Dear reader, when was the last time you deliberately avoided reading for any amount of time? I’m not talking “force myself to put down this book so I can get at least four hours of sleep” or “I have to finish this project before I can figure out what happens next”.
I’m talking “don’t pick up a book for a week, period”. Sound scary?
Earlier this year I started The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which is a seminal book in the field of creativity. It comes highly recommended by tons of creatives I respect from Amber Rae to Elizabeth Gilbert.
The book is divided into weeks, with each week having a chapter of reading and various exercises in creativity, which I think are also amazing for self-discovery. I was powering away each week, feeling stronger and more excited, and then I hit week four.
Week four is about recovering a sense of integrity, and part of that, dear Julia Cameron states, involves reassessing how other people’s art and creativity are blocking our own.
Think for a second about how much media you consume every day: how many TV shows or movies, how many video games and YouTube videos, how many podcasts and songs, how many books, how many articles, posts, comments, stories, etc., etc.? It’s a lot, right?
Sometimes, other people’s art jump starts ours — I can name probably fifteen different story ideas I’ve had that were inspired by a specific scene in a movie or lyric in a song or character in a book.
But sometimes, we get overexposed and instead of empowering us, it weighs us down. Cameron uses the analogy of greasy foods, while delicious, clogging our body systems.
Bring in reading deprivation. Cameron suggests that this exercise will “cast us into our inner silence” which will serve us to turn inward, look at the paintings we have on our own walls instead of peeking into the windows of our neighbors. This is meant to bring us into the physical world, into our daily existences, and give us a minute to peer into the well we’ve been filling all our lives and find a gem.
“Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings, will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely,” Cameron writes.
This was probably one of the harder things I’ve had to do in my life. It was also probably the one time my perfectionism kicked in to my advantage. I did not read for an entire week. I put the books in my room in my library, and I didn’t go into that room at all for a week. I didn’t visit the public library or browse bookstagram. No temptations!
I wanted to read so, so badly at first, but eventually the urge reduced and I was able to get through the day only wishing to read once or twice. The week passed, and I was surprised by my results.
The big one first: I actually, *gasp*, wrote something. I wrote probably ten or so scenes from a story I plotted out, because I had no excuse at all to do anything else. I wrote a to-do list every morning with four things on it, one of which being writing. I did the other three things in order of ease and then sat for half an hour thinking about how much I didn’t want to write. I started to realize how often I used other people’s books to avoid my own.
Finally, I set a timer for twenty minutes with the promise to get up when it rang to walk about. Some days, I only wrote that twenty minutes. Other days, I wrote in five or six blocks of twenty minutes with breaks.
This was a story with very little precedence — it was very, very, very distantly related to a character in a movie I’d seen, but by the time I’d worked up the story, the character was replaced by my own version. I had never read a book like this one I’d plotted and begun. It was entirely my own creation. I hadn’t been so inspired and creative in years.
I was excited about this result of the project alone.
Then, as I returned to my library and browsed my shelves stacked with endless possibilities and put holds on books at the public library, and as I began to pick up books to start reading again, I noticed something. I was suddenly extremely specific about what I wanted to read.
No longer did I have interest in finishing books I didn’t like in order to check off a reading goal or get through a list of “great books”. No longer did I let public opinion guide me and choose what I read. My reading became so much more intentional.
I stopped feeling guilty about not reading popular books or famous books, or books I just didn’t vibe with. I stopped feeling guilty about all the unread books on my shelf. I combed through them and got rid of the ones I’d read but didn’t really like which I’d read because someone told me to. I got rid of books I was never going to read, which I’d bought because some list told me to.
I started reading and living more in line with what I wanted. Just me.
And, boy howdy, did I find some good ones. I devoured The Inhabited Woman by Gioconda Belli and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel — both beautiful and moving stories from Latin America about love and magic. I ate up Writers and Lovers by Lily King and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith — both about art and family.
The books I read had so much more flavor and spoke to me so much more directly than any I’d read in the past four or five months. I let my intuition guide me to the books that would tell me something about myself that I needed to hear.
Though I did this challenge almost two months ago, I want to talk about it now that we’re five weeks into quarantine. There’s been a lot of talk about what you should do with your time or what you shouldn’t do with your time, but I’m not going to preach to you about what I think is the right answer. There isn’t one (no matter what Instagram influencers try to tell you!).
If you’re like me, and you’re finding that you just can’t stick to what you used to do, whether it’s reading or exercising or art, because it just feels too normal for this abnormal time, that’s okay. This time is so stressful, so unprecedented, so strange, that it’s clear that our normal measures of coping just aren’t going to be up to snuff.
We’re living through a global pandemic, for crying out loud. Imagine using a spray pesticide (garden and pollinator friendly!) when you see snails eating tiny holes in the leaves of your tomatoes. You’ve done this every time the holes appear and it always works. Now imagine trying to use that same spray when a hoard of locusts sets down on your garden. Obviously, that’s not going to work. You’re treating a big problem in the ways that you commonly treat small ones. That’s what we’re living through.
So I bring up reading deprivation now to show you that it’s okay if you take a break from whatever it is that you usually do (coping or not!). If you just can’t get in the mood to do things that you normally love, that’s okay.
Take a step back, let other people’s ideas of what you should be doing go quiet, let the guilt worm slide off away somewhere else, and do something else (even if that something is nothing at all).
Consider it a practice in creativity or inspiration or self-care, and instead of avoiding it, call it deprivation and see how your attitude towards it changes. You might find yourself coming back bigger and better than ever, or you might discover a new way to approach an old thing, or you might decide that the thing you always do isn’t serving you any more and you can live without it. You’ll only know if you try!
Dear reader, I hope you’re hanging in there. I hope you’re hearing the birds and seeing the blooms and realizing that the world is still spinning and you’re still here and things are going to be just fine. No matter how long the winter is, spring is sure to follow. Think of spring, my dear reader, and until we meet again, keep believing in the good things coming.