"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

A Little Resolution Realism to Start the New Year

December 30th, 2014 by

I’ve not taken New Year’s resolutions seriously for decades. The reason is simple. I’ve never been able to do much with them. Today, when I consider how hard it is to shape just one new habit, I question the intelligence of beginning the year by inflicting a new discipline on myself that won’t become habit for at least two weeks. Why begin the year on such a negative note?

When I forget this wisdom or find myself in the company of friends who are making their New Years resolutions, I ask myself the following: Is this new idea I am considering really something I can see myself still doing on January 10? If it is not, and usually it isn’t, I move on to consider the evening line up of TV offerings.

Closely related to New Years resolutions are self-help books. Consider the following, all of which I see as rigged to fail:

Five easy steps to loving your children the way they deserve to be loved;
ten easy ways to lose weight;
seven steps to an intimacy-filled marriage.

Sure, I’m drawn to the promises. But the numerical parts, the steps, always involve something I am temperamentally opposed to doing and that will become a roadblock and, frankly, just more to feel guilty about after I’ve failed. I haven’t bought a self-help book, not even for writing purposes, since 1980.

The Lure of the Next Rung
With all that said, I’m not immune to the lure of progress, or to the idea of my life being better than it is. And certainly, I like to reflect as the current calendar year ends. How much better the world could be, for example, with increased reading habits. And how easy that would be to add to our lives.

Adding a reading habit is not at all like dieting. It’s more like binging on Christmas cookies. And like binging, the more you read, the more you find worth reading.

I still remember being eighteen and deciding to read Steinbeck. I had never read any of his books, and I decided to get started. I found I didn’t agree with everything, but he was a thinker, and this encouraged me to start thinking and considering what I thought of the world. I wanted to read other writers. That same year I turned to Hemingway.

I know that the beginning of the project can seem to involve more pain than gain. And most would rather not appear stupid than to read something they don’t think they will get. But once you’ve read that first book, another book or article by the same author or another on the topic usually goes down much smoother. Reading feeds on itself. First I read Tolkien. Then I read Lewis. Then I found Charles Williams, the hardest of those writers, to be an interesting read.

So here’s my suggestion—if you are stumped for new resolutions for this year: Read a bit every day. Read anything that you think might bring pleasure. Write down your thoughts, when you have a few moments, in a cheap notebook. What happens after doing this two or three times a week for a year is this: You find you have read quite a few books and written down quite a few thoughts.

A Good Book is Not Hard to Find
Lists of books will be found on any bookseller’s catalog online. A better list might be found by talking with friends who read (that’s how I have found most of my favorite books). This also helped my relationships, by the way, sort of a collateral benefit.

But most of all, don’t wear yourself out over procedure or order of steps. If you need steps, the following five will do: Pick up a book; sit down; open the book; make sure the light is good; start to read.

Or, as Flannery O’Connor once said of the act of writing, reducing five steps to two: Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Begin.

Happy reading (and writing) for the new year. And if you read something you really like, drop a line and let me know what it is.

Posted in Uncategorized| 4 Comments


Comment by Joseph Bentz on December 31, 2014 at 11:28 am

One comment on self-help books: I remember hearing an editor at a writers conference say that a reader study showed that when people are facing a problem, buying a self-help book makes readers feel they are resolving it even before they have read the book! Just the act of buying the book makes them feel as if they are taking action. I mostly agree with you about those books, but I have found a number of books on the craft of writing to be helpful over the years. Happy New Year! And happy reading.

Comment by Tom on December 31, 2014 at 11:34 am

Joe, I have to agree with you about self-help books and publishing. Some of the first books I read were books that helped me think in clear terms about the publishing world and sending out manuscripts. A great deal has changed since I first read those books in the 1980s, of course, but they helped me to get a handle on how a writer might enter the world of publishing. Happy New Year!

Comment by Emily Griesinger on January 4, 2015 at 7:33 pm

So, I am reading The Odyssey by Mr. Homer. I’m sure I read excerpts in Jr. High or HS, or maybe when I taught the Greek myth unit for 8th graders in the 80’s. But the pages are flying. Who knew? –EG

Comment by Tom on January 4, 2015 at 9:05 pm

Emily, I really like The Odyssey. I think it is a fast read, much more so than The Iliad.

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