Thursday, 19 March 2015

Can Writers Read Too Much?

As an insatiable reader I would automatically answer the question the title of this post poses with a vehement No! But as a writer, I'm beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as reading too much.

Reading, it goes without saying, is essential to writing. It is the yin to its yang. One can't exist without the other. They're the two sides of one coin. One the passive part, the other the active, a type of verbal inhalation and creative exhalation. But when engaging in both these sides, is it necessary to find balance between the two? Like a see-saw, will one go down if the other goes up? It's all about achieving balance. And recently my scales have been off (by a truckload of books).

What exactly is reading too much? On an ordinary scale, until your eyes hurt would usually be a tip-off. Or until words kick up a blunderbuss through your head obscuring fiction and reality (ahem, guilty, several times over). But for a writer to read too much? What does that mean when writers, out of all people, read SO much? It is a part of their work after all. But what is the quantity of reading that will impede upon writing? And can it really impede, as its primary function is first and foremost always to encourage?

On the one hand I feel like I am feeding the furnaces of writing with reading so many books; on the other, like I am shutting them off. I love to read. All writers love to read, all encourage wide reading if you want to be a writer (Stephen King advises us to read 'a lot'.  MFA writing courses have lengthy reading lists.) But I wonder - how much reading exactly? Because it is an activity that could prove infinite - once you start, you just can't stop! I find myself while in the midst of a reading binge wanting to write, but, ultimately putting it off. Wait until this book is finished, which inevitable becomes another book and another book.

You may all have heard of and read the iconic textbook on creativity Julia Cameron's 'The Artist's Way' and found it inspirational, stimulating, encouraging to the highest strata. I loved it yes. I cherish it as one of the most inspirational guides to writing ever written, but there's just one component of it I had trouble with. And no it was not the controversial morning pages (I did groan at them but liked them), but rather the chapter where she urged us NOT TO READ. Yep, to effectively ban reading from our daily schedules for two weeks I think it was, so that our own ink could flow better. 

I never liked that idea, but I did try it. But my 'reading diet' only lasted for a while. I mean, how can you not read? She insisted it was because it could be a distraction to writing. The idea being that it's easier to read than write. Easy to pick up a book than a pen, a feather as opposed to a heavyweight. And I suppose, easy to get discouraged by all the greatness of literature to ever pick up a pen again. But really, easier to hide away in the already written word than to be the one out there forging it. All the better, she urges, to hear our own voice. I suppose she has a point. 


I'm thinking of this now as I realise I've been doing a lot of reading lately. Because I let my reading slide for a long hiatus once, I am now even more determined to get stuck in.  I'm on Goodreads and love the challenge of trying to read 50+ books within a year. I deliberately took this number so I could read a book a week or thereabouts, a good balance I thought. But - big BUT - I have noticed that my writing time has suffered in the process. 

I'm not the only writer to feel like this. I came across a quote from Susan Sontag recently that echoes this feeling in a blunt admittance: "I read too much - as an escape from writing". In a Paris Review interview talking about how she gets started writing, she said: "Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless." That's it exactly - reading energizes us, puts us in the take-off point for writing, but too much of it and not enough writing can indeed make us 'restless.' I often stall writing too by reading and listening to music. (At this point in the post, I have listened to a full album on repeat and read about five articles on Susan Sontag, not to mention a few other blogs AND found another book to order in the course of all that...)

I haven't written a lot in a while. My spare time has been more easily filled with books. And I suppose if you have the slightest bit of writing block, books can soon turn it into a Berlin Wall Blockade. They fill the hours with their quiet insistence and their word-worlds swarm around your head, leaving no room for burgeoning ones of your own. It's not so much a case of stage-fright when it comes to your own blank page, but more like so many words buzzing in your head it's hard to find your own in their (marvelous) cacophony.

Looking at the daily routines of famous writers, it is clear that they distinctly differentiate reading and writing, most to the strict tune of writing first - dawn or morning and reading second - evening usually, when all the 'work' is done. I wonder is there an optimum time for reading and an optimum time for writing? Or does it depend solely on mood or preference?  Is it better then to write in the daytime and read at night? Or what about your one precious hour of free-time - read or write? One is relaxing, the other invigorating. If I read at night, I sleep sound. If I write at night, I'm up all night, brain buzzing in a blizzard of words. I try to do both every day, ideally equally, but my pattern of late has been reading first, writing second. Or a few days binge reading and then binge writing. 

I have loved my reading time recently, but am missing my writing time. Maybe there is a limit that needs to be imposed in order to write at a more efficient pace. I'm thinking now maybe it is necessary, as Julia Cameron advised, to go cold turkey on reading in order to be in serious writing mode, well at least a little bit cold turkey. I suppose you can't  make headway on your novel while your head's down the rabbit hole of another book can you? 

The act of reading subconsciously preps the mind's terrain for the act of writing. It is fuel for the fire of writing. For this reason I feel, as all writers likely do, that the more I read, the better I will write and to this account, can end up reading for days and days without writing. But I'll admit the relative 'easiness' of it is a kind of luxury limbo I can fall into now and then. To drag myself out of it and actually put myself into writing mode again feels like dragging yourself out of a cosy warm bed in the morning, the duvet too much of a comfort to discard just yet, it being also an incubator for dreams. 


I read a really interesting article recently criticising MFAs in which the writer said something really evocative - that writers ('real writers' ahem) read from childhood so as to form the appropriate 'neural architecture' required for writing. Don't you just love that phrase?! From it I picture an inner Rococo mind with cascading columns on which cherubic angels of inspiration alight, crossed with a flickering neon super-accelerated sci-fi-like set. Writing is hard-wired into our minds alright and every new piece of literature we read adds another feature to this architecture. But it's important to realise that this neural architecture is there - waiting for us to start reaping its glories.

Whatever about a time to read and a time to write, there has to be a time to know when one over-arches into the other's territory. I remember the days of writing assignments at college in which there was an 'incubation period' first, usually 1-4 weeks, in which research was done and knowledge gleaned, a time to collect all the necessary content and stimuli.  And then, just like that, a time to stop and get down to the writing of it, a sort of D-Day of deliberation. You knew it when it happened: your own fully-formed opinions would pulse to be processed, ripe for the picking. To spend more time researching was a kind of cop-out, a faltering, a delusion and frankly, with a deadline looming - a danger. You were ready. It was now or never. I'm thinking it is the same for writing now, albeit with no deadline looming, except the personal ones. Now, it is even more imperative to impose those D-Days especially when you can lose the run of yourself in reading. To harness the 'energy' of reading as Susan Sontag put it, and dispel that 'restlessness.'
I wonder what is the process for other aspiring writers - how do you balance your reading with your writing? Should there be a balance? Do you go on occasional reading diets to feed your writing?  Advice appreciated! 



  1. Such an interesting post, Siobhan. And oh, I how I LOVED 'neural architecture"! I am imagining my mind like the halls and naves of a cathedral, now, the roofbeams like the ribs of a ship, and full of poems, hanging there like bats :-)

    I think it's always difficult to balance reading and writing, when they are our two great loves, and yet very different, in their ways. I think it's different for everyone - for me, I need to read a lot so that the words are already churning in my brain. And when I'm reading something that I'm really loving, when the words are beautiful and the writing shines, it invariably makes me start to itch to shape, to weave words together, to create.

    I can see how it would be a distraction, too, although t doesn't tend to work like that for me. I read in the mornings, on trains, in the bath; I write in the evenings, or in snatched moments in the day when my brain is fizzing.

    Do you have a writing routine? It's something I always mean to implement, but I'm not as disciplined about it as I should be x

    1. Yes I also feel like I have to read a lot first to set the words churning as you say.

      Not a writing routine as such but I always write at night, my favourite time is late, in the wee hours when the dregs of the day have settled and the mind is quiet and clear. But it's mostly ideas I write then in fire and sputter and then like to edit by the clear light and logic of day. I always find sleeping on some piece can yield new solutions in the morning, new inspiration. I pitter and patter about with notes during the day too. Night is ' drunken' frenzied writing and day is 'sober' rewriting, editing - to paraphrase Hemingway!

      I never read in the morning! Mostly evenings, nights. Well except on sunny summer days when I can read all day and Sundays which I designate as an all-day reading day!
      I feel guilty though if I read too much and don't write, and vice)versa!


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