Is This Cheating? (…Cause This Feels Like Cheating)

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Audiobooks Vs. Actual Books. Does it still count as reading the book if you never actually read the book?

Back when I was in high school, I worked at my town’s local library. Looking back at the job, it was probably one of the best (if not the best) jobs I’ve ever had. I say that because retrospectively, no other job allowed me to flip through interesting books all day (even though I suppose I did that on the sly). I would spend my afternoons organizing shelves, checking out what books patrons were taking out, and covering (or re-covering) books with plastic so that they always looked and felt fresh (but that’s where it ended, because no matter how many times you cover a book in new plastic, you could never cover up that old-book stink).

Of all the things I did at the library, my favorite days were the ones I’d spend in the back room, creating art for the windows. I don’t remember how I earned that job, or how often I was tasked with a new window, but I do remember spending hours in that back room—piecing together construction paper, lining my work with thick black sharpie, and blowing through glue stick after glue stick as I organized the shapes like a puzzle in order to create different scenes. And for all the time I spent alone working on these murals, the time felt like it flew by. This could have been because of amount of fun I had creating these pieces, but I also think it was what I listened to while I worked, that made it fly. Because this was a library, I had complete access to the CDs and DVDs that were in stock, and I used that unlimited access to monopolize the Harry Potter audiobooks.

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The only remaining picture of my brief career as an 18 year old construction paper artist.

Every shift, I would place one of the disks into the little boom box we kept in the back and get completely wrapped up in the wizarding world. In his slightly-Americanized English accent, the melodic voice of Harry Potter narrator Jim Dale would quietly guide me through the books, chapter after chapter, shift after shift.

But for all the hours I spent listening to these books over and over, I never felt as though I were reading the stories. When I talk about the series with friends (and yes, I roll with a crowd where this conversation comes up at least once a year), I never count the times I’ve listened to the stories when someone asks how many times I’ve read the books. I mean, why would I? My eyes never saw a single word of Rowling’s writing, my mind never gave voice to the words of the characters, and I never exhausted my eyes to the point where I’d fall asleep mid chapter.

But with that said, it never felt right to not include my listening sessions because so much of my listening experience was the same as my reading experience. Just as if I were reading the books myself, I experienced every word of Rowling’s writing and I watched every scene play out in my mind. Just like reading, I felt emotional during the exciting parts and nervous during the finale scenes. Essentially, I felt all the same things I would have, had I been reading the book.

So should it count as reading the book? Or am I cheating the book? 

A few years ago, this question came up when I tried to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Trying to read that book was an epic failure. With too much time spent on only three chapters worth of progress, I turned to the audiobook—and it helped… significantly. Although I experienced her language through my earbuds instead of on the page, it was fulfilling. For a while there, I even felt influenced by her writing style, as I found myself mimicking a certain type of grace in my work emails that had not been there prior (which was… awkward, but only because I was emailing people that clearly had no time for grace or beauty in their writing. They were NYS Medicare employees and they refused to read anything over 5 sentences long). I got all the positive side effects of reading a beautiful classic book, without having to actually read it.

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This popped up in my Google search for “Jane Austen writing” and I can’t help but wish this were a real line from Pride and Prejudice.

This month, under the insistence of NSBCBC podcast panelist Amanda, I dipped my foot in the audiobook pool yet again, in order to “read” David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. (Side note: I tried to illegally download it because I didn’t want to wait for the library copy to arrive, and I didn’t want to pay the $20 it cost on i tunes. However, my foray into small time crime didn’t pay because I immediately downloaded a virus that took days to get out of my computer. Oy… never again.) Anyway, the experience thus far has been pretty great (aside from that virus business) and it has me thinking—perhaps this is the way some authors need to be absorbed. For example, a friend of mine tried to read this book and didn’t love it, but now that I’ve heard the audiobook, maybe she would have enjoyed it had she heard the author’s delivery of the text instead. His voice, his pauses, his pronunciation—it all adds so much to the stories that I’m not sure they’d be as rewarding without him.

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Here is David Sedaris, cracking up John Stewart on The Daily Show. See, John knows what I mean about David’s delivery. Amanda was so right about this.

But it this reading? Technically, no. But am I experiencing the story? Absolutely! I’m absorbing every word, learning new things, and experiencing feelings with every page that passes. And isn’t that what reading is all about? Whichever way you decide to take in a story, it is still a rewarding experience.

So the next time someone asks how many times I’ve read the Harry Potter stories, I’ll include the times I’ve listened, because really, shouldn’t the question actually be, “how many times have you experienced the story?”

– Nina Sclafani

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The Impact of Creativity

“Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”

– Pablo Picasso

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Before I got laid off, I worked in the creative marketing department of a company that sold alternative teaching tools to schools. We prided ourselves on being “creative and innovative” and for the most part, the company was (except for the overuse of the phrase “we provide creative and innovative solutions.” I am guilty of doing that, as I was the copywriter for a short while.) Anyway, I absolutely loved working in the creative department. I loved working with a team to produce some really incredible projects, like the full comic book-style calendar, or our company newsletters that (with the occasional debate about appropriateness) were littered with jokes. However, throughout that entire time, I never created anything on my own—for myself. I was always creating within the bounds of what I was prompted to and for the working world it was fine, but for me personally, I was lacking something in my life.

Cut to the lay off, with all the extra free time and my new desire to read, I often found myself swimming through my own imagination. I found myself spending my evenings at a turn-of-the-century mysterious circus, bungee jumping off  the Manhattan bridge with my favorite comedian, floating weightlessly through the international space station, and eating the freshest fruits available on the streets in Southern Italy. Because my mind was experiencing all these new sights it needed an outlet and so I began writing more blog entries, taking more pictures, and writing more music.

Music was always a passion of mine and as you know from the previous entry, I even went to school for it for a hot minute. What I didn’t say in the other entry was that when I was in high school, I was incredibly creative. Despite being in 30 different clubs, I still found time everyday to play my piano and write my own music. I still look back on the songs I wrote during that time with pride. But when I went to Berklee, I no longer felt the desire to create. I was totally freaked out by the mass amounts of talent around me, and because of my self-inflicted intimidation of these people, I stopped creating. There was a drought within me—my creativity well was empty.

That loss of creativity really impacted me when my grandfather passed away in 2005. I yearned to write a song that could express how I felt about the loss of him, but that song never came about. I could never find the right words or the right melody to properly honor him, and show my love for him simultaneously. I didn’t want to disappoint my family either, by making something sub-par for this special man. Fast forward to 9 years later, something amazing happened when I read A Monster Calls. I connected to it on such a deep level, and associated the pain of losing my grandfather to the pain of the characters in the book, that I realized I could write a song about the story, and in doing so, I would write a song about my grandfather. Inspired by the literature, I could feel my creativity coming back.

Over the course of the month, I wrote the lyrics and the music, and with the help of my husband’s beautiful arrangement and recording skills, we were able to put it out onto the Internet. You can hear the song here:

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https://soundcloud.com/nina-sclafani/see-you-at-midnight

We threw it up on Facebook and Twitter and called it a day. And then something amazing happened. The author of the book, Patrick Ness, saw my tweet, listened to my song, and retweeted it! When I got the notification email, I almost screamed for joy inside of a bagel shop. (Sidenote: I was inside of a bagel shop when I got the email, so instead I squealed with my mouth closed and did a dance eerily similar to Eddie Murphy in the SNL “Hot Tub is Too Hot” skit.) I thought “THIS IS THE HEIGHT OF GREATNESS!” and thought it couldn’t get any better than that.

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Patrick Ness’ retweet about my song followed by……

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… my bagel store reaction to the retweet.

But then something even more beautiful and amazing happened with the song, and it still gives me chills/makes me want to cry.

A few months ago, a friend of our family tragically lost her daughter, and this week she was preparing herself for her daughter’s first birthday since her passing. By fate or coincidence, she found our song posted on my mother-in-laws wall and felt an instant connection to it. In the same way that A Monster Calls connected me to the loss of my grandfather, our song connected to her and the loss of her daughter. She wrote me the most beautiful messages throughout the weekend and she eventually passed the song forward, posting it on a message board for bereaved parents. I can’t even begin to express how I feel knowing that something I created helped her through this difficult time. It’s the same way that I used Ness’ book to help me through my loss and it is a cycle I cannot stop thinking about.

It’s a cycle of healing.

It’s a cycle of love.

And it’s a cycle of creativity.

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When I was working my 9-5 job, I forgot how to be creative for myself. I put it all into my job and the results were (in my honest opinion) not as great as I would have liked. But once I started reading, I felt as though I was exercising my brain and bringing life back into something I thought was long gone. I allowed myself to be inspired, and in turn, perhaps I inspired others to create. If not, at least I know that something I did made an impact, and that impact was more important than a company making a profit, or a company getting its name out there. It truly helped someone.

We are a world of artists—we just don’t tap into our own creativity often enough. We allow life to get in the way or our own insecurities to stop us from pursuing what we want, and I think it’s about time that ends.

So if you love to take pictures, take pictures. If you love to draw, draw. Sing? Sing. Write? Put that pen to paper and get to it! Because you just never know what kind of impact the art you create can have on someone else’s life.

– Nina Sclafani