It’s a rainy day and the last day of school. My hours of solitude will soon be a distant memory, until the crispness of autumn air returns. Soon, I will be sharing endless space and time with a teenage changeling. I’m anxious about that, about how rattled and on edge I can get when someone is always there.
And thus the argument begins, should I read or get some things taken care of today? Whereas I’ve begun to write regularly and have elevated the task to the top of the to-do list, reading seems to fall lower on the list than it should.
I have a life coach friend who often thwarts my litany of excuses. She was blunt and said, “Reading is part of your job.” This rolled over my brain in an aha! moment. Despite the fact that I’m a voracious reader, it is always with a whiff of indolence and apology.
I’ve approached reading as an activity you do when all your work is done. This was a hold over from my own mother, I suppose, who pushed herself through the day of raising four children in less-than-desirable circumstances. Reading was a luxury – time where nothing was left to be done. And you interrupted her at your peril.
Reading is part of your job. I’m a writer. An unpublished, not particularly intense writer, but a writer nonetheless. I wanted to write when I was younger, because words on a page seemed more real and important than the life around me. I wanted to write to live in a world where I could make anything happen, where I could express what I seemed wholly incapable of saying out loud. Without reading, I would have been someone else entirely.
This idea that if you write every day for hours on end, your writing will magically improve, is endemic of a lot of writing advice. But if you’re not challenging yourself beyond your own style, your own perspective, your own circular world, your writing is likely to only improve in quantity. I don’t believe in magic, at least not for myself.
I believe in feeding the muse. Much like success is preparedness meeting luck, good writing is the result of reading meeting the pen.
This means reading a lot. It means reading outside of genres, it means reading people you can’t at all relate to. It means struggling with text. If you’re a genre writer, perhaps it makes sense to read heavily in that particular form, but that becomes a recursive world as well. Breakthroughs are made when form and genre are mixed.
I am about to embark on a forced summer march through Austen and the Bronte Sisters. Period pieces tend to bore and irritate me, especially when it comes to the state of women characters in these books. My brief dalliances with Jane Austen made me run off and read Dorothy Parker right quick, just to cleanse my pallet of simpering coquettes.
Now before all the Austen-philes give me what-for, I’m taking another run at them with the eye of a writer. Perhaps they will read differently. Or perhaps I will need to keep a literary extinguisher of Alice Munro at the ready, lest I find myself wishing to self-immolate during yet another pianoforte/garden stroll/tea party scene.
The idea of reading as luxury is one I can ill afford to maintain. My life is more than half over. If my desire is to become a better writer, I can’t keep putzing about with old ideas about how I spend my time. Happiness, like luxury, are things I’ve never learned to take well and it seems rather unlikely that I will change at this point in time.
My subconscious mind is always one step ahead of me, though. It plans and leads me down an intentional path, even when I’m still wrestling with the remnants of dysfunction. My study is full of books – on shelves, in piles next to my reading chair. Bookmarks peek out of every other one. My resistance to this luxury, this desire, has been entirely futile.
I have changed how I read in pursuit of better writing, reading with a notebook and pen at the ready. I write down questions, phrases, quotes, anything that catches me. I want to develop writing skills that are not, innately, my own. Part of this is surely a sneaky way to excuse keeping my nose stuck in books when there is laundry to be done.
When I heard reading is part of your job, my mind lit up. It was the desperate grasp for rationalization. If I can call it work, I can dive in with the intensity I save for real work. I have permission. I have validation. And goodness knows, I’ve got the books.
So, on this rainy day, I’m getting to down to business. I’m rolling up my sleeves. I’m putting my nose to the grindstone and cracking open a book.
TGS Writers’ Book Club Reminder: The June Selection is a collection of poetry, Afterland by Mai Der Vang. Follow the blog for updated selections, writer-reader guidelines, and discussions. The July selection is There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry (Short Stories).