9/4/14 – A BREAK FROM READING NOVELS – BAD MISTAKE!
I have to take long breaks between writing novels. This summer, though, I went a month without reading one. Don’t let me do that again.
Taking breaks from writing fiction is a good – and, for me, necessary – thing. When I’m writing a novel, it consumes my life. Everything I see, do, or think seems relevant. I frequently have to to jot images, whims, and phrases on envelopes, or my phone’s notepad, or my computer. I find myself running to my computer from the car, after a swim, or in the middle of the night to get these thoughts recorded.
It’s true that nothing on earth compares with the feeling of creating a new work. But it’s not all a good feeling. I live with the constant gnaw of incompletion for months at a time. I can’t follow conversations because my head is back in the book. I don’t spend enough time with my family and friends, and on the home front – well, let’s just say that plants die, dust descends, and flour moths frolic in expired boxes of Special K.
So I don’t feel bad at all that I take breaks, sometimes for many years, between books. It’s good that I take these long breaks, or I wouldn’t have a life to generate material for the next one. I wouldn’t have a life at all. Besides, I am acutely aware that the world’s need for more of my creative output is finite. I’ve written eight novels (some published, some not) in my 56 years on earth – not prolific by some people’s standards, but not entirely shabby. I can wait and let something worth writing gel without anyone suffering too much.
Long breaks from reading novels is another matter.
This summer I decided to tackle some of my pile of reading. This included two “definitive” books getting grants for the non-profit I run, two manuscripts that friends asked me to review, and an aging stack of magazines and newspapers. I put the novels on my list on hold. A family health emergency and rare opportunities to spend time with my young adult children also cut into my reading time.
What a mistake! Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the non-fiction. I learned something. I laughed (even at the grant books!). I relished the time I had to spend with my family and friends. But something was missing.
Well, two weeks ago I realized fall book club was coming up, so I had no choice but to pick up a novel again. My pick, picked for me actually, was Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. And within minutes of starting, this magical, almost mythical novel helped me rediscover what I had been missing. For all the joy and enlightenment that had come to me from reading in general, nothing came close to that sense of being transported to, and then absorbed in, another world that comes from a full, rich novel – not to mention the stun of blood to the face when a simple phrase suddenly encapsulates what had seemed like random details and changes the way it feels to be alive.
The fictional world is a parallel universe that seems almost as real to me as the rest of my life while I’m visiting it, and yet is better, safer, and wiser. It frees me from personal trials and tribulations and sets me atop a rolling wave without the fear of going under. I feel all-seeing and somehow in control of everything that comes my way, whether it’s terror, loss, and inhumanity or love, tenderness, and wonder. And even when I stop reading and return to inchoate reality, the knowledge that I can soon go back to the book, the joy of knowing I will soon be able to to re-enter that world simply by opening a new page, is almost as exhilarating as that urge to go back to my writing – but, this time, without that nagging sense that I’m a failure at life and will lose something of myself if I fail to do so. It’s passion without pressure. Nice.
This is hardly news to anyone who loves reading fiction. But what is news (or a reminder) to me is that I can’t let my life go on for any length of time again without that.