On average, I probably read a book a week—almost exclusively fiction. And what I enjoy reading is directly linked to the current phase of my own writing. When not creating my own stories, I gobble up books that inspire me to write better with their careful word selection, surprisingly vivid imagery, and delicate phrasing.
When I am creating, I stick to less demanding reads, as far away from own topics as possible.
While fleshing out a new story, I can’t read anything too close to home until my imaginary world is completely established. The ideas that tap on our shoulder, provided by what many writers call a muse and Elizabeth Gilbert calls Big Magic, might just blend into the background like a camouflaged butterfly—and they’re all too easy to scare away. Similarly, a character hovering just at the edge of my imagination could be instantly contaminated, just by reading a choice detail about one who is too close (in lifestyle, or hairstyle, or any other style) to my own.
On the other hand, the edges of my imagination need a constant influx of stimulation, and one of the easiest ways to attract that is by reading. It’s way easier to read about an adventure than to actually go on one, and my writer’s brain can make the same hay out of each. Real adventures are actually harder to incorporate into fiction, because the details are way too vivid. They need the hazy film of perspective applied first, before they become pliable enough to be adapted into story.
So my ideal read while writing provides stimulus without distraction. At the same time, it also has to help my imagination shut down for the day, since almost all of my pleasure reading is just before I fall asleep. And that’s what leads me to the following basic principles about what books provide the best reading for writing well.
1. Go Light
Writing fiction is like building a new world from scratch. And world-building (whether it’s going well or not) is exhausting, which reduces the brain-power that’s available for reading at the end of the day. I often lack the energy to connect the unspoken dots, which is one of the true pleasures of literary reading. (I recently had to put down Lighthousekeeping for a few nights, until I had the brain power to really absorb its rich lyrical phrases.) Though I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, I’ve learned to keep it light.
2. The Safe Zone: Chick Lit
When I’m writing well, my imagination needs help shutting off each night. That’s when my pleasure reading turns to chick lit, which usually has just enough character development to be engaging. And according to thriller author Mark Chisnell, even my own Olympic Love Story doesn’t even come close to ticking the chick lit box (read his review here), so there’s no concern about scaring away the Magic or contaminating a character of my own.
3. Don’t be afraid to dabble
I was taught to finish books, and it wasn’t until a few years after college that I realized I could put one down halfway through. With so many books and only an hour or so each day for reading, I now give myself permission to start a new book before I finish the previous one, especially if it’s something completely different.
Reading, of course, is much easier than writing, which is why it’s such a great escape. And somehow my brain manages to keep it all the adventures straight, especially if I’m reading an actual physical book with an associated cover, smell, and font. Like butterflies, we flit out of one world and into another, just by opening a different flyleaf. And isn’t that truly the Big Magic of books?
Photo courtesy PaulCroninStudios