There are two ways to become a better writer.
- You have to write.
- You have to read.
Those are the rules, and you have to do both.
If you’re a writer, I’m going to assume you have a set of hangups and compulsions. Some are idiosyncratic, some are things you have in common with a million other people.
I have OCD. People who don’t have OCD think it’s some kind of Marie Kondo superpower. If only.
I treat my OCD and I would say I’m healthy. But I still have compulsions. They’re no longer all-consuming, thankfully, but they’re there in many ways, just below the surface.
Last year, I decided I was going to read the most books ever. I started strong with James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and Bessel van der Kolk. I read a good bit of Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens and other poets. But somewhere, let’s call it March, I lost my zeal. Something happened somewhere; something else took precedence, I got distracted, and I forgot about my big plans for reading thirty million books.
Writers and other creatives talk a lot about flow. It’s real and it’s ecstatic. It turns out my flow state is best primed by really good reading. I suspect as much is true for almost any writer. Sometimes I feel out of words, completely tapped. Reading fills the cistern with new images, new idioms, new ways of seeing things.
I’m reading a lot this year. I know it’s only the end of January, but there’s something different about my appetite. I am more energized and more committed than I was at this point twelve months ago. I think there are three reasons:
- I’m reading more widely. Great literature, stellar nonfiction, books on craft, even the kind of motivational books I’ve tended to avoid.
- I don’t force myself to finish one book before starting another. I keep a relatively even pace across a few different titles and genres, and I’m incrementally getting closer to finishing them all.
- To keep track of my progress, I use an e-reader. Knowing exactly how close I am, percentage-wise, to my goal of finishing a book allows me to redirect idle, time-sucking compulsions toward a goal I actually want to achieve and actually helps me. Seeing my progress helps my subconscious mind create and recreate the compulsive itch into something worth scratching.
I’m not saying this will work for everyone, and it’s not some cure-all suggestion for managing your mental health. I’m not making light of compulsions worse than mine. I do, however, think that learning to rewire our neural pathways through positive habits is a good thing, and I know how it’s helped me. A word about those self-help books. They basically teach the same thing. The reason the habits of highly effective people work is because neuroplasticity is real.
If you struggle with compulsions, depression, anxiety or other things, please seek proper care. The right help will make a world of difference, and you’ll be freer than you’ve ever been to train your mind to work in tandem with your heart and spirit.
That’s been my experience.
Thanks so much for reading.