Why Writers Should Take A Little Break From Books

by Tania Strauss

If you're reading the Bustle Books section, chances are you're a person who also reads actual books. There's also a reasonable chance you're someone who writes things, or who dreams of one day writing things, in which case you probably read A LOT of books.

Reading is a massive, indispensable part of learning to write well. It helps us develop an understanding of the way writing works: it teaches us about the intricacies of language, gives us an intrinsic understanding of how stories function structurally, and aids in the development of crucial creative skills like empathy and introspection. You have to be a reader if you're going to be a writer.

BUT (there's always a "but") I think there are times when, as a writer, reading too much can turn into a trap. Not all the time, obviously — I just told you how important it is to read a lot if you're a writer. But sometimes, especially when you're deep in the trenches of one of your own projects, you should consider putting all those books accumulating on your bedside table back up on the shelf for a little while. Here's why:

Reading is Not a Competitive Sport

Okay. This is less of a "why you shouldn't be reading," and more of a general thing I think is very important to keep in mind if you're a writer. In college, or grad school, or the sort of insular literary hipster communities you will inevitably fall into after college and grad school, there are those people who treat their reading habits like one big contest. You know the kind I'm talking about — the sort who peer at you from behind their Warby Parkers and mutter, "You've never read any Derrida? Hmmmm."

Treating reading like a competition, something you have to do a certain way in order to prove yourself to some self-appointed literary "in" crowd, is the fastest way to suck all the joy out of what should be one of your most pleasurable and inspiring activities. Don't read things you have no interest in reading, or pretend to like books you can't stand, or pretend you've read books you've barely even heard of just for the sake of other people. Because those people suck, and probably don't have a single original idea in their heads because they're too busy conforming to other people's notions of what they should be thinking. There. I said it.

It Frees You From Allegiance to Your Influences

I think all developing writers have one or two literary idols who they just so desperately wish they could write like. During a time when I was extremely focused on writing essays, mine was Joan Didion (YUP, I'm a cliché). But as Zadie Smith points out in this incredible (as in READ IT NOW) essay:

Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can. When I was 21 I wanted to write like Kafka. But, unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who'd briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault. Such is life.

As Zadie Smith says in this other totally incredible essay which you should also read now, style is, "a personal necessity, [...] the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness." I can't, and don't, write like Joan Didion because my brain does not work like Joan Didion's brain. Period. End of story. If you're constantly filling your brain with other people's voices while you're trying to write, you might not hear your own.

It Stops You From Creating Imaginary Competitions With Other Writers in Your Head

I could do that. Why is this person published and I'm not? I could do that better. OH MY GOD I could never do that EVER so why am I even bothering someone please just burn all my notebooks and then KILL ME.

This is a really easy trap to fall in to, especially if you're feeling creatively or professionally frustrated. But does it really seem like a healthy, sane, or productive way to be thinking? No. It does not. This is the kind of thinking that leads to bitterness, bitchiness, insecurity, neurosis, and writer's block. So if you find yourself having these thoughts while reading, it's time to STEP AWAY FROM THE BOOK. Drop that sh*t like it's hot. Step away from all books, even, until you're mentally prepared to tune out all that noise and focus on the writer who truly matters — you.

It Helps You Not to Second Guess All Your Choices

Even when you're in a relatively happy creative place, reading a lot — especially contemporary writing that's of a similar genre or geared towards a similar audience as your own — can throw you into a bit of a tailspin. As in: this book I loved had underlying themes about mortality, should I give my character a dead mom? Or: this writer who is super-successful always uses dark humor, should I change the whole tone of my novel? Learning from your peers can be incredibly helpful, but remember: the only story you will tell well is the story that you want to be telling. And the only voice you can write in is your own.

It Frees You From Worrying Too Much About the "Contemporary Literary Market"

This one is a bit complicated. If your goal is to get published, you have to think at least a little bit about where your book "fits" in relation to other popular contemporary titles. Publishing is a business, and businesses are supposed to make money, and agents and editors will care about your work's commercial potential. So you need to know what's out there.

BUT (there's that "but" again) if you become obsessed with how your work "fits in," you'll do all the bad things I mentioned above: compete with other writers in your head, emulate other writers at the expense of your own point of view, second guess your choices, and any number of other neurosis-inducing things that will inhibit you creatively and make the act of writing very unpleasant. And you'll probably write a really formulaic and derivative book that no one will find that interesting.

So while you're in the throes of the actual writing, I personally think it can be really important to completely and totally ignore what your contemporaries are doing, especially if you're the kind of person who's vulnerable to the traps I'm talking about. And there's no shame in that — writing is hard in a way that lends itself particularly well to defeatist thinking. So build a wall around your brain if you need to — you can tear it down (along with the dregs of your sanity) once you're ready to get into revisions.

Images: Giphy