Can we read in a way that encourages personal transformation?
A transformative writer writes entirely from the perspective of their own personal experiences in life. The raw materials of transformative writing wait for us deep within the realm of inner experience and the places in which we encounter our fears, vulnerabilities, wounds, regrets, and aloneness as well as joy, gratitude, belonging, vitality, and love.
Along the way, the transformative writer will inevitably touch upon universal themes within the human condition. Poetry functions in a similar manner, as David Whyte so eloquently reminds us:
Poetry is a break for freedom. In a sense all poems are good; all poems are an emblem of courage and the attempt to say the unsayable; but only a few are able to speak to something universal yet personal and distinct at the same time; to create a door through which others can walk into what previously seemed unobtainable realms, in the passage of a few short lines.
Unlike poetry, however, transformative writing is not a language that “few are able to speak;” it is a form of innate artistry that lies within each one of us.
We are all the artists of our own transformation.
Transformative writing may not constitute “high art,” whatever that might be, but it is a form of artistry and a mode of creative expression that allows each one of us to develop the ability to, “speak to something universal yet personal and distinct at the same time.”
Perhaps the simultaneity of being deeply authentic and personal while expressing something broad and universal is the essence of any artistic endeavour, including the everyday art of living a life worth living. The craft of transformative writing requires the development of several capacities including mindfulness, discernment, resilience, ritual, and imagination.
It may be that reading for personal transformation, or what we might call transformative reading, is a very close relative.
Can Reading Be Transformative?
Reading has the potential change our course in life. It can alter our thinking, change our perspectives, and reveal possibilities that were once hidden.
It can also have no influence whatsoever.
I have experienced reading as a profound inspiration for personal transformation. That is to say, the words I read were not in themselves transformative, but my relationship with them, often forged over hours and sometimes weeks and even years of personal reflection, generated significant personal change in my life.
Reading in order to broaden and expand my own experience of being alive has become a way of life.
The writing of another person is not transformative simply because the writer sets out to accomplish; it becomes transformative through the reader’s desire to generate meaning in their own life. This is hard but rewarding work. Since the art of transformative writing originates is grounded in authentic experience, parts of those experiences may become sources of deep connection and interbeing within the reader.
When an artist sends art out into the world, it eventually comes back to them in unexpected ways.
A transformative writer cannot impose transformation; they are likely to remain largely unaware of the diversity of effects and influences that their writing has on readers. The primary task of the transformative writer is to create something that is authentic, and in this sense transformative writing necessitates the freedom to be wonderfully self-centred.
There is no way for the writer to predict how readers might be influenced by their work, if at all.
A reader seeking transformation reads with the purpose of finding personal connections and points of intersection between the author and their own experiences in life. Transformative reading is also grounded in the authentic experiences of the reader and the sense of meaning that emerges through the reader’s concomitant powers of mindfulness, discernment, resilience, ritual, and imagination.
Styles of Reading
We live in an age of distraction.
Concentration has become an endangered species. Reading is often reduced to scanning and summarizing. Strangely, once something has been read it is often considered to be “done.” And then we hurriedly move on to the next article or book. We celebrate the quantity of material read over the value it has in our life.
The act of reading has become intoxicated by our desire for consumption.
In his intriguing essay Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nicholas Carr explores his personal experiences surrounding reading and the Internet. His work connects with a long lineage of thought reaching back to Marshall McLuhan. Carr offers the intriguing idea of deep reading:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
Of course, scanning is useful. Being able to summarize what we have read is fundamental to becoming literate. Finding ways to sift through large quantities of information has its place. But reading is also a means to, “make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”
Reading is also a contemplative experience.
Write Reading, Reading Write
I maintain a book library of approximately 100 books.
My preference is to remove books from it, rather than add to it.
Although I read other books, very few find their way into this library. The books on my shelf are lifelong companions that I often revisit. Several books have been read three or more times at different point in my life. As I read these books I write in them, sometimes quite extensively. Each time I revisit them I am often surprised by the pathways of my own presence.
And each time I re-read these books, they are never quite the same.
As an educator, I can recall the persistence it took to comprehend the opening chapter to Marshall McLuhan’s, The Medium is the Message. There were numerous paragraphs that mesmerized my intellect. I was more than a month reading and examining that chapter. Eventually I grasped the meaning waiting for me. That single chapter did more to change my beliefs about education than anything else I have read.
Transformative reading means we read with the intention of discovering something of lasting value that can have a positive or transformative influence in our life.
The transformative reader consciously engages and perseveres with a text with the intention of finding personal meaning that can be “lifted” from the words on the page and given expression in thought, feeling, and action in the context of their own life.
In a certain sense, there is little difference between reading and writing; they are both expressions of thought. That is, the transformative writer writes in order to discover something of enduring value in their life; a transformative reader does precisely the same thing via reading.
Writing and reading are two interconnected ways of attempting to, “speak to something universal yet personal and distinct at the same time.”
The Transformative Reader
Transformative writing is contagious in the sense that inspires the reader to become a co-author in extending resonant points of connection in their own unique way. In this sense, the work of one writer can inspire a cascade of related writing across many different readers.
The transformative reader is wholly unconcerned with pursuing speed or quantity. There is no desire to obtain the condensed notes, summarize, or to produce an abstract of the works they read. More often than not, a transformative reader will restrict and limit the amount of reading material they work with. Ultimately, the transformative reader is highly selective in what they read and decide what to read by determining the potential value a book might offer to them in the context of their own life.
The transformative reader is a person who views reading as a source of creative engagement, unexpected adventure, and a pilgrimage into new frontiers of meaning, value, and purpose that broaden and expand what can be known, felt, and lived.