: peanuts and bacon. I moved here about five years ago and have spent most of that time working rather than getting involved in community life. This year, I decided I needed more non-work interaction in my life, so I joined the book group at my local library branch. I read A LOT so getting the homework done wasn’t going to be a problem. And the group meets one hour, once a month, five minutes from my house. (It’s actually close enough that even I could ride my bike and may do so in the spring.)

We met Tuesday and talked about We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It is a story told from the perspective of mother and son, complicated by poverty and hope and love. We learn about what it is like to be undocumented but integrated in America. And, even more importantly, it reminds us of the terrible tragedy of the impact of zip code on education and thus opportunity. I can recommend it and you can read my full review at my book blog.

I’m really posting this blog to celebrate the book group and some ideas about writing: SO much fun to sit around a table with thoughtful people and just talk about a book for an hour. One woman provided several interpretations that had never occurred to me and expanded the possible understandings of the book. I haven’t dug this deep into a book for awhile.

As for writing…what struck me most out of the whole book was a comment from the author in the Q & A at the end. The interviewer asked her about writing her second novel, and she talked about the fear of disappointing her readers. This fear tainted her writing:

I was so worried about writing a “good” book that I ended up writing a carefully polished book with absolutely no heart.

She owes her freeing herself from that fear to a friend in her writers’ group who reminded her that she didn’t have anything to prove:

Somehow, those word set me free. I stopped trying to be good and just started to write–and the book improved dramatically from that moment on.

Two lessons leap out here for writing teachers, or indeed teachers anywhere: let them write (read/learn/share) without worrying about meeting a rubric or impressing someone else and give them community in which to do it. In my writing workshop, students produced fascinating pieces of writing when I gave them a chance to record their lives and stories. They wrote letters and stories and poems. And they wanted to read what their classmates wrote because they were so different.

I understand the concern with impressing people. The need to be profound. I wrote about it here and discovered Tim Owens shared a similar issue on his own blog.

I’m just decided that I am going to keep writing anyway.

Building Community Around Reading

I attended the book group at the local library today. Today’s group was fun! A welcoming group of women who had smart and intriguing ideas about the book. One woman, in particular, had several interesting ideas about characters and their motives that I simply hadn’t considered. I am looking forward to next month.

I was in a book group before I moved to the farm but that requires a long country drive and a ferry ride so I had to give it up.  Until today, for the past five years, my reading community has been virtual, mostly tied to Library Thing.

I started as a lurker who mostly used the site to keep track of my reading. Over the past three or four years, I have been participating in one of their online groups and have about ten people that I follow on a regular basis. Three of them I was able to meet face to face last year so I will admit to feeling a bit closer to them. But, I have also built a strong relationships with two women I have only met in the online group.

This year, I am committed to be more involved. In the past, I have checked in only when I have finished a book and I went to update my thread, often just once a week. But this community is active on a daily basis and my weekly checkins simply weren’t enough. I was overwhelmed by all the posts and often left without posting at all.

This year, I’ve checked in every other day and sometimes even daily. I update my own thread with comments about my current reading or other items of bookish interest so people have a reason to visit my thread. I take time to reply to commenters as well. I also get caught up on the threads of my friends. I don’t feel like I always have to comment but I try to get involved at least once or twice a week, commenting on something they posted or getting involved a discussion with them and others on their threads. I’ve tried to keep my list of friends short so I can be more thoughtful and focused.  As with so many things in life, the key to success is knowing how much you can commit to and then committing to it.

Beyond Work: Finding Your Own Space in the Day

My “of interest” post this week focuses on a Washington Post reporter even though it’s really supposed to focus on poet Donald Hall. The reporter exposed Hall to ridicule and was criticized.

I’m thinking about Donald Hall because I’m reading Essays After Eighty and The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, a collection published in 2015. I have come to love this grizzled, rumpled old man who isn’t afraid to dive into the vagaries of old age who, after a lifetime of poetry, can no longer write poems:

New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.

Both his prose and the insights he communicates make it a pleasure to read about what he does.

In the essay “Physical Malfitness” he describes his physical failing as he ages, but also his lifetime failure as an athlete. However, even though he doesn’t play, he loves baseball. He watches every night during the season, cheering on the Boston Red Sox. He watches without doing anything else, and he compares this single minded focus on baseball with other writers like Yeats and Eliot who read westerns and mysteries in the evenings.

Our brains need to rest, to reach in different directions, to focus on something that brings us pleasure without any concern for a test.  It may be baseball, or a particular genre, or…I like to crochet and stream PBS shows. I’m counting and creating with the crochet hook but also letting my mind follow a compelling story or engaging educational experience. The latter is a fancy way of saying “Great British Baking Show.” I’m watching the Master Series now so it is educational as I’m learning how to bake classic breads and desserts and more.

Our students also need their chance to get beyond their school work. A chance to pursue passions without accountability, just learn or be or do as they find their way. These moments of freedom, minds ebbing and flowing around some activity or event, can be percolators of innovation.