Do you write in your books?

The cover of Francine Prose's Reading Like a WriterLast time, I talked about how reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer made me rethink my principled stance against rereading books. As you may remember, I had stopped rereading books after my daughter was born so that I could focus my precious reading time on new-to-me books. Prose, however, has convinced that some rereading is necessary if I want to use my reading to become a better writer.

That’s not the only reading habit Prose has made me reconsider. I used to have a firm stance against writing in my books as well. Prose is making me rethink that one too.

On page 7, Prose writes:

“I still have my old copy of Sophocles, heavily underlined, covered with sweet, embarrassing notes-to-self (‘irony?’ ‘recognition of fate?’) written in my rounded, heartbreakingly neat schoolgirl print. Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.”

People used to write in their books all the time. Mark Twain’s copy of “The Pen and the Book” is prized by the Newberry Library which houses it not for the publishing advice it contains, but for the marginalia Twain scribbled throughout its pages. In the margins, Twain berated the author, Walter Besant, for daring to suggest that advertising could be used to sell books as if they were “essential goods” like salt or tobacco. He was apparently also irritated by the amount of money people threw at Mary Baker Eddy to write about Christian Science.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandela, Jane Austen, and Thomas Jefferson all wrote freely in their books.

In an 2014 editorial for the Sunday New York Times, Andrew Scrimgeour makes a compelling argument that writing in the margins is one of the highest compliments we non-famous author types can pay — as long as we only write in our own books and aren’t defacing library books, of course.

“The jottings we make in the books we own may well be among the highest tributes we pay to authors. They are signs of respect, signs of engagement. What more could a writer hope for?”

Scrimgeour runs through a roster of literary types–each with their own marginalia rules. Some never write in any book. Others write only in nonfiction ones. Still others write freely in every book they’ve ever read.

Reading this I realized that even my principled stance against writing in books, isn’t actually all that principled. After all, I write in cookbooks all the time — notes to my future self about what I’ve tried, how it turned out, and what I might like better. It increases the value of the cookbook for me. I don’t think twice about it. What are cookbooks for, if not to make me a better cook?

Writing in other types of books used to feel disrespectful to me. But that stance isn’t logically consistent. Just as I use cookbooks to become a better cook, I’m reading Prose’s book in an effort to become a better writer and other nonfiction books to become a more informed citizen. I should feel just as free to comment in those books about my reactions to what I’m reading, as I do in noting the precise mix of flours, yeast, and vital wheat gluten I need to keep my wheat bread soft and fluffy. Undoubtedly Prose’s book would be more valuable to me in the future if I could skip straight to those notes, instead of having to spend hours flipping through the book looking for a quote I only half-remembered.

In the past, I have tried to using cards to note passages that resonate with me while I’m reading.  When I fill a card, I tuck it in the pages of the book which inspired it for safe-keeping. The spine of Dinosaur Odyssey by Scott Sampson has cracked from all the cards I’ve crammed into it. The cards scattered like snowflakes when I pulled the book off the shelf to pack it for our recent move to California. I must have spent half an hour figuring out where  all those cards belonged. I wouldn’t have had that particular problem if I’d simply written in the book itself.

Prose’s text threatens to be another book whose spine will crack from all the cards. Surely, if the spine would be at risk anyway, it would be better to hold my one-sided conversation with Prose on the pages themselves?

I still feel guilty about it. But Prose writes in her own books, so I’m going to give it a try.

Marginalia in Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer

I’m only on page 66 and I’ve run out of cards. But there’s more I’d like my future self to remember. Marginalia to the rescue. (Photo: Shala Howell)

What about you? Do you write in your books?

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Do you reread books?

The cover of Francine Prose's Reading Like a WriterI purchased Francine Prose’s book, Reading like a Writer, at least eight years and three moves ago. I finally read it over the holidays, after having faithfully carted her book from Boston to San Francisco, via Chicago.

In Reading Like a Writer, Prose talks about how essential it is for writers to reread books. Prose herself rereads constantly. For her, the first reading reveals plot, and if she’s lucky, character. The second and third readings are when the narrative arc reveals itself and she begins to understand how the fictional world is held together. For Prose, rereading is when she really starts to appreciate how the best writers build their stories.

This struck me because with few exceptions, I stopped rereading when my daughter was born ten years ago. With so many great books out there and so little time to read, how could I justify taking time to reread a book I’d already finished?

My daughter doesn’t understand how I can’t. She discovers something new in the books she rereads with each and every telling. I suspect that in her case, it isn’t simply appreciating foreshadowing and other narrative tricks, but also that she herself is maturing at such an accelerated rate, she brings something new to the book/reader partnership with every reread.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet tells Mr. Darcy “People themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

I have read Pride and Prejudice so often that I can still quote passages from it, but the truth is it’s been years since I last spent an afternoon with it. Pride and Prejudice itself may not have changed over the last decade, but it’s possible that I have changed so much I don’t know quite what I will discover when I reread it.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I have been avoiding rereading Austen and my other favorite writers not to conserve time, but because I am frightened of the reflection of myself that I will find in those familiar pages. Am I too old to take pleasure in Austen’s commitment to marry off her characters whenever it is required? Too irritated by the constant barrage of bad news to find humor in P.G. Wodehouse’s silly tales of Bertie Wooster and his addle-pated friends in the Drones Club? Have I become too wrapped up in the logistics of my life to immerse myself in Hogwarts?

I suppose there’s really only one way to find out.

What about you? Do you reread your books? If so, how do you choose which ones to visit again?

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Merry Christmas!

May your holidays be peaceful and your 2018 productive in all of the ways you would wish it to be.

Thank you for spending another year with us.


Vintage Christmas Card via Winter Blue Music (Public Domain)


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My most recent Twitter crop of #writing angst

It took me a long time to come to terms with Twitter’s weird blend of watercooler/cocktail party/retail culture. But now I find it to be a fairly useful source of #writing tips and news. Here’s what I found most helpful this week.

A couple of writing tidbits


Hands down the most helpful tip I found this week was a link to Jane Friedman’s Book Launch Plan for First-Time Authors Without an Online Presence. In her post, she presents a simple, logical approach to marketing effectively, one person at a time, without breaking your budget.

My second favorite tip of the week came from Alexandria Constantinova Szeman, who described in loving detail how to turn your favorite movie into a master writing class. Just in time for winter break. 🙂


A wee bit of encouragement


A dash of writerly angst


Been there. Done that.  #WritingSoulMates

And finally, my favorite writing tweet of the week


What about you? Do you use Twitter to become a better writer? What were some gems you found this week?

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What happened when I stopped wearing my Apple Watch for a week

Here’s what you need to know to put this in context. I write while my daughter’s at school. Because I typically write from home or from a location close to home, I’m the first responder if stuff comes up at school.

This means I write with one eye on the phone at all times. A few years ago, I complained to my husband that it was really hard for me to concentrate with part of my mind always worried about missing a phone call from our daughter or her school.

At the time, technology didn’t exist to address this issue. I had to keep the phone in sight so I wouldn’t miss a call. That meant peeking at it whenever it beeped or buzzed or dinged to make sure that whatever that notification was, it didn’t affect my daughter.

My husband remembered this conversation, and one Mother’s Day he gave me an Apple Watch.

At first, having an Apple Watch was fabulous.

To be fair, that fabulous stage lasted about two years.

When the Apple Watch first came out, I read a lot of reviews bemoaning its limited abilities. But all I wanted from the Watch was for it to keep me from missing calls from my daughter’s school, so I could feel free to focus on my writing. And it did that very well. I didn’t miss any calls or texts, except the ones it was ok to.

I also appreciated the cheery reminders from the Watch’s activity tracker to stand every hour or take that brisk 7-minute walk which would close my exercise circle for the day.

As I began using my Apple Watch for more things, its helpfulness decreased. 

After a while, I began sending my calendar notifications to the Watch. Then I decided that since I was using my Watch to keep me focused on work, it made sense to have my task manager send alerts to it as well.

Then it occurred to me that it would be really useful to get weather updates too, so that I could know whether to take an umbrella with me when I left to pick up my daughter.

About a year ago, I got into the habit of always enabling the Watch component of whatever new iPhone app I downloaded, so that I could see whether those alerts would be useful to me as well. Some were, some weren’t. I began spending a lot of time calibrating the notification settings on my iPhone and Watch.

That’s when it all began falling apart.

Just as I settled into a task, something on my Watch would ding to pull me out of it.

All these distractions took a toll on my stamina. If I wrote for 45 minutes without my Watch distracting me, I felt exhausted. I couldn’t read a book for more than 10 minutes without pausing to check the news. I even lost the ability to watch TV without also monitoring Twitter or playing a Match-3 game on my iPhone.

Earlier this year, my Watch, perhaps noticing how stressed out I was becoming over all these alerts, began advising me to breathe. Take a minute. Just breathe.

Spoiler alert: I ignored it.

At first I fought the distractions by leaving my phone in another room and limiting the applications that were allowed to talk to me through my Watch. 

That helped, but not a lot. The dings were still happening. My Watch was still forcing me to choose at random moments whether to address whatever it was dinging about or simply ignore it.

Things I decided to address, I often still needed my phone for, which meant getting up and going to the room where I’d stashed it. Sure, I could technically talk into my Watch to respond to a text or take a call from my daughter’s school, but that felt weird. I preferred to just use the phone.

Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly cranky about my inability to hold a simple conversation without being interrupted, to say nothing of the lost productivity during my work day.

Last Friday, I left my Watch on my nightstand instead of putting it on in the morning.

At the same time, I continued to treat my smartphone like a landline — at least while I was home. Instead of using my Watch as a filter, I turned my ringer on so that I could hear if a call came through, but otherwise I ignored it.

That first day, I really missed knowing what time it was. So over the weekend, I dug up one of my old analog watches and took it to a jeweler to get a new battery for it.

This week, I realized I missing knowing how many steps I’d taken in a day. Before I had an Apple Watch, I had a Fitbit. I put the Fitbit away after a while, because the Watch was tracking my steps adequately and wearing one step tracker at a time seemed sufficient. But once I realized I missed knowing my step count, I dug out the Fitbit, charged it, and began wearing it again.

After a week of Watchlessness, I wish I could say my productivity has soared. It hasn’t.

But I have been a lot more present in whatever it is I am doing at the time, and that has been really helpful.

As I had allowed myself to become more distracted by my Watch and iPhone, I had forgotten about all lovely little details that a more mindful life offers.  Having them back has been pretty great.

I’m immersed in the books I’m reading in a way I haven’t been for a couple of years, so reading is more enjoyable. And I’m able to sustain it for longer.

While I haven’t made much headway in my work-in-progress, I have been writing in my journal more, which is a step in the right direction.

I’ve been practicing piano more, too. Learning new songs has been a lot easier this week. I’m not distracted by the taps and flickering notifications on my Watch, so instead I’m noticing musical patterns in the pieces I’m playing, which makes them a lot easier to learn. That cuts down on my frustration, which makes playing piano fun again.

I’m even enjoying TV more because I’m actually watching it, and not just listening to it while I do something else. I’m not missing the nuances as much. I’m getting the jokes the first time, people–all of the jokes–even the ones that rely on body language. The entire experience is richer. Watching TV this week feels more like something I’m doing by choice, and less like something I’m doing to mark time until I can call it a day and go to bed.

Sure, I still have my cranky moments and my productivity isn’t what I wish it were yet, but my baseline mood is better. I’m spiraling into sadness less.

Not bad for the first week.

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So I did NaNoWriMo this year — was it worth it?

Every November, I debate whether or not to participate in NaNoWriMo. Most years, I end up doing it, but I try to only do NaNoWriMo if I have a project that would benefit from its word-count driven format.

I skipped NaNoWriMo last year because I was working on book one of the Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom? Since one of my goals for that book was to keep it short so that parents would actually be able to use it, a contest that would encourage me to write 50,000 words when 12,000 would do wasn’t a good idea.

This year, my goal was to jumpstart book two of the Caterpickles Parenting Series. Since this one focuses on helping parents nurture their child’s curiosity across a number of areas, not just art, it’s going to be a bit longer. 50,000 words sounded about right, frankly.

What with the move this past fall, I had fallen months behind my self-imposed schedule for writing book two. I thought NaNoWriMo would be an excellent way to catch up.

The good thing about having to churn out 50,000 words in a month is that it forced me to sit and write every day on the same project, so I’m not feeling stuck any more. The bad thing about having a 50,000-word goal is that I will do whatever it takes to meet it, even if it means using twelve words when I only needed two.

As a result, while I technically won NaNoWriMo this year, I think I would have been better off if I’d lost. My 50,000 words need so much editing that I still feel months behind on this project. If I could do the month over, if I could have the time back, I would spend it writing on the book without thinking about word count at all.

How about you? Did you do NaNoWriMo? Why or why not?


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A Writer’s Holiday Wish List


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Hey, my book’s out!

We here at BostonWriters are in the process of moving to California. But before we go, I wanted to let you know that the first installment in my new parenting series is finally available.

What’s That, Mom? uses the proven case-study format to help parents get their children outside and asking questions that promote curiosity. Written for real-world parenting, this book is short and sweet, designed to be read and used as a field guide with tips that parents can put into action immediately.

Woo-hoo! It exists!

Even more exciting, What’s That, Mom?: How to use public art to engage your children with the world around them… without being an artist yourself is the number 1 new release in the Parent Participation in Education category. How amazing is that?

Seems like a great time to say thank you to everyone who helped make this book and its successful debut possible.

I can’t wait to hear what you think of it!

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Review: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
Penguin Books, 2003

SaltI’m a story junkie, so I primarily read fiction. But I like to weave the odd non-fiction book in here and there in the interest of learning new things. Several of my friends recommended Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky to me last year, and eventually I took their advice and read it.

In Salt, Mark Kurlansky reviews the history of the world through the lens of mankind’s dependence on salt. Access to salt (or the lack of it) has shaped everything from the predictable (the establishment of trade routes and the financing of wars) to the unexpected (the Wieliczka salt mine in Poland was converted into a vast entertainment complex in the early 17th Century, complete with ballrooms, dining rooms, and an underwater lagoon where the Crown would entertain royal guests).

Used as a currency and prized for its ability to preserve food (and mummies), salt has been at the heart of many of the world’s major historical events from the spread of the Roman empire, which used access to cheap salt to pacify the masses, to Gandhi, who changed the course of history by scooping up a handful of salt from a beach on April 5, 1930.

Much of what Kurlansky has to say about the history of salt is fascinating. Unfortunately, the coherence of his narrative fell apart in the last chapter. Unlike previous chapters, which generally focused on the ways in which salt had shaped a particular portion of the world, the last chapter was a hodge-podge of detail. In it, Kurlansky staggers from the invention of Tabasco sauce in New Orleans to the discovery of a salt mine in WWII Germany containing more than a thousand paintings and the battered suitcases of Jews sent to the concentration camps. We then take a brief detour to visit the brine-spring-based health spas of the 19th century. Then it’s off to Parma, where the prosciutto is cured with salt from Trapani. Next, Kurlansky bemoans the fashionable person’s bias against eating salt for health reasons and recites a gourmet recipe for sea bass, in which two pounds of fish is crusted in five to seven pounds of salt.  A moment later, Kurlansky swoops us off to 18th century Hawaii, where we eavesdrop on British captain James Cook complaining about the dirty salt produced on Kauai. And so on.

You get the picture.

It’s as if when he started writing the last chapter, Kurlansky realized he still had a huge file of fascinating tidbits and he simply couldn’t bear to leave any of them out. I have sympathy for that — Kurlansky clearly did an immense amount of research for this book — but the individual salt facts are so poorly connected they make this final chapter a bit of a slog.

And that’s a shame, because salt really is a fascinating lens through which to view world history.

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Great first lines: Another Louise Penny Edition

Cruelest MonthFrom The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny:

“Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper.”

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