By Bethanne Patrick
Originally published on November 6, 2013
Twitter bio ends with the words “Above all, a reader.” That’s how I’ve always thought of myself. Since the time I learned how to decipher words on a page, I’ve been a voracious consumer of the written word, someone who is never without reading material, catholic in tastes both for form and content. Reading is my hobby, my comfort, my entertainment, and my livelihood.
But a funny thing happened last year when I began working in earnest on my novel in progress: I stopped reading. Oh, not entirely; I still managed to read a few pages of one book or another before bedtime–but I was no longer devouring books at my usual rate.
At first, I felt dismayed. My “usual rate” is three to four books per week, and I am accustomed to having several books on the go at once. How could I manage without all of that input?
I wasn’t expecting this vacuum. Over the years, when interviewing authors, I’d often heard that most preferred not to read in their own genre or within their own circle while working on a new book. However, no one had ever told me that she’d stop reading altogether while working on a new book (or perhaps I was forgetting). I was disconcerted. How long would this last? When I stopped writing, would I start reading once more? What might happen after that?
Fortunately, I discovered the answers to all of the above questions once I’d hit a writing slump. I couldn’t pick up the new hardcovers and paperbacks waiting on my shelves quickly enough. But…but…I wasn’t writing. How long would this last? When I stopped reading, would I start writing once more? What might happen after that?
After a few weeks of reading, I pushed myself back to writing again–and yes, I stopped reading. The difference was that this time, I didn’t miss the reading in the same way, because I knew I would want to read again at some point. However, I also realized that I was missing out during these periods of only reading or only writing. Each informs the other, after all. We hear all the time that if you would be a writer, first be a reader.
Yet while there are a myriad of books about how to write and how to be a writer, there are far fewer about how to be a reader–an active reader, the kind who isn’t simply devouring books for pleasure but who is consuming them as fuel. I’m not saying that those books even need to be written–I’m just saying that they don’t exist, and sometimes that as writers we forget how crucial reading is to our process.
Reading with purpose is a different kind of reading. It’s often taught in MFA programs, but not all of us have participated in those programs, and even those who have can use a refresher.
Reading with purpose does not mean reading like a PhD candidate in literature. It doesn’t mean analyzing the text for meaning, unless that is what is going to help you. No, reading with purpose means reading with an eye to what you, as a writer, wish to accomplish with your own work. It means reading carefully and seeing how another writer has tackled something, be that something tone, character, or any number of writely things. It means recognizing that your writing is going to be different from that of the person who penned the work you’re reading, but that you can still learn from that work. It means opening your mind and heart to other ways of seeing.
And isn’t that why we write?