Should I Read or Should I Write?

Motivated readers can always find time to read, snatching moments in line at the bank or the post office, carving out an hour here or there, after everyone else has gone to bed. Arguably, e-readers make this even easier. But, as my friend, poet Sandy Longhorn observes, writers have a special dilemma: when you have a free moment, do you read or do you write? Unless we're J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman (who admittedly have their own distractions), we're already doing other work to support our habit and shoehorning writing into our days. Carving out time for reading on top of that is truly a challenge. Yet we know we must. As Stephen King famously said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

Like many writers who teach, I do most of my sustained reading during Christmas break and in the summer, in part because I am less weighed down by all the other reading that is part of my job and as a holdover from my youth when the summers stretched out before me like glorious extended reading retreats. In fact, each year when classes end, I ritually head over to the local library, wandering the stacks and loading my arms with whatever new or interesting books can command my attention now that I'm no longer spending the evenings reading student work. Of course it goes without saying that I don't watch much television; some writers don't even own a set. After moving several years back, we relocated ours to a distant part of the house where we congregate for family movie night and a few other "appointment" shows; otherwise the screen is mostly dark. This maneuver opened up lots of time for reading at first, however, in recent years, social media and the lure of the web has snatched some it back.

Writers are notoriously crafty people so I was sure if I asked around I'd discover any number of ways my writer friends had conspired to fit reading into their overscheduled, twenty-first century lives. Poet Jim Tolan has figured out something many parent-writers know -- reading together as a family is a great way to bring everyone together, spark an early love of reading and put in some time with the words. I read aloud to my sons long after they could read on their own, always insisting that the read alouds be something I could stand to, well, read aloud -- writers like E.B. White, Sydney Taylor, Kate DiCamillo, Rebecca Stead, stylists who continued cultivating my writer's ear as I spoke their lovely sentences into the air.

Reading together as a family, Tolan says, also reminds him of the need to feed his own mind: "Reading as food seems to be the metaphor that's found me and that's about right. Without that nourishment I'm too hungry, even starved, to create anything of my own."

Poet Anna Leahy admits, however, that while reading is essential to her writing life, when that life "gets busy, it's often the activity that gets squeezed out. I rationalize that it's better to skimp on the reading than on the writing, if one has to go. But I try to skimp on housework before cutting back on reading time." I'm with her there and with skimping, once in a while, on the reading, if I must. After all, my Ph.D. in American and Nineteenth Century British Literature required reading hundreds of books. If I have to skimp on my reading for a couple of weeks in order to get the writing done, I remind myself that I've already read more than most people do in a lifetime and let myself coast on that for a little while.

But not for long; most writers are inveterate readers, it's part of the endless circle and part of how and what we write; we'll never be able to read all we want to in this lifetime. Sandy Longhorn reads lots of contemporary poetry before she drafts new work. I often read a chapter or two before I start writing, usually something I admire in the same genre. Reading before writing then becomes a way of conversing with other writers. Fiction writer William Lychack also finds that like writing "reading somehow suspends the conscious mind ... and seems to true my tires; when my reading life is going well, it seems that my writing life is going well."

Some writers have changed their attitudes toward reading over the years; reading not necessarily less, but more of what they want to and how they want to. For example, fiction writer John Fleming tells me "I stay away from long books and no longer feel the need to finish every book I start. I can tell pretty quickly if an author has too much time on his hands or ... thinks I do." And Anna Leahy admits, "when I started my first tenure-track job, I wouldn't let myself start reading any book that was longer than 200 pages ... I needed to know I could finish reading a book even during busy times [and] I ended up reading some books I might have never discovered, including Allessandro Barrico's Silk, which I read in its entirety right there in the local Barnes & Noble and liked so much that I still bought it."

Finally, not surprisingly, many writers hold reading out as a kind of incentive -- it sure beats a lot more expensive or less healthy habits I can think of. Fiction writer Lowell Mick White rewards himself "with a book I desire when I finish something big -- most recently, after I posted the grades for this semester, I opened up the new volume of Robert Caro's wonderful Lyndon Johnson biography." For some, like Fleming, Leahy, Longhorn and White, reading is the reward at the end of a long day, when work is no longer possible, as a prelude to sleep, "one dream," according to White, "leading into another." The consensus seems to be that reading is part of the job, a pleasurable part at that, so we find a way to fit it in somehow. Writers are good at that, at persisting until we find the way.