As I’ve gotten older, especially since I haven’t been in school, I’ve delved more and more into reading nonfiction. I’m sure this has to do with my intense need to learn. I want to learn how to do things better, faster, neater, weirder. I want to learn what keeps the sun a fiery hot mess year in and year out. I had to understand why my kid was screaming in the middle of the night, not just so I could quiet him, but out of sheer curiosity. I had to know why 12 ordinary men from a repressed people would spread one of the most virulent religions ever.
Some of my favorite books are cookbooks. I don’t just cook the recipes; I read the whole cookbook. I want to hear the funny stories, learn the reasoning behind why one did things, and if there are any alternate ways of making a recipe. Every year of my adult life, my grandma Jeannie buys me a cookbook. The first one was Julia Child’s treatise on French cooking.
In retrospect, I believe it was Julia Childs who hooked me on nonfiction.
My taste in cookbooks has progressed over time. Today, I have an enviable collection of classics from around the world. I can just as easily cook you an authentic borscht as a Midwest meatloaf. Joop claims my pea soup is as good as any Dutch grandma’s. And I can cook a Thai dish so hot it pleases my “I eat pure capsaicin for breakfast” husband.
My reading progressed as much as my cooking repertoire. I was as comfortable reading Stephen Covey as I was Charles Darwin. Currently on my night stand are Inklings of Reality by Donald T. Williams—a leading expert on C.S Lewis--I am Malala, Walden by Thoreau, The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonagall, and A Good Housekeeping manual from the 1980s on how to get stains out of everything. On my phone, I am reading an ebook by my friend and editor Deborah Natelson, which is the only fiction, other than for my job, I have read in nearly a year.
One of my favorite subgenres of nonfiction is books on habits, and I have fallen in love with the writings of Gretchen Rubin and Charles Duhigg. My mom discovered Rubin for me, and I found myself reading everything Duhigg had to offer after hearing him speak at the Atlanta Catalyst a couple of years ago.
But, as my life and cooking skills progressed, my writing did not. I kept writing the same young adult fantasy I had been writing as a child. Literally. The same exact story.
Recently, I bought Duhigg’s latest book and haven’t been able to put it down. The reason I’m writing now that something he said stuck out to me. He talks in one of his chapters about the movie Frozen. Whether you like the movie or not, you have to admit the pop culture storm surrounding it was nothing short of amazing. I’ve watched it a dozen or more times because of my son Drake and listened to the sound track in Dutch 40 million times because of Joop. Duhigg gives us a glimpse into the creative process that created the animated giant. And I was surprised to learn that they got stuck creatively on the end. I wasn’t surprised that coming up with the plot was hard, or that making both sisters likable and unidentifiable while creating tension had its difficulties.
Duhigg crosses over into the world of biology to explain what happened. The crew had gotten so wrapped up in the way things were in the film world that new, necessary ideas were getting crowded out. Joseph Connel was a biologist studying biodiversity in the 1950s. He was fascinated with the fact that one area could be teaming with life and diversity, but that another only a mile or two away would be dominated by maybe only one or two types of life. Connel’s studies eventually led him to the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which says that diversity in biology is caused by intermittent, moderate upheaval. Too much and stuff dies and not enough and diversity fails.
I’d been stuck in a large, non-diverse universe of my own making. We all get in this rut sometimes and need an intermediate disturbance to wake us up.
For me, I needed one in my writing, my personal writing.
It’s easy for us to live in a biosphere of dominated by what makes us comfortable, what is just like us. Whether we are a white middle-class Americans living in the white suburbs, attending white churches—Sunday morning is the most segregated time in American culture—or liberal city dwellers hanging out in coffee shops discussing the fall of intellectualism, it’s a good idea to shake things up. Talk to a person from a different background or one who holds more conservative or liberal views.
Or you could take things to an extreme and host an exchange student. There’s nothing quite like having a foreigner in your midst to throw a wrench in your cozy, unexamined life.
In the case of Frozen, the team decided to introduce new people to the group, people with different expertise. And it worked. Of course, there were still some issues with the ending, but that was to be expected: Frozen was the first Disney princess movie to feature true love of the non-romantic type. And it was revolutionary.
I’ve often sought out upheaval. I grew up with it and I saw the benefit of it, but I couldn’t see some of my deepest areas of stagnation. Even though I had written quite a few non-fiction books in my ghostwriting career, in my personal writing, I had never written anything other than fiction, specifically young adult fantasy. I was getting pretty bored with it, but it was all I knew.
As I close out this chapter, I challenge you to find areas of languish and torpor in your life and introduce, on purpose, an intermediate, moderate upheaval. Is Tuesday always Taco Tuesday? The bland ground meat, cheese, lettuce, sour cream, and salsa? Why not have a friend from an actual taco-eating country come over and show you their family recipe? Or maybe throw a complete wrench in your plans and have spaghetti?
Whatever your own area is, mix it up. And if you ever see me around, let me know what you did. I’d love to hear about it.