Wait, that’s untrue. When I was a youngster, then teenager, then in my 20s, I read fiction steadily, constantly, all genres, all the free time I could. I whipped through novels with enthusiasm—late night, bleary eyed, telling myself one more chapter.
Then things changed a bit. I started writing fiction myself, serious about getting published, and the novels I used to pick up for fun turned into moments of study. It was no longer a way to relax and pass time, but had to be analyzed and broken down, taken apart like an autopsy.
As I grew older, it got worse. As each year passed without me writing that great novel, it became agony.
You see, as a not-so-successful writer (a polite way of saying “a part-time hack”), I developed two common reactions whenever I read a novel.
1. This sucks! How in the world did this garbage get published! It’s trite, predictable, poorly written, hackneyed, stupid, boring, and a waste of paper….and if such crap can get published and I can’t, then what does that really say about my writing?
2. This is brilliant! The story and plot and characters are wonderful. I’m moved. No seriously. I’m changed by having read this and something intangible touches upon what it really means to live in our so imperfect world … and I’ll never be able to write like this. My stuff is trite, predictable, poorly written, hackneyed, etc.
Stupid, I know.
So, my answer was to stop reading fiction all together whenever I was writing. It’s easy to do overseas (where I live and work) because most English bookstores have a somewhat limited selection: classics, romance, horror, and suspense. That’s about it. Those have their place (the beach, the train, the lazy summer days), but mostly not my favorite styles. Avoiding them is easy. And soon, after a while, I find other avenues for reading: articles and blogs and magazines and toothpaste tube labels. That sufficed.
Of course, during those bouts of swearing off the writing life, I’d suddenly jump back into reading again, selectively. Harry Potter series was a godsend for my life in Cairo 10 years ago. Atonement was a revelation one listless summer when I had no place to go. Novels weren’t completely banned from my life, just not a part of it when I was intent of publishing.
Looking back, this seems so restrictive and self-destructive. So what if a novel is great or horrible? What does that have to do with my writing? Nothing, of course.
I’m now reading like crazy, again. And writing at the same time. It’s sort of the new me. Changing old habits to break out of this not-good-enough funk. I may never write the great novel. But I will write. And I will read. Because it’s what I’ve enjoyed my who life. It’s about time I stopped taking it all so damn serious. C’mon, I tell myself. Have a little fun for once.