Looking Inwards, Reaching Outwards

Read your own adventure

It’s now a little over three years since I began my Book Diaries challenge, and I can’t decide whether it feels like no time has passed or whether it seems a lifetime away. I guess it’s a bit of both. And now I’m putting fingers to keyboard for the very last time on this blog, as I wind up the challenge and look back on what the past three years of mindful reading have done for me.

In true Book Diaries fashion, I’m going to use the three questions that have served me so well over the last 36 months!

What did I find out?

Way back when I started the blog, my overriding aim was to reclaim time for reading: to force myself to make space in my life for something that had grown to seem like an indulgence, but which I knew was essential to my mental health and wellbeing. With hindsight, the plan I came up with seems a little counterintuitive, but at the time, it felt like the solution: to take something practical from each book I read and apply it to create change in my own life. This would – I hoped – allow me to regard reading as the necessity I knew it was but couldn’t embrace.

I should have guessed that, by forcing a reading schedule on myself, I would continue to see reading as something that *had* to be done, just one more commitment to fit in to my already busy routine. Indeed, several of my blog posts deal with this precise problem – when to find the time to do my allocated reading – rather than the more ambitious, life-changing plans I’d been hoping for.

However, I also found out, through this often stressful process, just how much can be achieved when we force ourselves to commit to something. Writing the blog posts and publicising them gave me an accountability I wouldn’t have had if I’d merely decided to read a few more books. Having set myself a target, I didn’t want to quit; and, as I progressed through the challenge, I did feel remarkably good about the quantity of books I was getting through – and not just getting through, but enjoying and benefiting from.

I look back over my posts now and, alongside the moans about the difficulties of scheduling, I also see a flourishing of creative ideas and the development of my own artistic and intellectual identity. True, the sheer mad rush of these ideas was partly what contributed to my timetabling issues, but it was nonetheless a process I needed to go through. I’d spent so many years stuck in either jobs or hobbies, where I essentially functioned as a cog in a machine, that I had no clue how my brain really wanted to operate. It was only by forcing myself to come up with something new (whether a thought, a belief or a project) every fortnight that I could try on different versions of my creativity for size, and see what I wanted to keep and what I could throw out.

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’ll know how many projects I’ve enthused wildly about and which have since disappeared into thin air. I apologise if something you were particularly looking forward to has been discarded! The rigid scheduling of the Book Diaries has enabled me to come up with many plans, but also to realise that bringing something to life takes a lot longer than simply having an idea – and not all my ideas have made it into reality.

Although it’s been frustrating to realise I can’t do everything I think of, this has nevertheless been an extraordinarily helpful process to go through. I’ve recognised that I am an extremely creative person, and I need to prioritise my ideas and my projects. And once I can identify which are the most important, I can set targets – just as with the Book Diaries – and ensure that these ideas, the meaningful ones, have a chance of coming to fruition.

What do I now see differently?

This challenge always risked being a fairly insular pursuit. Even now – especially now – I look back over past posts and cringe at the amount of navel gazing I indulged in. Despite the valuable life lessons I’ve learned and the extent to which I’ve grown as a person, it still feels as if I’ve merely been wittering on about the contents of my own head to a barely interested audience. In this age of social media, when every woman and her cat has a blog and is embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, this is of course nothing new, but it still rankles with me. Am I really that self-absorbed?

One key change in my focus, from inwards to outwards, came towards the end of my second year of blogging. The theme of the Book Diaries that year, 2016, was Twentieth-Century Classics: I’d selected titles that made regular appearances on various lists and quizzes along the lines of ‘how many of these books have you read?’ I felt I was missing out on some classics of literature and wanted to tick a few of them off my lifelong to-read list.

However, as I made progress through the year, it became increasingly apparent that a large proportion of these books were by what I might disparagingly call ‘old white men’, particularly Americans. This does not mean, of course, that the books weren’t worth reading – on the contrary, I’m glad I read each and every one of them – but it did make me wonder what else I was missing out on. And so, for year 3, I decided to read books from as wide a variety of non-white, non-American and non-European authors as possible.

I can’t overstate how important this decision was for me. Practically every book I read in 2017 (for I didn’t have much time to read anything other than my Book Diaries titles) was by an author from a country or a culture I was unfamiliar with, and I can honestly say that this changed my outlook on the world in a fundamental way. I grew up in one of the least ethnically diverse regions of the UK; I went to a university that is one of the great bastions of white privilege; and, despite a very small handful of long-haul holidays, I have never really travelled the world and explored its variety of cultures and peoples.

Although a book can never be a substitute for real experience, if a book is all you’ve got, it’s a pretty good second-best option. And I had twenty-four over the course of a year: twenty-four books in a row, all from countries I knew next to nothing about when I started. Clearly not all countries of the world were represented, and equally I’m not pretending I now know everything I need to know about these cultures. The opposite is true: I feel as if I am at the beginning of an epic journey, which will never be completed in my lifetime, but which I am grateful to have had the chance to at least start.

It’s natural to grow up with a view of the world that reflects our background, but it’s so important to recognise that this is not the only view. If we are to grow as humans, we owe it to ourselves, as much as to our fellow inhabitants of this planet, to open ourselves up to those other views, and recognise their complexity.

How will I change my life?

Bearing in mind my answers to the previous two questions, my way forward seems clear: I need to look inward, and I need to look outward.

Inward means focusing on what projects are most important to me at this point in time, and setting targets to achieve them. Outward means finding a way of engaging with the world that benefits both me and others.

I’m hoping that I can do both.

I spent some time towards the end of last year disengaging myself from various projects that had run their course for me, and decided that I would enter 2018 with just two primary goals:

  1. Write my novel (or at least the first draft of it).
  2. Pursue research into how stories affect our lives (translating my personal experience in the Book Diaries to something more generally applicable).

Inward and outward, right? The two sides to my personality: my own creative inventions, and the work I want to do to help others. All seemed clear. What I hadn’t bargained for was finding a third piece of the puzzle: something that has the potential to make connections between those two goals and which, rather than being a distraction, might just be the most important part of the whole plan.

I’m going back to study.

Specifically, I’ve been accepted on to the MA in Science Fiction and Fantasy at Anglia Ruskin University, which I’ll be pursuing via blended learning (essentially distance learning), part time over two years. The course includes not only academic study of key texts, but also language & linguistics, visuals & art, publishing and creative writing.

I’ve been wanting to take an academic course for some time, but have never before found one where everything that is on offer is of huge interest to me. Much as I want to complete my novel, I have no urge to take a pure creative writing course; and much as I want to research story & narrative, the direction I want to take is too personal for it currently to exist in course form.

And so this MA completes a trinity. I will be able to get help with the creative elements of writing my own fiction; I will learn more about my favourite genre; and I will be very surprised if what I discover does not progress my understanding of the power of story. I will set targets to complete the different stages of my work; I will get out there and talk to others about what I’m learning and creating; and eventually – I hope – I will achieve what I have set out to do. Inwards and outwards.

I feel I am in the right place, for the first time in a very long time, and it is all down to the Book Diaries. The rigorous scheduling; the exposure to a huge range of texts; the willingness to try new things and, equally, to discard what doesn’t work: all this will stand me in very good stead as I embark on this new stage in my life.

Mindful reading has helped me reach this pinnacle. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Try it for yourself: read the Book Diaries for examples of what I’ve done, and then see what you can achieve for yourself.