After weeks of grinding away on a recalcitrant chapter for my book project, I am dazed, cranky, frustrated, and thoroughly sick of being in the same room with myself.
Deciding that it’s time to get out of my own head, I do what a lot of us do these days when we’re wondering how to go about something: I google it.
I scan the first several articles. Go there—by talking about it. Don’t judge. Be slightly inappropriate. Be in the moment. I huff, and, knowing me, snort derisively. Moving on to the links further down on the results page, I’m now scanning faster. Meditate. Exercise. Talk to a Stranger. Breathe. Focus on others.
Pfffft. I’m agitated at this point because, let’s face it, by googling “getting out of my head,” what I’m actually looking for is the article or research or commentary or blog that validates what I already think.
Having clicked through the first page of websites—Practice mindfulness; focus on others (again); write your gratitudes—I shut down the search window, put my computer to sleep, and go do exactly what I was planning to do in the first place.
I’ve learned over the years that what’s going on when I’m feeling like this is that my brain is starving. The restlessness, the inability to focus, and being generally pissed off at the world all mean that my brain has run out of gas.
The fuel it needs is low-tech and 100-percent reliable. I need to read a book.
This works every time—although I need to qualify. I’m talking books here. Long-form. No distracted flipping through a magazine or swiping through websites, no matter how “informative” they ostensibly are. I don’t use an electronic reader, but if I did my rule would be that it must be disconnected from the internet.
Now, I’m always “reading” a book, and more often two and even three concurrently. They’re scattered around the house, dutifully at the ready, bookmarks waving from between pages urging me to come back soon. These are typically books I should be reading, however: they’re related to what I’m trying to write about, or they’re the latest Important Book, by Important Author that’s come across my radar. Most are accessible and well-written and on topics that interest me, but they require focused attention. I’m often making notes or thinking about whether the content relates to what I’m working on myself.
To be a sure thing, reading to get out of my head calls for a book that flows and is off-topic from anything that preoccupies me at the time. I need a book I can be with for hours at a time, one I can read without working at it too hard. A book that’s so engrossing that I don’t feel like doing anything else until I’ve turned the last page is ideal.
To switch metaphors, this is novelty-seeking behavior. Reading this type of book should be like peering through the slats of a stranger’s window blinds, a voyeuristic glimpse into the intimacies of a different life, or lifestyle. This book should reveal a slice of the world that I’ve never seen or considered before. Fiction can be good for this, obviously, and since I don’t read a lot of fiction it makes a nice change. Many of the contemporary novels I’ve tried to read in the last few years are so contrived and overwrought that I’ve lost patience with them, though, so I’ll sometimes pull a familiar sci-fi volume or a Dick Francis mystery off the shelf in the basement and make do with that. But: novelty. New territory is best.
The book I start reading after lunch is one I bought at the Colorado Book Festival a couple of weeks ago*. I read for a couple of hours in the afternoon, feed horses, take a short walk, and, since I’m on my own for a few nights while Doug’s away on a business trip, heat some leftovers for dinner. I spend the evening reading.
I finish the book the next day and, since my brain is still fussy, I pick up another, this one by a local author I met last year**. I finish that one the following day, then grab a book that’s been languishing on the coffee table for a few weeks, mostly read, its bookmark lolling out like the tongue of a dog eager to be taken out for a run***.
At the end of three days, I’ve read 2 ¼ books and have started in on yet another. I can feel the binge winding down, and this last book will be good for nibbling at in the evenings: I don’t feel compelled to finish it in one sitting, or in a day. I am less strung out, more cheerful, less frustrated by my chapter, more interested in life (it helps, no doubt, that in burying my head in books for days I have successfully and comprehensively avoided paying attention to the news).
There’s something about the immersive experience of a good book that’s like nothing else for snapping my brain out of a tizzy. The magic of a book isn’t that it actually gets me out of my head—I think that’s called death—but that it lets someone else in. A different voice takes the floor in the internal chamber. The narrative switches. The imagery is unfamiliar. The location is probably far from my home terrain. The problems are different from mine, and may well be far more challenging than anything I’m facing.
Having gotten out of my head by retreating into it—with company—the one thing that still has me a bit crazy at the end of the week is the fact that not one of the websites I had perused mention this simple, accessible, and effective tool. Sure, you could argue that reading a book is a way of focusing on others, but I don’t think that’s what the authors of those bits of advice had in mind. I’m a little sad about that, but figure I can rectify the situation with a post dedicated to the technique.
*Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, by Patricia Raybon and Alana Raybon. I met Patricia a couple of years ago through the Colorado Authors’ League. On one level, this is a family memoir, and like the best of that genre it is intelligent and brutally honest, offering insights into human relationships through the lens of personal experience. I learned things I didn’t know about Islam, things I didn’t know about Christianity, and things I hadn’t thought about regarding interfaith conflict and dialogue.
**Radical Survivor: One Woman’s Path Through Life, Love, and Uncharted Tragedy, by Dr. Nancy Salzman. I met Nancy last year at a writing event we both presented at. This, too, is an intimate story that ripples wide. Nancy lost her husband and two sons in a small plane crash in 1995. The book honors the lives of her “boys” and offers a portrait in endurance through loss that will get you out of your head in a hurry. It’s harrowing but has grace notes of humor and you will learn a lot about coping (not faith-based, incidentally) and how to write a note of condolence from the many examples of supportive correspondence Nancy includes in the narrative.
***Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I really love this book. Kimmerer is so smart and so gentle and the braid of this narrative is absolutely captivating. I had to come back to it from a break only because there is so much to think about AND because Kimmerer’s theme of how science fits in to other aspects of our lives is so directly cogent to my own writing at the moment that reading it has demanded close attention of me, and thus wore me out. That’s my own personal stuff though. I think YOU should read it because it’s everything narrative nonfiction can be: lucid, lovely, grounded, and truthful; challenging in the topics it discusses as well as the ideas it presents.