I’M IN WEEK 4 of The Artist’s Way, a 12-week program meant to unleash one’s creativity authored by Julia Cameron, which I’m going through with a good group. I have a lot of thoughts about the process so far, but for now want to focus on this week’s main challenge: to give up reading.
I’ve been taught since before I could read that reading is a virtuous activity, one that will enrich my life; as an adult who loves to read and to write, I have something of a love affair with the written word. I believe a library card is more important than a voter registration card. When I give gifts, I usually give books.
And yet, when I learned that this week I would be asked to give up reading, I didn’t recoil from the idea. I thought it might be kind of interesting to see what would happen. I’m always struggling with time, and so at the very least, I wanted to see how much time not reading might free up. Knowing I could go back to reading in week 5, I took on the challenge with more enthusiasm than you might expect from such a dedicated reader.
Almost immediately, I got the lesson that this was not just about freeing up some time (although that has happened). No, this was about turning down the chatter in my mind. Sure, I had been doing some useful, not to mention enjoyable, reading; but what I never realized before was just how much reading, all kinds of it, I do daily…and how much of it is not useful or necessary, just distraction.
I didn’t vow to give up absolutely all reading, knowing I could not get through a week at the office without doing some. I also didn’t want to be rude and annoy my friends by not returning the few emails and texts I was bound to get that required a response. These e-technologies hardly existed when Julia first published her book in 1992, so she couldn’t have known we “talk” by reading now. Whether or not she’d approve, I think it’s fair to allow some limited reading of messages.
But unsolicited messages from businesses are going unread. Similarly, I will glance at Facebook to be sure there’s nothing I need to respond to (which is usually the case), but I won’t hang around on there scanning the news feed and looking at pictures of cats. I’m not going to my favorite bookmarked websites this week while bored at work, and I’m leaving mail unopened.
It’s amazing how many things we read. On my first day alone, I caught myself reading the cooking instructions on a box of rigatoni, the numbers on my combination lock at the gym, and the prices of groceries at Trader Joe’s. I read song listings on album covers, my to-do list, and street signs; phone numbers, the dials on the washer and dryer, and the thermostat numbers. All of it harmless, I know — in fact, it can be downright dangerous to not read some things — but still, it was interesting to see how many times a day we’re confronted with type.
Ironically, that same day I was congratulating myself on having gone on an artist date, another element of The Artist’s Way, when I realized the film I had just seen, Rust and Bone — which is a near-perfect film I recommend very highly, by the way — was in French with subtitles. That was a lot of reading. Damn you, reading prohibition!
I love a good challenge like this, just to see what will happen, but I don’t get too worked up about it if I slip up as I did today, absentmindedly reading an old journal for about an hour. Whoops! I felt bad, not just because I had broken my vow of reading deprivation or because the writing was no good, but because I was feeling the effects of having read. Like an alcoholic who gets drunk after just one beer if they’ve been on the wagon, my mind felt plenty agitated after consuming those pages from my past.
The difference between reading and not reading all this unnecessary stuff has been profound. It makes me wonder how much of what I do is just distraction — playing records, for example. I enjoy it, but really, I wonder how much calmer my mind might be if I stopped. I’d probably cease to have songs running constantly through my head.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of what I like to do — from reading and writing to housework to travel to sex — could be seen in the same way: as distraction, as trying to find temporary happiness, to keep busy, to fill time, to feel less alone in the world. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t do those things, especially if we enjoy them. But is something out of balance? Are we avoiding the stillness?
It might be a good idea to look at how and why we fill our time, why we are always so damn busy. We might even experiment with taking some activities out of our lives for a short time, like I’ve done with reading this week, just to see what happens. Don’t worry, you can always go back. And you’ll probably do so a little wiser.