So many books, so little time

One of the maddening ironies of writing books is that it leaves so little time for reading others’. My bedside is piled with books, but it’s duty reading: books for book research, books for reviews. The ones I pine for are off on a shelf downstairs — Mary Roach

Since I was little, I have loved and enjoyed reading. Reading was never a chore especially when what you were reading was something interesting. Reading only became a chore when you had to read something for school or university and all you could see were words strung together to make a sentence but still couldn’t parse the meaning.

It was also during that time, you figured out what you liked and didn’t like to read. There have been a handful of books I couldn’t finish because they would literally put me to sleep or I would forced myself to read it but nothing stuck in my head.

I remember taking three university literature courses — 20th Century American literature, British literature and Canadian literature. Of the three, I enjoyed American literature the most. British literature was my most befuddling course. Maybe it had something to do with the professor’s delivery of the course materials. Maybe my brain wasn’t wired for the classics at the time. I still don’t think my brain is wired for the British classics. I loved Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (I read that book in junior high) but it isn’t enough to get a solid foothold on understanding and dissecting British literature.

And while I loved my 20th Century American literature course, the one book I couldn’t get into was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve mentioned in a previous blog the high degree of distaste I have for that book. Couldn’t get past page 11. That was it. Threw the book away. Still passed the course, though.

So, to cleanse the sour taste of being unable to read something that is considered a classic, I would go off and read something more grounded and slightly feral. That meant reading Michel Foucault and erotica. Not together. You know what I mean. Yes, I know… odd combination. That’s how I roll.

But I was pretty picky about the erotica, too. You get that way after you read enough of them. As in any genre, not all writers are the same. You click with some writers. And the ones you don’t click with… well… you don’t have to like everyone. You just have to like a few. Some stories I favoured more than others because of their ability to hook me into the scene (notice how I didn’t say ‘story’?That’s because I don’t remember any storylines) or there was some sort of shared sensibility I had with author that shone through the writing.

Post-university, I found myself not making enough time to read, just for the share pleasure of reading. I read newspapers and magazines… easily consumable copy that didn’t require more than maybe 20 minutes out of the day. But a 150-page, 200-page or 300-page book? Nah, didn’t make much time for those despite the fact I still had a habit of walking into a bookstore and buying novels that caught my eye, thinking I would read them ‘soon’. I know… pretty funny, eh?

I’m not ashamed to say that some of those books have never had their pages experience late-night maulings from me. I still have them. Not sure when I’m going to maul them. But they’re there when I want them.

However, I’m afraid they have a bit of a wait still because I have some (what I really mean is, a lot of) books that I need to read in the name of research for my writing project. Then there are two separate piles of ‘research’ books for two separate story ideas I’d like to explore after the current writing project. THEN, there is another pile I want to read just for the shear pleasure of reading. That pile is located at my bedside. You don’t want to know where my research piles are located.

It’s all organized chaos. Although something tells me I need to do some culling of the herd. I guess that means some books may never be mauled by me. But they’ll get a chance to be mauled by someone else. And that is always a good thing for a book.

So now, I have piles of books waiting to be ravished and I have a writing project that demands my attention. Throw in life and you’ve got an interesting juggling act. I suppose this is where I apply my time management skills but I think that more for the office than for life. I manage my time but it’s not rigid. Everything is fluid. For some people, that sounds like a horrible idea. For me, I don’t think so. I prioritize. Prioritizing works with fluidity. Rigid adherence to a schedule… not so much.

Can’t really complain, though. I’m surrounded by things that want my attention, and they are things I want to give my attention to. I’ll work my way through the piles of books and still have time for my writing projects. It’s not quite bliss.

But it’s damn close.

Treasure trove of revelations

It usually helps me write by reading – somehow the reading gear in your head turns the writing gear — Steven Wright

Last Monday, my research material for the short-story-turned-novel arrived. I can’t remember if there was ever a time I was this excited to do research. Each book, each item I took out of the cardboard box I deemed a treasure trove of revelations waiting to be discovered.

I can tell you my two main characters were excited, too. They’re reading the research along with me. I don’t notice them until I come across an interesting tidbit that intrigues them and one or both of them immediately enact an idea for me. No warning whatsoever. Just — BOOM. It’s so easy for them to tear me away from whatever I’m doing.

Fortunately, any moment/idea they play out for me lasts roughly a minute. And I take another minute to absorb their idea. Then I give them the side-eye and ask if that’s something they want to explore. They give me one of two responses — shrug and say it wouldn’t hurt to see if the idea has merit to the narrative, or they give me an enthusiastic ‘Hell yes!” They know I have final veto on an idea but we hash it out and make sure we’re all in agreement on any given idea/concept.

Since receiving the research material, I have made it a point to set aside a minimum of a hour a day to go through it. It’s kinda nice to purposefully set aside time to read. The book worm in me had missed it. The subject matter is beyond interesting. I admit I haven’t made time to read for the pure pleasure of it. But this is a start. I’m also thinking that reading non-fiction might be the only way for me to make time to read. There are certain genres of fiction I undoubtedly make time to read. But beyond those genres, I’m hard-pressed to make a concerted commitment to read for pleasure’s sake.

There was a time I would read anything. I was much younger back then, had fewer responsibilities and fewer distractions. Maybe I’m picky. Maybe I just have more interests vying for my attention.

All this research is going to be a boon for the short-story-turned-novel. Already there are little details I want to change, include and/or consider. I am genuinely excited about this. There is much that will influence how the story will evolve. This will give my characters a more rounded portrait of who they are at the beginning of the story and where they will end up at its conclusion. I have a couple of different endings in mind for them. But as I go through all the research material, I believe a new idea or two on ways to end the story may reveal themselves to me.

A treasure trove of revelations. I love it.

My four-legged partner

I call horses ‘divine mirrors’ — they reflect back the emotions you put in. If you put into love and respect and kindness and curiosity, the horse will return that
– Allan Hamilton

It has been more than five years since I said goodbye to my horse, Chaplin, before I had him mercifully putdown.

He was suffering from a hoof disease referred to as founder. I won’t get into the specifics of the disease. You can google that for yourself if you’re curious.

As Chaplin’s human partner (because we competed in amateur-level dressage) and his owner, one of my biggest priorities was to make sure Chaplin’s quality of life was good, if not great, as he grew older. The moment I decided I wanted to be a horse owner, I knew if Chaplin’s quality of life less than ideal with no realistic chance of improvement, I would put him down. The thought of him suffering with a prolonged illness never sat well with me. I would let him go whether or not I was ready to let him go. He was 16 years old when he died. Given his personality and stubbornness, I was always thought he’d live past 20. He was cheeky as hell and he was honest as hell.

Last week, a friend had posted on Facebook, an NPR article about literary equines. The list didn’t include Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind so she chimed in with her two-cents worth by stating Henry’s book was her all-time favourite. I saw her post and realized Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion and his subsequent Black Stallion series of books were not included. Come to think of it, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty wasn’t on the list either.

Black Beauty was the first literary equine I encountered as a child. It quickly became my favourite story to read. I can’t remember the number of times I read the book before I turned 13. After that, I discovered The Black Stallion and from then on, I made it a point to read the book series. I think there were 20 books in total that were written about the Black and his offspring.

I was a voracious reader. Almost every Sunday afternoon was spent at the public library looking through the book stacks in search of hidden literary treasure. It was at the library where I found Farley’s books. I grabbed every book I could find from the series and read them.

All this horsey stuff from last week had me thinking about Chaplin, my childhood love for horses and where the heck it all started. I can’t remember when I first saw a horse but I’m pretty sure the first living and breathing equine I saw a pony from one of those pony rides at the petting farm that was located inside the city zoo.

I remember being rather ‘meh’ when I looked at a pony. I was more interested in a horse. Now, for those of you who don’t know what the difference is between a horse and a pony, here it is. The difference is in the height from the withers. Anything 14.3 hands (59 inches or 150 cm) and under is considered a pony. Anything taller than 14.3 hands considered a horse. Chaplin was 16.1 hands tall.

The funny thing about my passion for horses as a young girl, is that I never wanted to climb into a saddle and ride. Just never dawned on me to ask my parents for riding lessons. I was quite content to gawk in awe of the beautiful beasts. I would have been happy to be a groom. I always thought (and still do) being a groom would be a great job. To handle them on the ground and take care of them. But I never envisioned myself sitting tall in the saddle, being one with a horse.

That changed when I was in my mid- to late-20s. I decided I wanted to learn to horseback ride. Why? Because I wanted to learn something new, to take my mind off a dead-end relationship and to revisit a childhood passion. I can’t recall how much of my life was devoted to learning the art of riding and horses. But let’s just say it was a good chunk of my life. I think I had been learning to ride for at least three or four years before Chaplin came into my life. We were partners for almost ten years before he died.

Aside from my cat, my relationship with Chaplin was the longest I ever had with anything or anyone. Two-legged or four-legged. And no, I don’t count family members. I’m talking about making a commitment to someone who isn’t a blood relative. You don’t get to choose your family but you do get to choose with whom you want to develop a relationship.

Having a relationship with an animal, be it a dog, cat, turtle or a tarantula is pretty fulfilling. It’s grounding, it settles you and gives you a perspective on life that makes everything manageable. I guess having a relationship with fellow human being does the same thing but I find it more horribly complicated than wonderfully complicated.

My time with Chaplin feels like a lifetime ago. It was a lifetime ago. My journey with Chaplin was fun, fulfilling and full of personal growth which was not without its moments of self-doubt and frustration. A few months before he died, I had a feeling that we would be going on our own separate journeys. I couldn’t shake the feeling. Yeah, it made me sad. There was something behind that feeling that told me my life with Chaplin was just one journey. Yes, it would eventually end but there would be more journeys to take. And they would be as interesting and exciting as the ones I had with Chaplin.

My time with Chaplin set me up for the next phase of my life. The lessons I learned from being with him were what I needed now and for the future.

I was lucky to have Chaplin in my life. He is now a part of my soul. His spirit is with me as I look at all the possible journeys laid out in front of me. I have my eye on a couple of those journeys. And my four-legged partner will be along for the ride.