Help me not feel guilty about reading during the day.
August 25, 2017 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I have a freelance writing/editing life with a workflow that varies and a schedule I regulate, at least in part. I have nice gaps of open time, some days more than others, but my schedule is nicely flexible.

I also pursue my own creative pursuits, which is another way of saying I write fiction. I am serious about this, have published a number of my stories, and consider fiction the one thing I care most about being good at (apart from being a decent human being). I sincerely believe that reading is a critical adjunct of writing — it is for me, at least. In some sense it’s really just another part of writing. And yet, I have this persistent feeling that reading books during the day is akin to drinking before 5 pm. I feel guilty about doing it, as though it’s not productive and I should be producing, producing. Of course, I can waste time online with the best of them, so there’s something specific about reading books, which is a deliberate and intentional act, that really calls up this feeling of guilt. I’d really like to get over this. I suspect this is weirdly idiosyncratic to me, and that it has something to do with not quite taking myself seriously enough as a "real writer." But I would love to hear if anyone has some self-talk strategies for loosening the grip of this dumb idea. Thanks.
posted by swheatie to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
As your librarian I am here to tell you that reading widely is one of the best ways to improve and diversify your writing and so, in a sense, it is also "for work". You are producing your intellect which is helping you with your tangible products of writing AND editing. I read, optimally, for about 45 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes before bed and it's very therapeutic.

I, too, have Calvinist leftover guilt feelings so I bean count with myself and figure reading before five is fine as long as I sometimes work after five. And I always work after five and I suspect you do too. Enjoy your books.
posted by jessamyn at 9:17 AM on August 25, 2017 [28 favorites]

Marginalia is your friend! I have the same problem as an editor and lover of reading. To combat it, I make notes--about language, story mechanics, connections to other works, etc.--and call it 'work.' Or I write a short review for my eyes only. Finally, I remind myself that this most often presents as a feeling that I could be doing something more productive for kids, family, community, world...and that this particular voice in my head is most certainly a stereotypical female sense of guilt.
posted by cocoagirl at 9:20 AM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

All of the professional writers that I know - and these days I know a lot - consider reading, whether in their genre, nonfiction for research, or just to "refill the well" creatively - consider it a necessary part of their job. Can't write if you don't read, period.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:36 AM on August 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Would you judge a researcher for spending part of her workday reading scientific journal articles in her field? I can tell you that that happens a lot, as keeping up with the literature is a necessary part of any academic's job. I'd argue that it's no different for you -- you need to keep up with your literature!
posted by coppermoss at 10:07 AM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Reading for pleasure during the day is the only way I stayed sane through law school.
posted by janey47 at 10:09 AM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

Another librarian here chiming in: reading is your homework! You are developing your writing by reading other people's writing and I'll bet that you sometimes read stuff you know you would have edited better.

And if you occasionally read escapist trash that's fine too because it helps you to relax.
posted by mareli at 10:44 AM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Would you judge a researcher for spending part of her workday reading scientific journal articles in her field?

When I first became a consultant, I felt guilty about this, because though necessary it was also a pleasure. And on my time tracking it kind of stared up at me as a time without any visible "product".

Then I started tagging that time as "Continuing education" and felt a lot better. Because that's exactly what it is - it's continuing education for my skill set and knowledge. It's active participation in building and flexing your brain, like a work-out. Perhaps re-branding your reading time in a similar way might help?

Or maybe another tactic: There's a story about the album Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and how it scared/ inspired Lennon and McCartney (and the rest of the Beatles) into the studio, where they ended up making Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Do you think they felt guilty about listening to that album as musicians instead of producing stuff? Fuck no! They listened and then they used it. So maybe think of it that way - this is time you're using to look for your personal Pet Sounds. You're an active participant in finding your own inspiration!
posted by barchan at 10:48 AM on August 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Thank you! Just wanted to pop in to say that these are all such great responses. Just exactly what I was hoping for, and I will refer back to this page often. Keep em coming!
posted by swheatie at 10:54 AM on August 25, 2017

I used to teach writing, both essays and creative writing, fiction and poetry, at the college level. And I will tell you that there is nothing more impossible and demoralizing than trying to teach writing to people who don't read. It is impossible to have a mind full of ideas if you don't feed it; it's impossible to have an "intuitive" feel for what works and what doesn't if you haven't read widely enough to train your mind; it's impossible to have a productive vocabulary if you haven't been fed a diet of words.

I am also a creative writer. I write essays, but also occasionally fiction. I recently self-published a really excellent romance novella (so please let's have no further talk about "trash" in my presence). Reading can get me excited about writing, certain books making me feel that it's absolutely urgent that I get back to my own work so I can be part of the conversation. It can also help me solve problems in my own writing--a good romance is not only pleasure reading for me, but I'll catch myself thinking about how the writer handled a certain issue of plot or pacing, things I struggle with.

It's also worth mentioning that rule-breaking is essential to creativity. It is absolutely necessary to step outside the boundaries other people lay down. Part of that is learning to recognize when a rule doesn't serve your purpose. Sometimes creative people set their own rules in order to protect their working time: no internet until after 6 p.m., and so forth. But if a rule is coming from outside yourself, it's important to think about where it's coming from, whether you agree with the values that underlie it, and whether it helps or hinders you.

When I first met my partner of 24 years, I was astonished to discover that he routinely drank a can of Coke at breakfast time. In my family growing up, we had a rule: no pop before 11 a.m. I had internalized this so completely that even at 27 the idea of having a can of Coke at 10:52 was shocking to me. He just shrugged. "How is it different from coffee with sugar, or a bowl of cold cereal?" He was right, and yet this rule had seemed inviolate to me until then.

Oh, it occurs to me to add: You know what is really vital to my own creative process? Lying around in bed half-awake, thinking about stuff. I can lie around in bed for an hour, two hours, occasionally even three hours after waking up, deeply engrossed in my thoughts. When I was drafting my romance, every word of it was born during these times. This is work for me, not in the sense that I'm doing something anyone else would recognize as work, but in that it's very fruitful for me in finding and developing ideas. Some writers walk; some get ideas in the shower; some work them out right on the page. I lie around in bed like an empress or a pampered cat, just letting my mind do its thing. When you feel guilty about reading before 5, think of me, and you can tell yourself, "At least if someone looked at me, they could tell I was doing something."

Good luck with all your work.
posted by Orlop at 11:45 AM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I consider reading to be part of research and inspiration that is essential to the writing process. When I write anything, the process involves a lot of googling and reading and... quite honestly, it also involves a lot of sitting and thinking. You aren't a machine that can just churn out content. it needs to come together in your brain first. Whenever I think, "man, I've just sat here wasting time" I realize that the "time-wasting" is essential for me to clarify my thoughts. I've rarely written anything without doing that, and doing that always makes the writing better.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:27 PM on August 25, 2017

Also, as a freelancer, you aren't beholden to "regular business hours" set by offices, etc. You can follow your natural energy and impulses to work when you feel most productive. Your most productive times may come after 5pm, so why force that to be otherwise. Revel in your self-set schedule and do what works best for YOU!
posted by stefnet at 1:30 PM on August 25, 2017

Professional writer, here. I've made a good living for almost 25 years producing writing on someone else's calendar and dime. Reading is absolutely critical to building and maintaining your ear, your voice, your instrument. Read voraciously, in abundant variety, without guilt.

If your customers truly understand and value your craft, they would understand that every minute you spend reading will benefit them tenfold down the line. If they don't understand and value your craft, then their opinions on how you go about meeting your deliverables is valueless.

And meeting your deliverables is how you get over the guilt. Do what you say you're going to do. Deliver a quality product on time. Then you will learn to respect your own method.

The beauty of freelance work is that you have an opportunity to find out what works best for you. Sounds like you're already too conscientious to let yourself slide easily into bad habits, so give yourself permission to read whatever you want as time permits.

Of course, I also recommend the occasional drink before 5 pm, but that one's a lot more subjective.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:27 PM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a freelance writing/editing life with a workflow that varies...

Ditto, and frankly no further details required.

Read when you want. I do, and work is the same, and I go for walks and stroke cats at random times too. I'm just back from a walk (BEFORE 5PM) now, and I'm sitting in the tub (BEFORE 5PM) with a gin and tonic (BEFORE 5PM) and, oooooh!, I'm reading (BEFORE 5PM) MetaFilter and other non-work things. I have NOT been struck down by lightning for doing so, and I will work later today and this evening (when I prefer to work anyway, as it's better in the cool of the evening rather than the heat of daytime).

So, yeah, there is no "before 5pm" or "after 5pm" because that is a fundamental reason I got out of the hell of a commute-to-work-nine-to-five-commute-back so-called "life"style. If you're freelance, you need to metaphorically throatpunch, as soon as they appear, weird thoughts and feelings that are attached to other lifestyles or belief systems or guilt or whatnot, to get the full benefits of being freelance.

And if any 9 to 5er goes on about the benefits of their lifestyle, or disses yours or the profession you chose, then that's a tiresome, and possibly boring or insecure, person to start ignoring and stop wasting time on listening to.

(Related: the last day I worked in such a job was the last day I wore a watch. Now if I need to find out the time I have to make some kind of effort, rather than have it on my wrist permanently staring at me.)

{raises G&T and slumbers back into hot tub}
posted by Wordshore at 6:23 AM on August 28, 2017

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