Reading to Write
Over the course of the last eighteen months I have developed a set of simple rules to govern my reading experience. They were born out of my desire to return to a colourful reading life, after years in the wilderness after my son was born, as well as the acknowledgement a writer must read.
Setting a Target
To ease myself back into reading, while many other parts of my personal and professional lives were in flux, I set myself a target of one book a month. Setting a target made reading a priority for the first time in my life. While I was reading for pleasure, creating a goal meant I was forced to adopt new habits to meet it. I went to bed earlier and read. I took half an hour during the day if possible to read.I started making sure I always had a book in my bag when I left home. I blocked out time on the weekend to read. And in January 2008 I finished Wild Swans: three daughters of China, thrilled to have had the experience and met my target. I was hooked. Setting an achievable target had me back on the road to reading not as an opportunistic act, but as a part of my every day life.
Reviewing the Target
In March we went on holidays and I managed to read two books, despite a hectic driving holiday through Tasmania and tumbling into bed early. So I upped the ante and reset my target to two books a month. I had already created new habits for myself and I relished the challenge which came with reading two books. There have been months where I have finished my book on the cusp of midnight. The month end deadline is a good impetus for me to make the time and I have never regretted it. Plus I have a sense of accomplishment at the end of each month.
Once I had made the choice to read two books a month I was faced with a wonderful new quandary. What to read? If I had two books to read in a month, part of me felt it would be a little frivolous to read whatever I wanted. What if I started reading books which challenged me – both as a writer or a person? Now I read one book for pleasure and one as professional development each month. On the PD list to date have been 100 Years of Solitude, East of Eden, Lolita, The God of Small Things and The Handmaid’s Tale.
One benefit of reading beyond your comfort zone is your writing improves and diversifies as a result. I would never have written Naptha’s Mountain without having first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A short story I entered into a contest this weekend has very subtle hallmarks of Arundhati Roy’s style. And Valdmir Nabokov gave my vocabulary a much needed kick up the bum which influences everything I write, both fiction and non fiction.
Another benefit of reading difficult books to a time limit is you actually get them finished. Left to my own devices Lolita would have languished, possibly for months, on my bedside table, as would have 100 Years of Solitude.
Reviewing the Target Again
The great thing about targets and about professional development in general – it is not set in concrete. In November I was forced to reassess my two books a month rule. Despite NaNoWriMo I did get some reading in, thanks to recovering from having my wisdom teeth extracted, but taking on Neale Stephenson’s Quicksilver in November was probably too big a challenge. So I revised my target to two books a month or 600 pages. For the last seven months it has worked well. It goes to show a little trial is needed to get the final mix right.
Ten years ago I would have laughed had I turned up in my dingy flat and suggested to my then self I create a reading schedule. It would have sounded too much like taking English Literature at Uni … killed the joy of reading. I would have laughed at myself or told myself to take a hike.
But it was what I needed last year. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m very much a “line in the sand” type of person and I needed to create these “rules” to get me back into the habit of reading. I admit creating a schedule/rules/targets/goals or whatever you want to call them, gives reading a clinical edge which can be a little unsettlingly. But the joy doesn’t go. If anything the joy is expanded, as new authors, new characters and stories are experienced.
As writers, do we have the luxury of not reading?