by Karen Finnigan
Don’t tell any first-grade teacher this concept exists (more important, don’t breathe a word of it to the students). But I recently completed an enforced week of no reading. It came out of an adult class I’m helping to lead: we are working our way through Julia Cameron’s bestselling book, The Artist’s Way (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002). The exercises have been affirmative, inspirational and aimed at freeing up the creative child inside each of us (Example: “List ten things you used to dream of doing.”) I never saw the exercise on reading deprivation coming until I happened on it in Chapter 4. “Stop reading,” it said in effect. Deny yourself reading for an entire week. Listen to the silence inside your own head.
The author had to be kidding, I thought. I’m not giving up my newspaper! I’m especially not giving up my stack of novels. At times I read three at a time. As a writer, the privilege of reading was divinely ordained, wasn’t it? How could I function without it? And that was the general reaction of our class. No way, most of them said. We’d rather walk the plank or languish on a desert island without water than give up reading. Ms. Cameron also suggested giving up TV, puzzle books, magazines, whatever busy work wastes your time. The rationale: over consumption of other people’s words may block your own inspiration. The hope: Get your nose out of other people’s writing, and make room in your subconscious for your own stories to come out. This was a radical concept, and my heart clenched in fear. Fear of change. Yet, as leader of the class, I felt duty-bound to set an example. So I allowed myself to try it--but on my own terms and without copping a purist attitude. After all, I was still allowed to read my textbook, so this wasn’t cold turkey.
Here’s how it went:
Day 1-The first day I got up and did not allow myself to check the news on the computer. I browsed the headlines in the paper only (no over reading of obituaries). Withdrawal from reading made my blood pressure go up a bit, so I wrote in my journal until I relaxed. At bedtime I looked at my bedside stack of books and sighed. I thought about the novel I’d been reading as I went to sleep. Six more days to go.
Day 2--Sipped coffee and sulked over the crossword puzzle I wouldn’t let myself do. Stared at the glass, at the dogs, the cracks in the patio. Wrote in my journal about the view outside my window.
Day 3-- Caught myself reading the label on the cereal box. Picked up Newsweek out of habit, looked at the cover story, then tossed it down. Stared out the window at snowflakes, birds and water dripping off trees. I returned to my journal and a blog idea spilled out. Maybe, I mused, I could kick my habit of over reading, or to be more precise, my habit of reading to procrastinate from writing.
Day 4--Wrote in journal, typed up blog idea, brainstormed characters. Never turned on the TV. Threw Newsweek in the recycle pile. I felt very good and thought about the next story I wanted to write.
Day 5--Resisted the urge to read my old emails. No cluttering of the brain. Instead, I gave my novel a final edit and mailed a query.
Day 6--A new story idea drifted out of my subconscious. Realize I continue to feel good. Maybe I don’t need to finish reading that novel on my nightstand, not in one gulp anyway. My own ideas are popping up, begging to be written down.
Day 7--I woke up with a new ending for my book. Wrote all day. Ecstatic.
Two weeks later, I still try not to turn on the television. I limit bedtime reading to a chapter each night. I have several ideas spread around me. I feel creativity flowing like it hasn’t in a long time. I read emails and blogs, but for a limited duration. The key, like so much in life, is moderation. Thank you, Ms. Cameron, for giving me a needed jolt of self-discipline.