Many years ago, I was writing an essay about writers of faith, people whose religious belief influenced what they wrote about. As part of that writing process, I wanted to interview writers – this is how I came to look up Anne Lamott’s phone number, find it, and leave a message on her answering machine. No, she did not call back, and I still flush with embarrassment at that action.
I did, however, reach one of my former teachers, the talented poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf, and during our conversation, I told her I read to find my own ideas mirrored in others. . . I still remember the deep breath she took before she said, “But what about learning from others who are not like you, Andi?”
I balked. I wiggled against that wisdom. I was young, naive, very immature . . . and lonely. I wanted to read what gave me comfort in my own world view.
15 years later, I’m still learning that some of the best books – maybe even all of them – are the ones that push me into new things – new understandings of the things I know, experience and believe, yes – but more new experiences and perspectives altogether.
When I read only what mirrors what I know and believe, I end up in a box, a tiny box that traps me while also reinforcing the “rightness” of my point of view.
So I’ve learned over the years to go beyond what I like and read things that aren’t my ideal choices. I’ve learned to read into religious views and personal experiences that are so different from my own that I’m never sure how I’ll integrate them into my understanding of the world. I’ve learned, ultimately, that these books, the ones whose content or perspective really challenge me – they are the ones that make me richer, both as a person and as a writer.
And I still like a cozy mystery set in a small town pretty often because it feels like coming home.
This past week, I’ve been in a couple of conversations where people have decided not to read things because the writer’s perspective or use of language bothered them. I understand this feeling of bother. It’s uncomfortable to read about lives or language jars against our own.
But I would argue with all of who I am – both as a woman and as a writer – that discomfort is a gift, not something to be eschewed.
When we seek our own comfort, when we read only those books that affirm everything we already believe, we entrench ourselves in our own “rightness,” and it’s difficult to change directions or see a new view from a trench.
Now, that’s not to say we should read things that make us unwell or that damage us. And it’s not to say we shouldn’t read the things that reflect our own perspectives and make us feel at ease. Cozy mysteries are good for me, too, because they help me relax and escape. So I’m not saying to not read the things you love best.
What I am saying is that when we open ourselves to understanding new ways of being in the world, when we don’t let the things that make us uncomfortable turn us away, we see new vistas, new stories that fill us up in all new ways, even if they continue to make us a little uneasy.
With this gift of discomfort in mind, I’ve created a little challenge. If you’d like to join in, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments below.
Before the end of 2016, I will:
- Read at least one book from a person whose faith I do not share.
- Read at least one book by a person who identifies as a race different than mine.
- Read at least one book by a person who is from a different part of the world.
- Read at least one book whose language – either word choice or linguistic choice – is unsettling to me.
- Read at least one book by a person whose sexual orientation or gender identity are different than mine.
- Read at least one book by a person whose body functions differently than yours, i.e. someone with a mental illness, a physical disability, or a cognitive impairment.
As I read, I will
- analyze what about this book – or this writer’s experience – discomforts me.
- try to understand why I am uncomfortable.
- attempt to make space for that person’s experience either in or alongside my own.
So are you in? Are you reading to get a little uncomfortable because you are confident that growth as a person and as a writer requires some discomfort? If so, comment below. I’m so eager to journey with you in this.