I Can’t Write If I’m Not Reading

Absorbing the ideas of someone smarter is a catalyst for my own creative thought.

I’m currently working through a 30-day writing challenge. I’m six days in, and already hitting some snags: one of which is finding time to write.

We all have a finite number of hours in the day, of course, and I knew as I drove fearlessly into this project that I would have to practice some strict time management. As a newbie stay-at-home-mom, structuring my day without eight hours in an office — and still attending to all the needs, wants, and attention-demanding desires of my very favorite little boy — has been challenging and different. Some days I decide I am going to be The Perfect Homemaker and attempt a chore list a mile long, falling into bed exhausted at the end of the evening. Some days I squander my baby’s precious nap time with looking at pictures of him and reading funny articles… or scrolling Instagram for sewing ideas without actually sewing anything.

And now, I’m trying to motivate myself to procrastinate less when I write by pushing out one article a day. But I’m already sensing that something needs to change.

I need to spend less time on my phone.

Yeah, I know. Groundbreaking.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in an extremely short and not at all illustrious career of reading and writing: if I read a good book, one that really grabs my attention with its narrative and prompts my admiration for its crafting and keeps me thinking about it even when I’m not in the act of reading… that’s when I start getting ideas for my own writing.

If I’m not reading well, and putting words in, then I’m not going to be able to write well, and put words out.

So the simple answer is to spend less time looking at my phone and more time delving into a good book. Fiction, nonfiction, biography or even children’s classic — it shouldn’t matter, as long as it’s neatly crafted and tells a good story.

I am extremely talented at self-sabotage, so even with something as innocuous as “hey, I should read more,” I can’t resist asking myself, “but if I get ideas through reading other people’s work, isn’t that copying? Won’t the discerning reader cast a scornful eye over my writing and say I just ripped off, say, Her Majesty Jane Austen?”

Well, first of all, there are really no new ideas under the sun, so jot that down.

And second, it’s a bit egotistical to assume that if I am inspired by a literary giant, that my spinoff piece will somehow mimic their work closely enough to be mistaken for it.

Plagiarism is a whole other deal, of course, but you (and I) know better than to actually steal someone else’s content, so do we really need to linger on that topic? (Do please cite your sources though.)

I recently read a selection of Langston Hughes’ poetry, and when I opened the book, I dutifully read the introduction first like the Type-A personality that I am. It was not the most riveting of content, but one topic stood out to me: an analysis of Hughes’ body of work under the influence of some of his favorite poets. I am no authority on Langston Hughes and couldn’t point out instances of where his early work mimicked this or that poet’s style, but the idea stuck with me.

It’s easy to spot a newbie writer under the influence of someone great they admire. Jane Austen is referenced throughout all my earliest novel attempts, and I have some dreadful short stories that will never see the light of day in which I thought maybe I was on to something if I eschewed adjectives and interesting content like Hemingway. In annotating and judging students’ historical research papers for National History Day, I’ve seen young writers struck by the style of the person about whom they’re writing, and then doing their best to replicate that in their own essay.

Parroting someone else’s methods isn’t the answer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the greats who have gone before.

If we allow ourselves to be influenced by many wonderful writers, and not just vainly attempting to make a carbon copy of our favorite, maybe it will help us produce our own good thoughts with so much positive influence. A child with many people pouring good into his life will grow up with greater stability than a child dependent on only one adult for love and support, after all.

And who’s to say what constitutes “good reading,” too? I have a few thoughts on that (most notably influenced by my recent study of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well…) but I am not terribly picky. I am just as likely to feel the inklings of a topic idea while reading aloud The Very Hungry Caterpillar to my very hungry baby, as when sinking into the brilliant prose and fascinating history of The Warmth of Other Suns.

Okay, maybe not just as likely.

But I really did get an idea for a parenting piece from Caterpillar. Scout’s honor.

Even reading articles on Medium is a great way to bounce the springboard for my own work — but of course this only works if I’m choosing reading articles that actually appeal, not just dutifully offering click for click, read for read, clap for clap, in the hopes that some will do unto me as I have done unto them.

So, in sum, what must I do? Read, and read thoughtfully, and read widely. It’s deceptively simple, and surprisingly hard to put into practice.

For some reason, I can argue to myself that when I pick up my phone or open my laptop, I’m “doing something that needs to be done.” And it’s true, at first. I check my email, set myself a reminder to pay the water bill, track my son’s daily dose of Vitamin D, text my husband at work. Then that gently and guiltily morphs into looking at pictures of ribbon embroidery on Instagram and wondering if I should take up ribbon embroidery, and reading all the comments on a viral tweet and shaking my head over people’s stupidity.

The irony of my own stupidity in doing this, when I could be reading a good book or writing a mediocre think-piece, is not lost on me.

When I do sit down to read, I almost feel as though I have to justify it. Reading a book is reading a book. I can’t “get things done” while I’m reading. I’m not multitasking while flipping pages in a physical book (audiobooks, of course, are another story entirely… pun intended). I can’t even put a veneer of “being productive” over the first few pages and then switch to what I really want to do.

And yet reading is productive. It occupies more brain cells than swiping through my phone, and well it should.

I need to give it the attention, time, and work that it deserves. It may well yield good fruit.

Through reading good stories, I can create good expectations for myself, and through diligent writing afterward, I can fulfill those expectations. Scrolling Instagram? Well, I can learn something about ribbon embroidery, to be sure, but I don’t have any ribbon embroidery of my own to show for it.

In summary, social media restrains my ability to create, while thoughtful reading releases it.

Oooh, that’s a good thought. I should tweet that.

Historical costumer, fifty-cent-word purveyor, aspiring humorist, and Oxford comma fan. History, books, & musings of a new mom. Twitter: @sewistwrites

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