Reading While Writing


(Image by author)

Writers, I have put down my pen for much of this August and am reading.

It’s been wonderful, deliciously so, to allow myself big chunks of time each day to just read. I have a list as long as my arm of novels and stories I’ve been wanting to tackle, and am thoroughly enjoying working my way down the list!

But not all is delightful.

I am feeling torn between writing and reading, and am wondering why I can’t, or don’t, do the two activities together. It’s not an issue of time. I can make the time for both; it’s not always easy, but it can be done.

No, my issue with reading and with writing is that when I am doing one I find I cannot do the other. That is, when I am doing one or the other with any real depth.

How odd this seems.

We writers are often urged to read, to read deeply and voraciously, without pause. We are particularly told to delve deeply into the authors we love and are moved by, to read their work closely, and to study it in depth. And we are treated to story after story of this or that author who came of age reading constantly, with rapt attention, and who continues to this day to plow through book after book.

All this makes sense. Of course we should read–both for pleasure and as a way to enhance our understanding of writing–and of course we should especially take the time to closely read and study the works of our favorite authors.

But what I find to be true–that when I am actively writing or revising, I find it difficult to immerse myself in the words of others–is not something I often hear addressed.

That I find that reading the words of another can pull me away from my own voice, to a point of actually interfering with the development of the voice I am using in my own writing.

And, even more alarming, that if I am reading a work that I am finding particularly spell-binding and admirable, that I can be awed into feeling insignificant, to slowing, even into silence.

Do other writers experience this?

Do other artists experience this? Do painters, if involved in a new painting, find the study of Rembrandt’s self-portraits problematic? Do actors, in the thick of preparing for a particular role, eschew viewing movies or attending plays? Does a musician buried in the composition of a new piece avoid listening to Mozart?

I am not suggesting that I do not read, at all, when I am actively writing. I do. I read news sources of all kinds, and I waste far too much time with social media, and other odd and sundry pieces of writing. 

But I avoid going into the kind of experience so many readers crave–the immersive, other worldly, sinking into another time and place kind of reading that one does with a compelling novel. Or, for some, with a finely drawn biography or history.

Short fiction I can handle while writing, and continue to gobble like candies off a plate. This is not to belittle the short story; far from it. It is my first and last love in literature, and the type of writing I do most. I can’t not read short fiction.

And I do find myself turning, if stuck at a particular point in a story of my own, to the stories of others to find out how another author has dealt with my predicament.

But there is something about the brevity of short fiction, regardless of its wonderful, whirling power to take the reader’s breath away, that renders its reading more compatible with engaging in one’s own writing. Especially if one is not tackling a study of some fine storyteller’s work, such as a close reading of the stories of Munro or Welty. That kind of exercise, I find, I must leave for a break in my own writing, or I am likely to be overwhelmed with a pressing sense of my own inadequacies as a writer!

So what do other writers have to say on this subject?

A quick online search, as well as my recollection of conversations I’ve had with writers, leads to this: while writers overwhelmingly agree on the importance of reading, they, if pressed, confess to feeling conflicted about the experience of reading while writing.

Some suggest–I’ve heard no one say this directly–that they do engage in close reading of the work of other writers in their field while immersed in their own writing. This seems implied by many, but even among those who propound the importance of reading, few, if any, actually admit to reading while writing.

One can find quotes along the lines of these aplenty:

“If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance. Or better, one’s chances of survival increase with each book one reads.” –Sherman Alexie

Or, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” –Joyce Carol Oates

And the charming, “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”–Mark Twain

One walks away thinking that these great writers must read, or must have read, all the time, every waking hour!

But after searching more, I found no writer, living or not, who states that he or she reads deeply, saturated with the words of another, while writing.

Now maybe I just haven’t searched long enough or well enough; surely some writers must do this kind of thing.

But I suspect that the reality for most writers, of all stripes, is more along the lines of my own experiences, and the experiences recounted when the question, “When working on writing a novel, do you read other books or novels?” was posed on the online forum Reddit in October of 2015.

While all of the writers responding to the question stressed the importance of reading to good writing (one goes so far as to state, “A thousand times yes. I think of writing as the car, reading as the fuel.”), many of the writers who posted replies admitted to having issues with reading while writing.

These ranged from problems with finding the time while writing for serious reading to candid admissions that reading while writing, while enjoyable and important, led to problems with being “too influenced” by the other writer, to unconsciously switching points of view in response to what one was reading, to, upon re-reading and revising, discovering that one’s own writing was “sounding like” and “adopting the tone of” the other author! 

Perhaps some might be tempted to dismiss these authors’ problems as the problems of inexperienced or relatively unskilled writers.

Searching more, I discovered this discussion entitled, “What Do You Read While You Write?” in The New York Times (April, 2015) with accomplished writers Zoe Heller and Anna Holmes.

While both writers confessed to spending, and who does not, too much time on social media, the comments of Anna Holmes spoke more to me.

“Clearly, it’s not just me. A number of writer friends confessed to avoiding, for the most part, reading much at all while they work. ‘I don’t read other writers at all, because voices get into my head,’ said one…Another, whose daily output is both formidable and profoundly influential, was similarly, refreshingly, honest…‘I read Twitter…I would like to say something like George Elliot, but it’s just not true.’”

So there we have it; it seems that in this regard we writers are in good company–with one another!

Writers, by all means, read. Read, if you wish, while you write, and read when you don’t.

But don’t indulge in feeling guilty if, like me, you avoid reading while you are writing, avoiding, especially, the good stuff, the heavy, meaningful, sink-into-it stuff.

Realize that this avoidance might very well be a near-universal means of protecting your own creative energy and focus, a way to guard your own voice from corruption, and your own work from taking on the weight of the influence of other writers.

Just make sure to make the time to read, regularly and  often, when you take a breather from your own work.

What a lovely treat to look forward to!

R Wright & E Welty by L Bertman via Wikimedia Commons

Illustration of Richard Wright and Eudora Welty by Louisa Bertman (own work via Wikimedia Commons)

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