The positives they tell you about surrounding yourself with like-minded writers on the same path as you are true. I learnt this first hand when I attended a creative writing course towards the end of last year. It was wonderful to immerse myself into the writing domain, share ideas and tips, get feedback and enjoy a regular weekly spot for something that brings me joy without too much pressure.
One of the key things I took away from the course was an intensely padded-out #TBR pile. Recommendations came in thick and fast from my fellow attendees and teachers. The titles swiftly jumped from my notebook to my ‘On Hold’ list at the local library. They were a mix of ‘must-read’ writing and grammar bibles, memoirs, novellas and short story collections that followed similar themes to those I was currently trying to write. All excellent recommendations and would undoubtedly help me develop my knowledge and skills as a writer.
And yet. Once I had a decent pile collected from the library, nestled snugly on my bedside table, they sat there for the better part of a month collecting dust. Because, as it turns out (and this is something I’ve come to gain further clarity on in recent months), having something recommended to me isn’t enough to inspire me to read it.
My reading tastes have become much more discerning and harder to pin down. While the knowledge these recommendations would be beneficial to me niggled in the back of my mind, I still found myself returning most of the said books to the library without so much as having flipped the cover.
As a writer, it’s standard advice to read widely and to read books aligned with your writing goals. Literary journals and publishers regularly promote new blogs to us from favoured authors about what they’re reading and their favourite books of all time. I’ve asked several writers the same question. Essentially wanting to know, who did you read that inspired your success? Maybe if we read them, we’ll find success too.
Finding the balance between what you ‘should’ be reading, ‘must’ be reading, and (the too often left out) ‘want’ to be reading seems a near impossible task.
In the arena of social media, where book stacks and heavily promoted new reads by the latest bright-young-thing in authorship dominate the popular #Bookstagram feeds, it can be an even trickier line to tread. As a book reviewer and a writer, it leaves me questioning when reading got so complex?
While reading is vital for writing, there are also times when it should take a backseat. This was something else I discovered recently. After months of creative writing hiatus, I began to feel the skin of several unlived stories murmuring across the inside of my skull. It usually starts with an observed detail that expands outwards from my visual memory into a string of words, a structured sentence I just know I have to slot into a broader narrative somehow. When these strings of word pearls start to coalesce more rapidly, reading becomes almost insufferable as the stories begin to knock ever louder until I at least attempt to do something with them.
I’m not egotistical enough to believe I’m alone in this process, but it’s always a delight to discover another writer trying to air out this occurrence through their writing. I came across Sarah Krasnostein’s piece in Meanjin not too long ago and thoroughly enjoyed the merging of thoughts:
“Sometimes I don’t read at all. I just want to notice. How the fur of the dog is cleaner than the hair of the tense woman holding its leash. How the sneakers worn by the schoolgirls ordering coffee cost more than the waitress will earn this week. The jarring effect of new slang and the increasing sense of myself as a relic.”
In her piece, Krasnostein calls for better acceptance of how reading drifts into and out of our lives and how we should all work to understand the entwinement of reading and to write better, forgiving ourselves for when reading needs to take a backseat. She details an interaction with an acquaintance who is so self-assured about what they will and won’t like that it transcends arrogance and enters “radical self-possession”.
As someone who has often felt the pressure to keep up with prolific, yet ultimately unattainable, reading goals, often accepting recommendations and advanced reading copies because that’s what we do - I like this a lot.
I love reading, I always have, ever since I could read. But, as with most things, when a pleasure becomes tangled with the parts of your life connected to your means of living, the pleasure they bring becomes a little less glossy.
In seeking to give up the pressures that have become attached to how I engage with reading, I am trying to embrace the ethos that Krasnostein shares and be a little more forgiving with the things I cannot, will not and should not be reading.
All the things I am not reading, a condensed list:
The fine print on pretty much anything. I know, I know.
Any book I find myself calculating how many pages I can read in an hour and how many hours it will then take until I finish it. Life is too short to be less than utterly engrossed in anything.
My early diaries. Eight-year-old me was just so derivative, ya know?
Any of the mass-hysteria-inducing sagas where there are more than eight books in the collection, all over 800 pages long.
The words of mine enemies. You know who you are.
Anything by Elizabeth Gilbert. Never again. No offence to Elizabeth, but .. no.
“All the gorgeous and untranslated books written in languages I will never learn.” - I am borrowing this one from Sarah as it is so true and devastatingly heartbreaking.
The ‘additional recommended’ readings for that one university unit I’m just not that invested in. I’ll stick with the bare minimum; thanks very much.
Any text message that requires me to scroll down - please call me or at least record a voice note so I can carry on cleaning while I digest the latest from you.
That impressive stack of classic vintage books I’ve collected from travels around the world by equally impressive authors, but whose prose requires more brain power than I currently have spare (maybe one day).