In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dig in.
I’m going to be honest about something: I find it so difficult lately to find time to read. I find it hard, and yet my schedule is a lot more relaxed than many. I’m currently teaching three college classes, including an advanced writing workshop, and I’m hard at work revising two different manuscripts.
But I certainly have hours in my day I could devote to reading, so why don’t I? Because I’m glued to the television, way more than I should be. I usually enjoy watching the news first thing when I get up, and then with breakfast I like to watch an episode of whatever show I’ve been watching. Then I do my creative work in the late morning, write for two or three hours before I move on to all the work I have to do for the classes I’m teaching. Classes to prep. Papers to grade. Writing submissions to read and write comments on.
Then most afternoons I spend teaching at the university, and when I come home at night, it’s time to make dinner and watch some more TV, whether it’s a film or more of the television show. When it’s been a long day of writing and grading and teaching, I just want to sprawl out on the couch and watch TV, I don’t want to sit with a book for too long.
For the first year in my new house I had a guest bedroom with no TV in it. I would migrate there at least thirty minutes every day and use that room as a reading space, the one place in the house that had no TV, no computer, and I could just pick up a book or two off the shelf and read.
But of course eventually I did put a TV in there, and a DVD player, and now every time I migrate to it, I might look at the books I have on the shelf or the bed, might even crack one open for a few minutes, but if I’m at all tired I toss the book down, turn on the TV, and put on a movie or a TV show. There is a ton of content out there, and sometimes I feel like if I don’t watch at least eight hours of Netflix every day I’ll never catch up. And when I get in bed at night, in another room with a TV, instead of picking up that book on my nightstand, I’ll watch something else before I finally drift to sleep.
Part of the reason I’m not reading as much as I used to is that I just spent three years in an MFA Creative Writing program in which I read a lot, a lot, a lot. Between the summer of 2017 and the spring of 2018 I probably read more than forty books. I have to take notes, copy quotations, write long essays, reference many of the titles in two terrifying examinations. When I graduated in May, I said to myself, now I get to just read whatever I want.
And for the first couple months, I did. I poured through the books in my guest bedroom I’d been wanting to read for pleasure. Many of these books were fantastic. But by August or so, I’d read everything I owned I really wanted to, and ever since, I haven’t exactly been grabbed by too much fiction, whether it’s another book I have in the house or a random title I pick up at the library.
I don’t know about you, but what I’ve found with reading as I get older is that I have to really, really love the book to commit myself to it, to commit a half-hour or more each to it. If the book is just okay, if it’s not grabbing me, and I don’t have to read it for any program or anybody, then eventually I just stop going to it, and I move on to something else.
But as I sit here now, recognizing that I should be reading more, especially a holiday week like this one when I’ll have more time, I realize just how much I’ve missed reading. The last three months I haven’t given myself over to a great novel, and I’m starting to feel it in my bones. Movies and TV can be fantastic. Last night I watched a film called Shame, directed by Ingmar Bergman, that impressed me from first frame to last.
But when you go too long without reading, something inside me begins to suffer. My fiction writing always takes a hit, the best words not coming to me the way they should. Ideas for other stories don’t come as easily. I don’t sleep as well at night.
So what I’m forcing myself to do between now and the end of the year is to read at least thirty minutes every day. It can be morning or night. It can be fiction or non-fiction. It can be whatever I want. The trick is, if you don’t have time throughout the day to read, to allow yourself five-minute pockets where you can dip into a story, like Stephen King talks about. If you’re at the doctor’s office. Or waiting at the dentist. Or taking a break between the classes you’re teaching. You can do it first thing in the morning, or the last thing at night.
Find what works for you. What I’ve been doing the last few days if forcing myself to read for about thirty minutes before I do my day’s creative writing. Reading stimulates the mind, and I have found it really helpful to read in that short window of time before I sit down and do my work. I find it easier to read in the morning than at night, but that might be different for you.
What King says still stands. If you want to be a writer, you have to find time to read. It doesn’t have to be five hours of reading every day. You don’t have to read a novel each week. But even if you have your weeks or months of non-reading like I occasionally do, don’t give up. Find a window of time where you can pick up that book you wanted to check out, and if you love it, give it a chance. If the book is boring you to tears, then by all means, go on to something else.
Fall back in love with reading again, and not just your writing will get the benefit. You will, too.