Alice Bliss stops by with some thoughts on "How re-reading Anna Karenina – and a vacation – brought me back to writing and helped put the seductive wonderland of social media in perspective", as part of her continuing ponder: Why read?
I’ve just returned from my vacation. A real vacation. Two weeks in my favorite foreign country. Where we chose to have no phone, no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no media or media devices of any kind. The one hotel where we found a TV in our room we unplugged it and turned its face to the wall.
Why did I need to take such extreme measures?
A little background: My debut novel launched on June 2nd. My publisher encouraged me to get in the game with Twitter and Facebook. I knew so little about either that they might as well have been speaking a foreign language. I gathered my courage and asked a few writers what they had done that was useful during their book launch. The lovely Beth Hoffman not only sat me down and told me, yes, you have to use Twitter, but she was kind enough to tell me how to get started and introduced me to some other writers. So round about May 1st I started to impersonate an extrovert and began to learn how to use both Twitter and Facebook.
From May 1st to September 3rd when I left on vacation, I felt like I was taking several self-directed graduate level courses on social media. I found wonderful teachers in the blogosphere, I read every how-to list out there. It was fascinating for the most part, all consuming all the time, and I started to feel like I just might be getting the hang of it by mid-summer. I was making friends, connecting with other writers, reading several blogs, getting to know the wonderful world of book bloggers, and basically just falling down the rabbit hole of social media all day every day.
At first I had been upset about leaving my 2nd book behind while I helped promote my 1st book. Now I wasn’t even thinking about my 2nd book. This was troubling if I stopped to think about it, but at that point I was so fully engaged with my fast-twitch world, that I wasn’t thinking about it.
I decided that my vacation, the first time we’d taken two weeks in more than a decade, would be the turning point. Pre-vacation would be the waning days of my social media free for all. Post-vacation, my 2nd book would be my priority, social media and book promotion would be relegated to the 5 – 6 pm time slot, managed and scheduled, just like the pros advise.
So what does all of this have to do with reading?
I spent less time thinking about what clothes I would need than what books I would bring. I packed the new translation of Anna Karenina, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth. My husband had Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and William Trevor’s Death in Summer, just in case I ran out of things to read.
How would my mind, which had begun to feel a little dumb and slow and at the same time twitchy and impatient, respond to this cold turkey approach? Could I actually settle down and pay attention? Would I secretly be looking for internet cafes, scheming to check in and make sure I wasn’t missing anything?
We were on the Atlantic Coast of France, on the Arcachon Basin and the Ile de Re. Both of these places have beautiful bays full of oysters and long, long stretches of bold Atlantic beach. We parked our car at the hotel and got on bikes, books and beach towels in our baskets, and headed out for each day’s adventure. It was a wonderfully physical vacation, as different as possible from sitting indoors in front of a computer. Biking, especially on the Ile de Re, was often a peak experience as we cycled through the center of the island, surrounded by bird sanctuaries, vineyards, salt farms, horses, sheep, goats, and views to the ocean and the bay. The air was perfumed with herbs: lavender and rosemary and fennel, as well as late blooming broom, ripening grapes, newly mown hay, pine, and the wrack from the edge of the sea.
We took our books everywhere: to breakfast in the morning, to the beach, to whichever café we would choose for our mid-morning coffee or our late afternoon aperitif. And reading picked me up and challenged me and enchanted me and slowed me down and brought me back to myself. We were living almost entirely outdoors and at the pace of someone walking or riding a 3-speed bike. I was no longer racing, no longer juggling multiple tasks. I was alive and present to the current physical moment and activity of my day as well as the unfolding story of Anna Karenina. And what a book to choose to slow me down and bring me back to thinking; a book that is so stuffed full of ideas, one marvels at Tolstoy’s ability to embody them all. A book that wrestles with all of the big questions: how to live, how to be useful, how to love, what is love, what is marriage, what is a soul, what does my soul require of me?
I would be pedaling along thinking of Anna and Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Stiva, so alive to his appetites. The world of the book was deep enough to captivate my mind and my imagination, so that I rode and mused, and mused and swam, and lived inside this book for all of its 819 pages.
I was living in Tolstoy’s world and at the same time, living deeply inside my own mind for the first time in a long time. There was a constant sense of deepening: of characters, of story, of questions. Is this, after all, what great literature has the potential to do? To bring us back to our own minds, to allow us to rediscover our true selves, to ask us to think more slowly and more fully, to remind us of the larger questions that our lives and our stories can wrestle with and embody?
I was changed by Anna Karenina, I was changed by the simple act of reading, changed by a new environment, a different way of life. But it was reading that truly brought me back home to myself: as a reader, as a writer, and reconnected me to my soul’s purpose.
Will I be able to hold on to this new state of mind? Will I be able to balance the quiet demands of writing with the livelier demands of social media? Can the two states of mind co-exist, or do they have to be separated by a firewall?
How do you balance your writing and social media life? How do you carve out the time to keep the quiet places quiet, to honor the need to live and listen and write inside those silences?
Keep up with Laura Harrington and follow Alice's adventures via the Where's Alice Bliss blog and on twitter.
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