On Reading

A few months ago, I got edits back on a chapter I had written for an upcoming book. The editor pointed out that in three different places, the last sentence of the paragraph started with the word This. In each case, what This was referring back to was a bit unclear. Lazily, I leaned on that one word to do too much work, referring back to the ideas in the entire paragraph and probably also some ideas in my head that never made it on the page. I pride myself on clear, precise writing, and reading my own work so carefully that I often find more mistakes than my editors can. The lazy This was a new mistake for me, and I had missed it in multiple places.

editorAfter making the last sentence in my paragraphs stronger and more precise, I sent my revised draft in and turned back to a manuscript I had been editing for over a year. Right there in front of me, I saw it. This. The writer likes to start the last sentence of her paragraphs with This. Unconsciously, I had picked up one of her writing ticks. I knew, deep down, it was because I was editing and writing too much and reading too little. I was trying to produce without being refreshed. I was trying to create without ingesting art. Not surprisingly, my writing started to mirror my main source of reading—my editing work.

Then I team taught a two-week Creative Writing Course with an avid reader. Every day my co-teacher came to class with a new library book to rave about. She was so alive with ideas. It was like I could see her brain growing in front of me. She’d shake her head, reporting how she stayed up way too late reading, but the book was just too good to put down.

I longed for the feeling of reading a book that begged me to carve out extra time in my day. I missed brimming with ideas, carrying a notebook around to get thoughts out of my head and create space for new ones. I had gotten out of the habit of having a book and a notebook on my person at all times. I had let my identity as an avid reader and a writer slip away.

books-open-on-tableThe two years I studied writing at Sarah Lawrence were also the two best years of reading of my life. I was required to read Harpers, The New Yorker, and The New York Times for class. Professors handed me some of the very best essays, podcasts, books and stories ever written. I was swimming in art, submerged in beauty. It changed not only my mind, but my eyes, ears and heart. It made me a better person. It couldn’t help but improve my writing. Writers write, yes, but first, writers read.

Conversely, my son dropping down to one nap a day and getting super mobile started quite possibly the worst stretch of reading in my life. I don’t read bad things, per say, I just don’t read. There is not enough time or energy. With a small opening of free time, reading seems too decadent in the face of the pile of work and life that calls for my attention. Instead of seeing it as part of my career, I let myself see reading as a luxury. I feel my being drop from the realm of art and creativity to the realm of exhausted survival. There is pure beauty in parenting and washing dishes, don’t get me wrong, yet I miss reading. Harpers and The New Yorker keep showing up at my door, mocking me. I tuck them away in a cabinet where they can’t taunt me. The unread books on my shelf pile up until they seemed insurmountable. I keep telling myself it is situational and temporary, but still, it takes its toll.

Instead of writing with supple, playful, and saturated bones, I am trying to write with dehydrated and anemic one. My editor graciously pointed that out by circling This on three occasions and asking a gentle question. My writing is tired and thirsty. And this, at a time when I’m convinced our world desperately needs writing that is beautiful and artistic to call us to our higher selves.

Very simply, I am recommitting to reading the really good stuff. I am reclaiming my higher mind and my loftier thoughts and my playful and artistic brain cells. I don’t read a book a day like my friend, and I probably won’t be able to for years, but I am reading. It’s a start.