When Readers Listen: May We Have Your Attention, Please?

When Readers Listen | Inkwells & Images

I have an off again, on again relationship with podcasts. I want to be as in love with them as everyone else, I really do. But I dislike listening to audio things other than music. I’m still not a fan of audio books. I do not listening to news videos if there is a transcript available to read instead. I read faster than I listen, which sounds silly, but it’s true.

So when Callie came to me with the idea of listening to and writing about a podcast once a month together, I said “Yes! This is the thing that will make me fall in love with podcasts, finally.”

So far? So good. Although the first one was pretty short (less than 20 minutes), so we’ll see as things go on; if they get longer and I find it harder to pay attention.

And the first podcast, our choice for July? About distraction. Of course it is.

Without further ado…

When Readers Listen - May We Have Your Attention Please?

New Yorker “Out Loud” Podcast, July 6th 2015 – May We Have Your Attention, Please?

Joshua Rothman and Andrew Marantz discuss theories of distraction and the benefits and drawbacks of concentration.

Well, then. This episode is about distraction: is it good? bad? What is it, exactly?

The first definition was “anything I didn’t mean to attend to.” But this leaves no room for daydreams, when your mind wanders aimlessly and stumbles upon a brilliant (or not so brilliant) idea, for when you really need to just tune out the world and think inward.

So Definition One was a bit of a bust. Maybe the opposite of distraction is WORK? Distraction is anything that is a waste of time. But what if it looks like work? For me, this is often the case. Email, cleaning, note-taking, researching… they all “look” like work, but really they are often distracting me from my real work: writing.

Everything is a Decision

One commentator mentioned that everything we do is a decision: and I agree. If we allow ourselves to be distracted, it is because we have decided that Thing 2 is more important to us than Thing 1, our priority, at least in that moment.

For me, as a writer, this is a tough pill to swallow. If I’m bemoaning my inability to make progress on my novel, is it my own fault? And not the fault of all the extraneous circumstances that I tend to blame it on? Work, lack of sleep, events outside of my control… you know the drill.

Then, too, it is harder to create than to consume. Creativity takes more energy, needs more space to breathe before it becomes fruitful. My decision to work full time a distraction? It is of course hindering my novel progress – but is that really a decision that most of us get to make? Or do I have to settle into the realization that writing is always going to take up the odd hours of life, and I need to find a way to make a few more of those odd hours happen?

When Readers Listen - May We Have Your Attention Please | Inkwells & Images

Being Un-Distracted = Accepting the Circumstances

When we are not distracted  – when we are paying attention and being fully present – it is because we have accepted the circumstances we are in. I know a lot of mothers discuss this part of raising a family: the constant reminder to be present when with your children, rather than constantly distracted from the most important with what seems like the most important – laundry, dishes, supper.

For me? I made two promises to myself this year: to blog every Tuesday and Thursday and to finish my novel. The novel often gets set aside because of the deadlines of the blog… and since I’m not willing to break my first promise to myself, I am going to have to accept the circumstances that blogging brings: I will not finish my novel as quickly.

And I need to be okay with that.

The Ability to Focus is a Muscle

What distraction seems to boil down to is whether or not we can control what we are distracted by. In the podcast, one of the commentators says:

We are called upon to be more attentive these days… When we have to concentrate and shape our own stories, distraction is more threatening.

As we write our own narratives in our life, distraction plays a role in keeping us from writing the best narratives. I’m not advocating that there is no room for downtime, that nobody needs a Monday evening of nothing once in a while. But we ought to be mindful of what is keeping us from our greater goals: is it games on our iPhone that mean nothing in real life? Is it shopping on a Saturday instead of reading something enlightening?

The decision is ours. No one else can make it for us. And everyone needs to pay attention to different things.

I think this is what makes life hard: the constant deciding, the constant second-guessing. I think that’s maybe why the podcast ended by asking if distraction is really a problem of self-acceptance. If our distractions are abhorrent to us, is it us merely us wishing we were different? And should we?

What is your definition of distraction? Is it one of these here?

Make sure to click over and read Callie’s post about this same podcast – she’s got some excellent thoughts about being too productive, the book Walk Two Moons, and how we rarely know what we are going to write about when we actually sit down to write.

Next month? The Longform Podcast – #148: Anna Holmes.

Story in Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Story in Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr | Inkwells & Images

Oh. I see now why this book was the talk of the town this last year. I see now why it won the Pulitzer. Anthony Doerr deserved it.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a book that I will carry with me for years, if not the rest of my life. Not only is his prose as lyrical as poetry, but the topics he touches on through the lives of his main character – just children at the time of the novel – are some of the deepest, most important topics we can tackle as writers.

Through the lives of Werner, a young German orphan destined to be yet another pawn in Hitler’s war, and Marie-Laure, a young French girl who happens to be both extremely bright and completely blind, Doerr tackles the effects of loss, love, belonging, and resistance. Their two stories grow closer and closer as the novel spirals toward the end, and the moment they meet is met with a full exhale, as if you have (I actually think I was) holding your breath for the previous 450 pages.

Favorite Quotes:

(Apologies there are no page numbers. Reading on a Kindle has many drawbacks, but being able to copy and paste my highlights is not one of them. Also, there are a lot of them.)

“We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo. Bretons next. French if there’s anything left over.”

“It’s steel country, anthracite country, a place full of holes.”

“A color that is the absence of color.”

“To really touch something, she is learning–the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell–is to love it.”

“She has no memories of her mother but imagines her as white, a soundless brilliance. Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green… he is an olive green when he talks to a department head, an escalating series of oranges when he speaks to Mademoiselle Fleury from the greenhouses, a bright red when he tries to cook. He glows sapphire when he sits over his workbench in the evenings, humming almost inaudibly as he works, the top of his cigarette a prismatic blue.”

“She finds the ribbon she uses as a bookmark, opens the book, and the museum falls away.”

“Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck. Some things are simply more rare than others, and that’s why there are locks.”

“Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.”

“Everything is glory and country and competition and sacrifice.”

“The war drops its question mark. Memos are distributed.”

“Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.”

“Music spirals out of the radios, and it is splendid to drowse on the davenport, to be warm and fed, to feel the sentences hoist her up and carry her somewhere else.”

“Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

“She did not imagine it properly; she did not comprehend the scale.”

“How do they know what part to play, those little bees?”

“Car after care the prisoners come, a river of human beings pouring out of the night.”

“She stands alone in Madame Manec’s room and smells peppermint, candle wax, six decades of loyalty.”

“We will drive over everything that once was.”

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

“It’s embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is. A town of the northern coast of France? Love? Nothing will be healed in this kitchen. Some griefs can never be put right.”

What made this a good story?

Everything about it. If you can read those quotes above and not want to read this story, I don’t think we can be friends.

But seriously, this story was equal parts heart-warming and heart-wrenching. There are moments when Doerr’s words sing from the page, and every moment moves the story closer and more inevitably toward a dramatic finish.

But that doesn’t mean I still don’t have some questions.





Stop reading now if you don’t want to ruin the end!




I’m entirely happy with the ending. Mostly, because the ending isn’t happy.

Would Werner every be able to love anyone as much as he loved learning? He left his sister Jutta for it – would he have left Marie-Laure as well? Would she have been enough for him, without the thrill of the radio hunt?

Why did Werner have to die?

Marie-Laure lived a decent life, not a good one. Did Jutta? Did Volkheimer? Does war destroy the possibility for people to live good lives? Or are they constantly haunted by the people and the past left behind? Can they ever lead really good lives again after what they have been through?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I think Doerr’s novel requires us to think about them nonetheless, to examine the cost of war not just on countries and economies as a whole – which is what we tend to learn about in our history classes – but on the lives of the individuals that are living through it. Especially the children.

In a perfect world, this book wouldn’t have this ending. As I swiped to the last page on my iPad, I was in shock and immediately declared that I would have ended it differently. But now that I’ve got some distance between then and now, maybe I wouldn’t have.

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See? If so, what did you think? And what alternate ending would you have created?


Story in Review: The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

Story in Review: The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion | Inkwells & Images

After reading – and loving – The Rosie Project (my full review here), I couldn’t wait to dive into The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion.

The novel leaves off where the last ended: Don and Rosie have moved to New York City, with Don taking a job at Columbia as a visiting professor, and Rosie committing to finish her dissertation there. The major inciting incident occurs in the first chapter: Rosie announces to Don that she is pregnant, and Don, well, reacts in true Don fashion: with charts and processes and all things that a pregnant woman doesn’t want to hear. The rest of the novel is the story of the pregnancy, Don’s attempts to deal with the idea he is going to be a father, and Rosie’s attempt to handle a dissertation, a potential residency and being a mother of a newborn whose father is a bit unconventional.

I have to admit, I liked this novel less than the first one. I felt like while Don was trying, in his own way, to be a husband and soon-to-be-father, he didn’t receive good advice from his friends and definitely didn’t receive the benefit of the doubt from Rosie. I also feel like Rosie was unfair in her treatment of him, knowing the man that she married would react differently to a pregnancy than most and that he had the best intentions all along. This was one of those books where I just wanted everyone to sit down in a room and talk it out!

It was enjoyable, nonetheless, as Don’s antics and narration are truly hilarious at most moments. This book still elicited some full, out-loud laughs from me as I read it.

Favorite Quotes:

“The reduction in room numbers, combined with marriage, meant I had been thrown into closer sustained proximity with another human being than ever before.” – p. 3

“It was incredible that tho such dissimilar people had become a successful couple.” – p. 6

“The dean of science in Melbourne was extremely concerned with the public image of the university. It seemed to me that having a homeless person in charge of the department of psychology would be, to use her habitual expression, ‘not a good look.'” – p. 8

“I am aware that not everyone shares my view of the value of planning rather than allowing our lives to be tossed in unpredictable directions by random events.” – p. 16

“Other than the amendment to beverage management, life would be unchanged.” – p. 23

“It defies belief that a person’s emotional state could be deduced from such an inconsistent set of messages.” – p. 37

“A society of Rain Men would be dysfunctional. A society of Don Tillmans would be efficient, safe, and pleasant for all of us.” – p. 42

What made it a good story? Getting to see Don react to new situations, and learn to manage them in his own way and with his own style.

What could have made it a better story? I feel like this story paints everyone in a poorer light than the original. Don is less able to overcome obstacles. Rosie is less understanding of Don. I also feel like the novel is paced oddly – I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel like there are too many threads that don’t necessarily all wrap up at the end. If you like the first one, I think the second is still worth a read, but not a must. It’s still OK, but not great.

Have you read The Rosie Effect or The Rosie Project? What did you think?