Reading is in the Job Description

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.

canstockphoto23557237I 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 An unpublished, not particularly intense writer, but a writer nonetheless.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.

canstockphoto411034This 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.

canstockphoto30462740My 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).

38 Comments on “Reading is in the Job Description

  1. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” -Stephen King

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  2. Read a lot. Write a lot. It’s a mantra I believe in. But as I’ve moved into my mid 50s I find that if I do a lot of one, I’m often too tired to do a lot of the other! Frustrating.

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    • It’s taken me awhile to get the rhythm and ratio of reading to writing. So much depends on what I’m working on. I always know, though, that if I start to feel drained, it’s time to step away and curl up with a book or head out to the garden (something else that refuels the muse). There’s never enough time, though, is there?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I needed to read this today, Michelle. Like you, I have way too often delayed my reading until everything on my to-do list was accomplished, the result being that sometimes when I finally sat down to read I nodded off in a trice—no matter how riveting the book might be. I need this reminder that reading is a big part of my job; hence it’s more than okay to sit down at ten in the morning and open a book. It’s part of my job description! Thanks.

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    • I was doing much the same – sitting down at the end of the day with a book and finding myself zonking out 15 minutes later. I’ve learned that I have to read earlier in the day. And now I read several times a day, because I just can’t sit for hours at a time – same with writing. I find my days are becoming more filled with reading and writing and chores are what I do as fillers. My house isn’t as clean and my family self-serves when it comes to most meals, but I sense I’m on a happier path.

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  4. I love it! I read like it is my job, but I’m always a little guilty and ashamed. Away with that! Reading is like shopping the competition or scoping out how your upcoming tennis opponent plays. Or w going to music master classes. That’s a better comparison. Thanks for this great justifor my favourite activity.

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    • It gets pointed out to me frequently that I feel the need to rationalize doing anything enjoyable and it is usually accompanied by the sense that I “should” be doing something else. It’s kind of a messed up way to live and the older I get, the less palatable that approach is. We must do things for the sheer pleasure of it and not allow pointless guilt to detract from that. Unless you’re ripping the books out of the hands of children and ignoring the cries of help from elderly neighbors while you read, guilt seems a waste of energy. Read away!

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  5. I love to read, and do it every single day – but I never thought of it as essential like this! Makes total sense! Thank you!

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    • For workhorses like me, deeming it essential is useful – in order to overcome the sense that I’m some sort of hedonist for sitting down with a book. I’m glad that you don’t need that rationalization!

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  6. I have far too many piles of books with book marks in them myself. (Sigh). There was a time when my nose was hardly ever out of a book — and not only when I was a child. To hell with what I was planning to do this afternoon. I’m going to read instead. Thanks for the nudge Michelle.

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    • I remember losing whole weekends to reading. Those long stretches of time seem such a luxury now. I can only sit an hour tops before I have to move around (everything gets stiff), but on a good day, an hour here or there can be managed. I hope you enjoy your reading session.

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      • So can I and woe is me, I get stiff and have to move around too. Wasn’t a long reading session, but I did enjoy it. Thanks! Note to self: this should become a habit again.

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  7. Read, write and — as available — listen! Don’t know if you’re familiar with Krista Tippett’s wonderful “On Being,” but her recent interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (rebroadcast from 2016) on creativity is marvelous.

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    • I’ve had to become more intentional. In my head, there’s always something else to be done, so I can’t rely on my “as available” compass – it’s completely off-kilter.
      I enjoy “On Being”, but missed that particular interview. I’ll look it up – thanks!

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  8. My daughter recently read pride and prejudice, and boy did she read itt differently than I did. She called it chick lit…

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    • That’s a funny thing that happens – the interpretation of something relies entirely on the reader. I’m never going to use the phrase “chick lit” until somebody starts calling Norman Mailer et al’s work “dick lit”.

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      • I’ve actually heard people refer to some male authors like that…Hemingway and a few others

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  9. This is exactly right! Since I started having more time to write I have made it a point to try to read or listen to books every day. I love to read, but I consider it part of learning how to write well.

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  10. Funny, I’ve often approached reading as an activity you do INSTEAD OF your getting your work done. For example, in college I pulled an all-nighter writing a paper because I kept taking breaks to read “just one chapter” of Lord of the Rings.

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    • That’s likely the more healthy attitude to have. Somewhere along the way, I adopted that very American thing of making life about work. I’m trying to undo that. Approaching reading like a job is just one way of sneaking around my dysfunctional thinking – the kind of thinking that makes doing something you love a guilty pleasure, instead of simply a pleasure.

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    • It is a luxury to determine aspects of one’s own job. I always thought I’d be better at it than I am. A case of the grass is always greener or if…thens (if I had more time, I’d be a better writer). Nope – just found more ways to waste time. Apparently, leaving an office job did not miraculously rend me productive.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Michelle,
    Reading Jane Austen would be like work for me. Do you ever read with your daughter? I remember reading just one book as a family, and is one of my favorite childhood memories. My sister remembers it, too.

    I’ve always been a voracious reader, but find I often read too fast and miss a lot. Lately, I’ve been re-reading remembered favorites, or books that made lasting impressions. I just finished re-reading “Lord of the Flies,” and decided it wasn’t that good. So, an advantage of reading is it inspires me to do better. Golding published his fiction, and I haven’t (yet).

    Deciding what to do first is an ongoing challenge. You get more dirt up if you wait. You also get more laundry done if you put if off. There’s also the possibility that someone without clean underwear will do the laundry before you get around to it.

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    • We’ve been reading and sharing the same books for years, but over the last year, she’s really challenged me – Dickens, Hugo, Proust. My reading list just quadrupled.

      I have found that how I read has changed with the notebook and pen. I also was reading too quickly, missing nuance, etc. just to get to the story. Unfortunately it has made things more difficult for me as a writer – specifically with physical descriptions and nuanced characters. I’m trying to turn things around and get into the details now.

      I like your take on housework! I suspect my family would immediately devolve into a pack of filthy, ravenous wolves if left to their own devices too long, but then I tend to overestimate my usefulness in the scheme of things.

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      • Michelle,
        I just finished posting a comment to your latest blog, but this reminds me I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” after seeing the movie “The Hours.” In the movie, Virginia Woolf comments that someone must die in “Mrs. Dalloway” so that others will better appreciate life. It seems relevant to both of your blogs.

        Sounds like your daughter is hard to keep up with. Proust, especially, requires slow reading. Virginia Woolf liked him a lot, as I recall.

        Housework. There’s always more to do, but it is patient and waits for me to get around to it.

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  12. Ha! Simpering coquettes! Yes, Elizabeth Bennett’s world did make me squirm with indignation when I read Pride and Prejudice not long ago, unlike several decades ago when I was charmed by Jane Eyre. Funny how we change over time and our reading preferences evolve.

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