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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Like a rolling flow

Bob Dylan’s handwritten drafts of the lyrics for “Like a Rolling Stone” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” are being put up for auction by Sotheby’s. They may go for $2 million, or more. But the best part (unless you have $2 million to spare) is that we can look at these drafts right here, on the New York Times's ArtsBeat blog. “Rolling Stone” is scribbled on stationary from the Roger Smith Hotel (“One block from the White House”) in Washington, D.C. — and these pages offer a fascinating window into, or a sketch of, the creative process.

The first thing I notice is: they’re written in pencil. That’s worth thinking about.

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The bigots are aging. Kids give me hope.

After a week of news dominated by two old boneheaded racists, I would like to tell you about a day I spent with a very different group of people. They’re eighth graders at Greenfield (Indiana) Central Junior High School, and they decided that too many people were getting hurt by intolerance and bullying at their school. So they've done something about it.

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Ordinary miracles: the life of a story

I would like to explain myself to the Starbuck’s employee in Greenfield, Indiana, who yesterday brought around a tray, with thimble-sized free samples of whatever new frozen frappa-cappa-mocha-whipped-creamachino they were preparing to feature. I’d been looking at my screen with my earbuds in when the guy, bearing his tray, said, “Sir?” I looked up and tears were running down my face.

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New findings: bullying & lasting isolation

Middle-aged adults who were bullied as kids are more likely to be isolated, less likely to be living with a partner, less optimistic about their lives, and more likely to be unemployed. These findings come from a very long-term study, reported in the LA Times and other outlets this weekend, which I’m reading about in the Albany airport as I’m about to board a flight to talk with middle schoolers in Indiana who’ve read The Revealers, my young-adult novel on bullying.

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My notebooks, and how I don't fill them

Middle schoolers write more stuff in my notebooks than I do.

Honestly. I carry about these little blank books that are perfect for me — first, because they don’t have spiral bindings. I learned many years ago that spiral bindings in pocket notebooks tend, over time and use, to unspiral just enough to poke holes in your clothes. And anyway I don’t like them. So I get these pocket Moleskines, good-quality old-fashioned notebooks.
But left on my own with these things, I might never fill them up.

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The discipline of simplicity

It’s much harder to write short than long. So why do we assume that fatter books must be better, or that slender novels can’t be great?

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A slow-reading movement? Count me in

Everyone needs a cause, right? I’m often linked to bullying prevention because of my book The Revealers, and that’s fine; but I’ve found a new cause. Slow reading.

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A mouse, a science fair, and vague endings

Young readers are often exasperated by the endings of my books, because they tend not to wrap things up neatly enough. One reader called one ending “retarded,” which is a word better applied to books than people, at least. But today I discovered I’m in company with a far far better writer: E.B. White used to get much the same complaint, if in different vocabulary.

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The brave new world of first drafts

I’m not worried about the future of writing. But I am wondering what'll happen to rewriting.

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One good paragraph about spring

Because March is National Reading Month, which I didn’t realize until this week, and since this is the first week of spring on the calendar — if not outside, where here in Vermont the snow persists and mud season has only just begun to soften up — I went looking yesterday for the perfect spring paragraph.

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Authors now must be self-marketers. So ...

As publishers have slashed their marketing budgets and staff, it’s become standard for most book writers to be expected to do nearly all their own marketing. This tends to push your thinking away from wanting to do the best book you can, to wondering what will most likely sell. For writers like me who have left the corporate publishing world and are bringing out books independently, or with small presses, this pressure on our thinking is the same.

Should we resist this, or embrace it? If we embrace it and build a more market-savvy approach, does that mean we likely won’t produce our best work? Or just that we’ll be working more usefully in the real world?

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Addiction fiction: the novel I wrote twice

I’ll always remember the way my dad’s hopeful face fell, when he asked what the YA novel I was working on was about ... and I told him.

I grew up in a family of two alcoholics, both my parents. And though my dad spent the last 30 years of his life sober, he was never able to talk about how his drinking had affected his three now-grown kids. I think it was just too painful. When I told him my book was about a boy whose dad is alcoholic, I could see him struggle to be supportive, as he had always been of my work. I think he was proud that I had a book coming out, but the subject was hard. He tried his best to be positive, but it was never easy.

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YA fiction on addiction: raising a touchy topic

Realistic YA novels that deal with tough subjects in kids’ lives can be welcome resources, for schools that hope to open up those issues. But there are issues, and then there are issues.

Many schools these days want to talk about bullying, which is great — this is very often huge in kids’ lives, and it’s especially potent and dangerous in the Internet age. I’ve been involved with hundreds of schools that have worked, often very powerfully, with my two novels on the subject, The Revealers and its sequel on cyberbullying, True Shoes.

But if you write about addiction ... that, I'm discovering, can be a much tougher nut to crack.

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My brain in a book: reading about ADD

One recent weekend, I read the truth about my brain.

For a few years I’d been vaguely aware that I might to some degree have attention-deficit disorder, but I had never really looked into it. You know ... I was distracted.

Then on a Saturday it surfaced in my mind that my wife Cary, who works as a counselor with children and families, had a book about ADD on her shelf. I looked, and there it was: Healing ADD, by Daniel Amen, M.D. And therein I encountered my own unusual brain.

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The story of Fatima

After college in the mid-70s, and after a summer and fall of painting houses, I traveled by train and bus from London to India and Kathmandu, with a backpack half full of books. In Delhi late in the trip I was still buying books when I could, mostly about Hinduism and Buddhism — and in a bookshop on Connaught Circus I found and invested in a Penguin paperback titled Thinkers of the East.

Back at the Venus Hotel in the travelers’ neighborhood by the railway station, I was a little let down to find that this volume of stories and anecdotes was from the Muslim world, collected by a man named Idries Shah. But there began a lifelong interest in the wisdom stories and teaching tales of the Sufis, who in Islam follow paths of personal search and illumination.

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When readers become champions

In 30 years of writing fiction for young readers, I’ve had one book take off; and that was an interesting experience. So much of what happened was a sort of underground process: stuff would pop, up here and there, from a mostly invisible percolation. “I’m telling everyone about your book!” “Hey, someone was recommending your novel at a teachers' conference in Arizona.”

Stuff like that. And what I noticed most about that was the vital, catalytic role that champions played.

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Putting stories to work for good causes

For the past 30 years, I’ve been putting the basic skills (in my case, they’re basic) of finding and writing true stories to work for nonprofit organizations. Recently I gave a couple of workshops, in Vermont and California, on how to do this, and I wondered if I could put my main points in a single, simple post. So here goes:

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Reading good stories: the new brain therapy?

I know that if I read a good book for 20 minutes or half an hour before going to bed, as opposed to lurching around the Internet for no good reason, then I’ll sleep better. (I know this because I have, oh definitely, tried both.) But could reading fiction at night actually give me a better-connected brain?

Lord knows I could use one. I do the meditation, and I’ve tried the ginkgo and so forth; but now a new study, reported in the journal Brain Connectivity, finds that reading a novel at night can have a measurable positive impact.

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When the real & fictional Katie Henochs met

I have a true story to tell, about a made-up character and a real person who have the same name. The story ends with me, the writer who thought up the fictional character, spending a night in the teenage bedroom of the real person, who’s now grown up and off living her life.

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On the pale road: the art of describing

It’s not just the words on the page — the inner dimension of written fiction is what the reader brings to the experience. One good way to look at this is to examine a couple of famous bits of description by great novelists. For me at least, what brings these examples to life is not their cleverness; it’s the connections they make between the writer’s words and what those bring up inside the reader.

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