I am currently in a compressed binge of narrative ingestion. When I am writing, books begin to pile up, either physically teetering on my desk, scribbled on a mental post-it, or in an Amazon shopping cart/wish list. Reading is dangerous while writing. But reading is an absolutely essential part of being a writer. And so the binge system develops. I meet a deadline and collapse into the words and stories of others. When I am once again refreshed and itchy with my own ideas, I reemerge feeling like a hen backed up with eggs.
Now, I know that some (most?) writers work differently than I do. They space out a project sanely and allot hours of every day toward reading and hours of every day toward writing. They are better men (and women) than I. Eventually, I hope to be more like them. For now, I have to keep the two activities separate. They don’t get along, two otherwise terrific experiences mutually tainting each other.
In college, I once went on a Shakespeare frenzy (for pleasure). At the same time, I was supposed to be writing some philosophy paper or other. My prose became as impossibly long-winded and wordy as it has ever been–like the work of some Elizabethan wannabe unable to master current trends. Long stretches of unintentional meter didn’t help.
I am a story pig, and that is my problem. When gripped, I remain gripped. If a book doesn’t grip, I am not likely to continue reading (unless there is some other pressing reason). This goes for history as well as lit. If a story is being told, and I am enjoying myself, then I begin to sprint for the end. But the same is true for my writing. Once my narrative is laid out, my characters are sketched, and I’m excited, then my writing exists in a constant state of acceleration until I plow through a week or two of wee hours and a couple all-nighters, hit the final pages with relief and joy, and slump onto my keyboard.
Sidenote: There’s a bit of a tradition in our house. When I have finished a first draft (to date, always in the mellow glow of the predawn), then I wake my wife (to whom I have been reading the draft all along), and I read her the final chapters. She applauds, occasionally cries, and then I flop onto the loyal Tempur-pedic. The next day, I begin to ease into reading.
The reading is essential work. A mill needs grist. A well needs water. Throughout the reading process, I’ll take voluntary and involuntary breaks, usually with my mind whirring and my leg bouncing as I grind away at what I’ve read, racing ahead to some application for my next draft, or filing away a lesson, a fact, a setting, a technique for the next project.
I read for the same reason that I eat. I love it. I take pleasure in it (as I do in eating), but it is never simple entertainment. It is sustenance (in many ways and on many levels). When I have gone without stories and words for too long, I begin to fade away, losing my spark, my drive, my own need to shape and tell. The hen ceases to lay.
And this brings me to my final point for this rambling blog post. When you have gained all that you can from a book (or film), set it down and move on. Life is short. My binge windows are brief and there are thousands of books I would like to get to and never will. Even something as simple as Law & Order can pump the juices. But the instant I know what happened and how the characters will respond, I am officially over it. Years ago, and thanks to my wife’s prodding, I finally decided that I should read Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. I sludged through hundreds of pages of her repressed issues and found them interesting in many ways. And then she snapped. Her characters became puppets, inanimate, inhuman voodoo dolls existing only for her wrath or benediction. I quit 50 pages from the end, literally threw it across the room, picked up something else, and I am confident that I will never return to it. I wanted (and needed) no more.
Enough. I have told you how it is for me. Perhaps some day I will tell you my plans for that inevitable time when I cease to be a sprinter. But for now, I am already knee-deep in a new (and large) project, and the books are still piled high on my desk.