If there’s one piece of advice that all established authors give to newbies, it’s this: Read as much as you can.
Reading books helps you develop an ear for language and shows you the possibilities of new techniques. Finding an author that inspires you is like crack for writers: every time you read their work, you just want to grab a pen or a keyboard and hammer out your own magnum opus.
But there’s one B-I-G problem with following this piece of advice: Reading STOPS you from writing.
Countless budding writers spend more time reading than writing.
In fact, reading is what inspires most of us to become writers. But why waste time reading other people’s words when you could be writing your own?
If you want to be a writer, reading is like pouring time and effort into an 8-oz cup. It’s great to fill up your cup, but at a certain point that cup starts running over, and all that energy and time you’re expending just goes down the drain.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggests that the reason so many “stuck” creative people read endlessly and addictively is because it keeps their mind occupied.
When they’re reading, they don’t have to think about the fact that they’re not writing or painting or composing. They can pretend that they NEED to read for research, inspiration, technique, or some other excuse. They can DELUDE themselves that they’re doing something creative by picking up a book. But they’re not.
The truth is this:
You can fill notebooks upon notebooks with ideas and sketches and plot outlines. You can make up the most amazing stories in your head all day long. You can tell people that you’ve got a million dollar idea for a movie or a novel.
But unless you’re CREATING something with all that material, it’s nothing more than a daydream.
Writers who make it know that nothing can substitute for the essential act of sitting down and not budging until you’ve written what you sat down to write.
If you’re one of those people who finds it MUCH easier to plop yourself down on the sofa with a good book than to sit down at a desk and get writing, you’re in good company. That describes almost all of us!
So what can you do to make sure that your reading habit doesn’t hurt your writing?
You’re not making progress as a writer just because you’re reading a book. You make progress as a writer by WRITING.
Now, halve that number. That is your daily limit for reading. With all that free time you now have, WRITE.
(And if you start complaining about having to “work” during your down time, you need to change the way you look at creative work. Writing can be just as relaxing and entertaining as reading if you’ve got the right attitude. Try writing a blog or a diary to get yourself in the habit of dashing off a few pages without worrying about whether the quality.)
Are you bored? Are you doing it out of habit? Are you doing it to put off doing something else?
Most of us read unconsciously because it’s what we’ve always done. We read to occupy ourselves while we’re eating or resting or waiting. Reading is just a habit, and that habit can be broken.
Next time you pick up a book because you’re bored or waiting or want something to do, why not pick up a notebook and a pen instead?
I love the Mead Fat Lil’ Notebook (available at Wal-Mart) because the size is perfect for slipping into a purse. Because it’s spiral-bound, it lays open (nothing is worse than notebooks that need to be propped open), and you can wedge a pen into the binding so that you’re never caught short of a writing instrument.
Even better, the 3.5″ x 5.5″ pages are small enough that you don’t have to face a daunting expanse of blank paper. You can write ten pages in a session and feel like you’ve accomplished quite a lot.
All my life, I’ve been a hard-core reading addict.
I started as a kid and never stopped. I read on long car journeys, at family gatherings, during mealtimes, and when I didn’t have anything else to do. I consciously weaned myself off television when I was a teenager so that I’d have more time for reading, and that is what I’ve done with my evenings ever since.
All that time, I firmly believed that reading was relaxing while writing was hard work. I could pick up a book and read any time, but I had to feel “up to it” before I’d try to write anything.
Then, one day, I was browsing the bookshelves of Borders and saw The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
I sat down in a soft chair and flipped through it idly. With that awesome serendipity that guides our lives, fate opened the book to just the right page, and what I read struck me in the gut. For one wild moment, it felt like I was reading a personal message written just for me.
Reading, Cameron explained, was a way for artists to avoid doing creative work.
She suggests a reading moratorium for one week. Even though it will be painful, sit with the stillness. Don’t go rushing to fill your time with television or mindless activities; just allow yourself to be idle. Silence and stillness do things for our creative brain that mental chatter cannot.
In the following months, I started to consciously work on my reading habit. Instead of reading all evening long, I would allow myself a half-hour of reading over dinner, then I would very consciously put the book away and pick up my laptop computer. My blogs thrived, and so did I. It was exhilarating to do productive work in the evenings (though my overactive mind led to insomnia on occasion).
I’ll never be entirely free from my addiction to reading, but awareness has made all the difference. I know now that I have a choice when I pick up a book.
When it’s time to do the work, it’s time to DO THE WORK.