This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
Perhaps this should have come earlier, right? A writer expounding her reasons for not spending her time writing has yet to give importance to reading in the writer’s process. Well, that would be because reading on my own time and with pleasure is something I have been struggling with.
Growing up, I could read for hours. New books rarely sat untouched on my desk. Any amount of empty time was an excuse to nestle into the blue velvet chair in the living room of my parents’ house, open the cover and close myself off to the world. It wasn’t unusual for me to spend hours without looking up, barely even giving myself time to use the restroom. I still vividly remember waiting years for the seventh novel in the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson to come out when I was in middle school. As soon as the book arrived at my house, I ran through the 432 pages in one afternoon.
But now, I can barely get myself to commit to 50 pages a day — a reading limit many of my writing friends follow. If I’m to really pinpoint this problem’s start, it would have to be college. Even the year prior I was looking for solace in novels and poetry collections, spending every spare moment at school with whatever I was reading open on my desk. In looking back at my reading history, it really seems like as soon as I walked onto Skidmore’s campus, a switch went off.
My mother is a lawyer. Her office at work is piled floor to ceiling with bursting maroon accordion folders. Papers crowd her desk, towering in haphazard piles that only she understands. Her entire week is spent pouring over these pages, wrestling information from them. Ever since I’ve known my mom, she’s never read outside of work. Her reasoning was always, “I do too much of it already, why would I come home and read more?” But when she was younger, she apparently loved to read. As someone who grew up loving books, I could never understand how someone could ever read too much. But now I think I get it.
During college, I was taking a full load of English classes, working on and eventually running the school newspaper, minoring in education, working as a department representative, attempting to have a social life. Homework often consisted of reading hundreds of pages in one or two nights. Pages I ultimately ran through at the speed of light without fully internalizing much because I was so nervous I wouldn’t finish the assignment in time. When I’d finally get back to my dorm room or apartment, all I wanted was to collapse onto my bed and never think again.
But reading requires thinking. That’s a big reason why so many of us love it. We get to commune with the words on the page, words that ignite images and thoughts and emotional responses in us. Reading can be exhilarating — a sort of trance that comes over you, and soon the tether between reality and imaginary blurs with the borders around you. That’s the type of reading I fell in love with. At school, however, reading became mechanical, a means to an end. And I resented that.
Recently I’ve been on a reading kick. I think it’s because of the summer weather. Typically I would spend my time watching Netflix and knitting. But it’s become too warm for me to take out the woolen yarn and knitting even one row is difficult with sweaty hands. With the time one hobby would occupy freed up, I’ve been now consistently turning to books.
It started thanks to a new friend of mine, who recommended I read The Secret History by Donna Tart. Within my overall struggle to read, finding fiction works that I enjoy or can spend time with is even harder. I think it must be because I am a creative nonfiction writer and so am always more interested in what writers in my field are doing, but sometimes I just am thrown off by what I’m reading having not actually happened. I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I do. I often catch myself thinking well if I can find someone writing about something similar that actually happened to them, why wouldn’t I go with that? Yeah, I hate myself too.
But The Secret History has gripped me from the start. Maybe it’s because I want to impress my new friend, follow through on the promise I made her to read it. Or maybe it’s because for the first time in a long time, I actually miss the main character when I go a day or two without reading it. Not that Richard, our protagonist, is exceptionally thrilling to read (he’s so very passive), but I actually want to know what he’s gotten himself into. This weekend I was unable to read for three days in a row and when I finally did have time to settle down, the first thing I did was meet with Richard on the page.
A girl in my MFA program told me she couldn’t write without reading something first. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to that point (my decision to sit down and write a chesty impulse that not even I can control), but it’s nice to find joy in cracking open a spine and diving in to some new world. And — with fear of opening up myself for attack — I missed leaving notes, underlines, stars; all those ways we make books our own. Markers of the moment we read them, proof of our past selves. I’m not sure how long this burst will last, but I can only hope forever.