In December 2005, at age 52, I suddenly realized I was a pathetic book-reader. Here I was, a professional writer, yet I’d abandoned books for a glut of easier, often mindless distractions like email, snail mail, magazines, and online content. I’d become a surfer-a skimmer-and I didn’t like it one bit. Vowing to read more books in the New Year, I purchased a bright red marble notebook and labeled it grandly, BOOKS READ 2006. I planned to record the title, author, publisher, publication date, personal comments, and date read for every single book. On page one, I numbered lines 1-20; on page two, lines 21-40, etc. Then, I got to work. By the end of 2006, I’d read 43 books-up from five or six the previous year. Just seeing all those titles inspired me to keep going and top that number in 2007.
As a kid, I read all the time. Ditto later, in college. But, once freed from required reading lists, I simply fell out of the habit. I worked hard as a piano teacher and freelance writer, so I rationalized that I didn’t have time to read. Funny thing, though: l always found time to watch TV! Well-aware of the irony, I was pleased to see my television time drop in 2006. My biggest nemesis was the boob tube. But many other writers, and would-be writers, confess to being equally caught up in the Web and/or social venues like FaceBook and Twitter. Are there benefits to these pursuits? Absolutely! But be honest with yourself. If you’re glued to your gadgets, your book-reading may be suffering. And, if you’re spending more time flitting around on a smart phone or computer than is necessary, or healthy, your writing may be suffering as well.
I used to struggle to put words down on paper because I thought I had to produce perfectly-crafted, cohesive sentences and paragraphs from the start. By trying so hard to create polished copy, I failed to savor the utterly delicious process of writing. And, by the time I finished writing something, I often felt so drained I’d wonder if I could ever do it again. Thankfully, those days are (pretty much) gone. Reading more books has oiled the mental gears needed for me to think more clearly and express myself more effectively. Being immersed in a steady stream of sentences and stories written by other writers has swept me up in the flow of literature. I’ve become more relaxed and confident, and I no longer self-sabotage by critiquing my work from the get-go. I trust that the words will flow if I just show up and start typing.
I’ve tracked my Books Read for eleven years now. It’s a habit I’ll never relinquish. I’m a better writer today because I’m a better reader, and I give credit where credit is due: to a red marble notebook that helped me extricate myself from small screen distractions, bring me back to my writing roots, and focus again on what made me want to be a writer in the first place. BOOKS!
Wendy Hobday Haugh, a freelance writer from upstate New York, writes stories, poems, and articles for a wide range of magazines, including Highlights for Children, Woman’s World, and WritersWeekly. Her stories have appeared in six “Chicken Soup for the Soul” anthologies. Currently, she is hard at work editing her middle-grade novel.