In March I began reviewing nonfiction science and nature books here on Wild Muse. There were a couple of reasons this came about. First, after experimenting with blogging for several years, I’d grown a little bored with the model of writing a post about a published science paper. Second, my life shifted in ways that precluded being able to do even that when, within the span of a few months, I finished my first book and became a new mother. Suddenly, my time was too limited and too fractured to write regularly in a meaningful way. It was not just my blog suffering from neglect, it was my professional writing too.
Slowly I learned to be okay with the fact that I’m a Writer who is not currently writing. At first, it felt like my identity had been stripped away. If I wasn’t writing, then who was I? What was I doing with my time? Could I still say I was a writer? In addition to being a full-time mom to a rambunctious toddler, I continued to help my husband get his business off the ground; I found new depths of meaning in each of these roles. But a part of me still groped blindly in the dark for something to hold onto from my writerly life: I keened for time and mental space to write again and was repeatedly frustrated when this absurd venture turned into something akin to Waiting for Godot. I’ve been a cyclist for long enough to know I was simply spinning my wheels, doing nought but going through the motions. And so I settled down, and I listened to the Reader Yin of my Writer Yang, the part of me who yearned to be a Reader again. I became comfortable with putting my writing away for the time being; I imagine this scene as a wild bird released from a rattan cage that I watch as it careens out of my window . . . and I must trust it will come home to roost again. Someday. I then learned to curl up with a book whenever the opportunity arose.
Being a Reader again has afforded me the time and space to analyze how other writer’s write and structure their stories. I was also asked by two different presses to read forthcoming books — Wild Again: The Struggle to Save the Black-Footed Ferret (David Jachowski; Univ. of California Press), to provide a cover blurb, and In The Fullness of Time (Chris Norment; Univ. of North Carolina Press) to provide developmental editorial comments. Wild Again was an especially wonderful and enjoyable surprise. I can’t adequately describe how gratifying it felt to be asked to partake in a book’s pre-publication development and marketing. It was almost like ducking behind the creative curtain and spying on other writers as they dressed their projects for unveiling.
Because I have a toddler and work part-time, freetime is a rare beast in my life. There are two things I have to fight for every week: time to read and time to exercise. Sometimes I find myself devouring chapters when I wake at 2 a.m. and can’t return to slumber — a rather new nighttime habit I can only attribute as a holdover from my year-long “sleepless training” of breastfeeding multiple times per night for months on end. But more typically, I read while riding my stationary bike trainer. It’s not glamorous, but it kills two birds with one stone. While I adore riding my Orbea on actual roads, and I live in one of the best areas of the U.S. for bicycling, I’m no longer able to simply start pedaling outside on a whim. So I ride while my son naps. And I read.
A few years ago the New Yorker published a piece, “Climbers” on road cyclists in Rwanda. The writer, Phillip Gourevitch, made the astute observation that when the athletes he was profiling were out for a training ride they were both escaping the poverty that pervaded their lives while pursuing the promise of a better one. Cycling as simultaneous escape and pursuit. I love this image. When you’re racing, you’re trying to pursue the riders in front of you while escaping the ones in back. Escape and pursuit. Pursuit and escape. This is the image that’s often near the fore of my thoughts on the rare occassion when there’s a chance to pedal up my drive and follow a gravel mountain road up to Craven Gap, where I then hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and — if time allows — ride for miles on end. For a few hours, I get to escape being an on-call mommy and I pursue that fleeting feeling of what I once was: someone who spent 20 hours a week riding a bike, someone who regularly logged more than 200 miles per week, someone who called herself a road cyclist. Someone who, once upon a time, wrote a book. Escape and pursuit. Pursuit and escape.
On my stationary trainer, reading and riding while my son slumbers, I escape the guilt of not being a Writer anymore, and I pursue being a Reader. This is the lost side of my personna, the part that drew me to becoming a writer in the first place, and also the part I’d lost touch with when deep in the throes of writing my book and then later becoming a sleep deprived mommy with no time, or focus, to read more than a child’s board book.
I have become a much more sensitve Reader this year. This is, in part, a natural extension of becoming an author myself. But it’s also because I’ve allowed myself the time recently to truly study other writers’ writing. I pay attention to how a story begins, how transitions between chapters are crafted, how dialogue is employed, and how different themes are woven together or competing narratives are braided. I’ve also become very interested in whether writers reveal how they did their reporting and research. Two of my favorite writers, John Vaillant and David Quammen, are crystal clear about how they collect their information: from in-person or phone interviews, from field observations, or from research of already published writings. It’s fascinating to me to analyze how they weave this information into their finished stories, how they turn the reporting process into an embedded part of their final crafted story.
While reading with a purpose takes much longer than reading for simple enjoyment, I’m grateful to have done this experiment on being a Good Reader. I hope it will make me a better Writer.