The Benefits of Reading Deprivation

She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.—Louisa May Alcott

First, thanks to K.M. for inviting me to be a guest at Wordplay. Romance University is in such fabulous company among Write to Done’s other Top 10 Blogs! We’re going to talk about something potentially painful today, so square your shoulders, puff out your chest and gird your loins. Deep breath… Learning to read is like growing strong, tireless wings. Wings with the ability to take us anywhere, anytime. Most of us grow these amazing transportation devices between the ages of four and seven. Think back… can you remember a single day since you learned to read that you haven’t used those fabulous freedom wings? If you’re anything like me, your answer is: “Are you serious?” Writers are, after all, readers first.

Image by Fahid Chowdhury.

But as excruciating as it may sound, every writer could use a “brain cleanse” once in a while.

Good news: No lemongrass juice.

Bad news: No reading for a week.

I first discovered this “reading deprivation” technique in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Chapter four to be exact. I’m fairly certain my eyes bugged out when I read the week’s assignment. No reading.

I’ll repeat in case your eyes are now bulging. No reading.

Why would a writer subject herself to reading deprivation?

Why would anyone, especially a writer, consider depriving herself of life’s greatest pleasure? Again, why? Because we occasionally suffer from image and word constipation. Take a minute to think about and jot down all you read over the course of a day. How long is your daily reading list? (Yes, write it down and don’t cheat.)

Here’s mine: non-fiction books, novels, magazines, websites, blog posts, instruction manuals, email, homework, notes, texts, cereal boxes, toilet paper packages.

How much of your list is quality reading material, and how much of it is junk you don’t care about? Sometimes we fill ourselves up with so much stuff, it’s almost impossible to hear our own thoughts. After a week, you’ll be amazed at how much pure thinking you’re able to do without the distraction of reading.

Reading deprivation also creates an acceptable excuse not to be swallowed up by information overload. Heck, you may even learn some “work” you’ve been so keen to accomplish isn’t important or urgent. Toss it!

When should you consider a “mental cleanse?”

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, either by your writing or generally by life. You might also consider a stint of reading deprivation when you’re brainstorming a new story or concept. Can you imagine the brilliance that might break through without all that mental static interfering?

How do you go on a reading fast?

Maybe you’re grudgingly (very grudgingly) considering the reading sabbatical concept, but how do you accomplish this feat?

First, give yourself a few days advance notice. After all, you’ll need to do that loin-girding, but you don’t want to allow yourself so much lead time that you chicken out. Then go cold turkey. Flip the switch and don’t look back.

Remove temptation. Clear off your bedside table, your desk, that little basket by your toilet. And whatever you do, do not rearrange or catalog your book collection this week.

Pick a reasonable week. For example, if you’re an English teacher, don’t schedule your cleanse on the week your students are submitting an essay project. And be careful not to substitute another “drug.” Those could include alcohol, TV or anything else you’re using to fill the void that’s forcing you to think instead of consume. Realize you will be uncomfortable, even irritable. After all, you’re detoxing.

Tell other people if you think it will help you stick to your plan, but do so at your loved ones’ risk. When I went through this process, my husband joked about it, and I almost went for his throat. You may be glad to know he is still breathing, and even ambulatory.

What will you do with all your non-reading time?

You’ll have time to…um…write. And time and energy to spend on other creative pursuits. As Julia Cameron says, “…you will run out of work and be forced to play.” But if you simply can’t think of how you will fill your hours, I’ve put together a small list of possibilities:

  • Take a walk
  • Clean out a closet
  • Knit a sweater
  • Doodle
  • Make a collage
  • Play your guitar
  • Meditate
  • Take a warm bath
  • Lounge in a hammock (a personal favorite)

When I participated in my first mental cleanse, I was convinced it would be a disaster. Was it difficult? Yes, but the rewards included ideas for several new stories, a handful of brainstorming lists, and a few sunshine-basking sessions. I promise you’ll be amazed at the ideas lurking among all that clutter in your artist’s brain. So take another deep breath, step away from someone else’s words and enjoy your renewed creativity. If you decide to try this technique, feel free to drop me a note to let me know if you found it helpful.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever voluntarily given up reading for a day, a week, longer? What rewards did you reap or consequences did you suffer?

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About Kelsey Browning

Kelsey Browning writes sass kickin’ stories full of hot heroes, sassy heroines and spicy romance. She’s the author of the contemporary romance Texas Nights series and co-author of the Southern crime capers, The Granny Series. Give her a shout at [email protected]

Comments

  1. Reading this was like watching the shower scene in Pyscho. The thought of a day without reading throws me into full-out panic mode. Reading relaxes me, for the most part – it would be pure torture to go without for any length of time.

    I do see your point, though. And I’ve learned by experience to avoid books by, say, Jenny Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips while I’m writing. I’ll read two pages of their books and start banging my head on the desk, thinking “Why even bother?”

    I like your cleansing theory, I’m just not sure I could pull it off!

  2. Becke –

    I do understand because reading has always been my drug of choice. I think my reading deprivation experiment worked because I was committed to working through Julia Cameron’s steps in The Artist’s Way. My writing was in the toilet, so my salvation depended on it. I was amazed at how clear and uncluttered my brain was.

    How about trying a mini-cleanse? With no reading for one day? Maybe a day you don’t have a lot of online responsibilities?

    Happy Friday!
    Kelsey

  3. Wow! Great idea! I hadn’t thought of that. I LOVE to read, so going without will be like going without sugar!

    I did take a break from writing last month. I did artwork instead. THAT was a nice sabbatical. A much needed creativity shot in the arm!

    I also run frequently and find that that hour of time without reading jump starts my creativity again. I have written many scenes in my head while running.

    I will have to try this break from reading, though. Very interesting!!

  4. Oh no…no no no no no. What would I do without reading cat food labels? No words with friends? No hour spent with Nora’s latest characters before bed? NO BLOG POSTS????? Woman, you’ve gone mad. =) That being said, if it weren’t that several of my businesses were dependent upon email, I might try a one-dayer just to see what happened…..maybe an hour….30 min might work….=)
    Great post Kelsey! I’d love a clear brain!

  5. Ruth –

    I’m one of those people who tends to get entrenched in a process: reading, writing, whatever. So I don’t always recognize that working constantly on something actually reduces my creativity and productivity. And you’re so right about exercise. Walking is one of my most amazing “think times.” I’ve had ideas for entire stories in the time it takes me to take my dog up the hill and back around!

    Drop me a note if you take a break from reading to let me know what you thought.

    Best,
    Kelsey

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  7. Carrie –

    You always make me smile :-). I’m with you. I know it’s hard to give up the little “flotsam reading” we do so much of. But can you imagine if we told people we were going cold turkey on email, etc. for a few days? They’d think we were mad, but they’d also be secretly jealous.

    I’m telling you, you would be surprised at how much time you have, and yes, the clear brain is a fabulous thing!
    Kelsey

  8. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us today, Kelsey!

  9. K.M. – Thanks so much for the invitation. After writing this post, I’m considering when I can have my next reading cleanse! 🙂

    Kelsey

  10. When I’m first outlining/drafting/plotting a new novel, I suffer under a self-imposed fiction famine. Reading fiction uses some parts of my brain that are also used for writing my own work, and I’ve discovered if I’m reading then I don’t have quite as much creative energy. I will still read magazines or books on writing craft–especially while I”m eating lunch, a habit I developed as a kid.

  11. Does reading college textbooks count? 😉
    I’ve gone for weeks without reading anything other than my college textbooks…
    Now that I’ve completed my college work, I’ll prolly try a voluntary “reading fast” for a week or so.. and see what comes of it..

    thnx for a great article, Kelsey. 😀

  12. Angelica –

    Oh, I have that habit of reading while I eat as well (I can hear nutritionists all over the world cringing). That’s a great point about reading fiction taking up the same creative impulses as your own writing. Come to think of it, I rarely feel like writing just after reading someone else’s work. It’s like I’ve just eaten Thanksgiving turkey and have no room for my own stuff(ing) :-).

    Thanks for stopping by!
    Kelsey

  13. The reading deprivation week was the part I dreaded most about doing The Artist’s Way. I did it, though, but that was years ago. I remember being pleasantly surprised at how well it went. Nowadays, though, it would be a lot tougher to get away from the influence of the internet, and probably a lot more beneficial. Thanks for bringing this topic up!

  14. Gideon –

    Congratulations on completing your college work! It wasn’t until a couple years after I finished my bachelor’s degree that I realized I’d read so little fiction during those four years (but a heck of a lot of economics textbooks!). I think a reading fast at this point would probably be fabulous for you and would allow you to go into your reading and/or writing with a very clear mind.

    I’d love to hear about your experience if you try it.

    Thanks so much for commenting!
    Kelsey

  15. Funny, I often just equate “reading” with books. Don’t include the whole email, blogs, Google headlines, etc. Don’t know if I am brave enough for a week, but a day…I think I could handle that on a weekend. And I love Julie Cameron’s The Artists Way, but must have just mentally skipped over that chapter all together!

  16. Charlotte –

    When I did the reading deprivation exercise, I was completely shocked I didn’t have a mental break-down over the lack of reading. But once I got over my anxiety, I was so refreshed. Yes – it’s much harder now with all the email, blogs, etc. However, I do think the process can help you see how much of your daily reading is really for others’ benefit, rather than your own.

    Thanks for chatting with me today!
    Kelsey

  17. Amy –

    If a day is all you can manage at this point, I say try it. I probably wouldn’t have gained as much clarity or freedom in a single day, but I’m the kind of person who has to jump into cold water rather than easing in. In fact, writing this post has me eager to do a reading cleanse again soon!

    Happy not-reading!
    Kelsey

  18. This was so interesting. I take a book every place. I have them every where in my house. I everywhere – at the table, in the bathroom, the bedroom, grocery, doctor, dentist, in the car when I’m a passenger, simply everywhere. But there have been times when I stopped reading because I felt it was interfering with my writing. Sometimes so much so that I felt blocked because I had no original ideas.

    When I told writer friends I wasn’t reading for a while they would tell me it was not good for a writer not to read! Invariably I heard the same phrase every time. “Writer’s read.” In every case their tone left me with a feeling that I’d done something criminal. Thank you so much for helping get rid of my guilt. I’ll be referring my writing group here.

  19. Hi KM & Kelsey!

    Does this cleanse extend to nutritional labels? I’ve never voluntarily not read, but I tend to read less when I’m on a writing tear because I feel guilty. I will say it’s been ages since I’ve sat on the sofa and devoured a book in one sitting. And I’m the opposite of Becke…when I’m writing, it’s always useful to have one of SEP’s books nearby so I can keep my head in the groove. I’ll never be able to write like her, but reading her stuff over and over makes me happy.

  20. Great post. My problem is I don’t read enough. I never read much as a child and forming the habit is difficult even though Im a writer. How do you make yourself do MORE reading??

  21. Dixie Girl (love the name, btw) –

    I think we might be sisters separated at birth 🙂 because I rarely go anywhere without reading material. In fact, I still take several magazines when I travel and leave them for other readers as I finish them. That being said, I’ve noticed times that I reach for a book because I don’t like the feeling of idleness and I do it automatically to fill a void. Honestly, I doubt that’s a healthy habit. So sometimes, I have to force myself to step away and just “be.”

    And I don’t believe a short writing hiatus will hurt your writing in any way. If, as a writer, you never read? Yes, that would be problematic. But if you’re taking a short break to make room for your own work and creativity? I think that’s 100% justifiable.

    Thanks for stopping by and best with your writing,
    Kelsey

  22. Hi, Jen –

    I think a reading cleanse is just another tool in a writer’s toolbox. It may not work for everyone, but it’s kind of like I tell my son about new foods: at least try it before rejecting it :-). I think many writers would just assume they can’t take a short break from reading. May be fear talking rather than rational consideration of a technique.

    And yes, I’ll spot you the nutritional labels – LOL.

    And I use your reading while writing technique sometimes as well. I need to read for rhythm or how a particular type of scene was constructed (especially love scenes) before I can get in a groove and write one myself.

    Thanks for coming by today!
    Kelsey

  23. Jan –

    Thanks for stopping by. I find many writers do read less than they ever did prior to beginning their writing careers. As far as how to do more writing…

    Do you schedule reading into your daily routine? For you, it may need to be like exercise or another appointment on your calendar. You could set aside 10-15 minutes when you wake in the morning?

    What books do you love? Read more of those? Anything that intrigues you will keep you reading.

    Read aloud to your family/friends. It’s a great way to share quality time and a story.

    Consider audio books, especially if you find yourself in the car a great deal.

    I’m sure I could go on for days about how you could squeeze in more reading, but my ideas probably wouldn’t all be practical – (deserted island with a hut full of books, anyone??) LOL.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!
    Kelsey

  24. I’ll have to try this!!

  25. Traci –

    Best of luck. Let me know how it goes for you!

    Kelsey

  26. Oh, I like the desert island idea! Thanks for the suggestions…I should try the scheduling time idea…even if it’s only 15 -20 minutes.

  27. Hi,

    This was such a refreshing post to read when everyone else seems to think you can’t do enough reading. I don’t read much when I’m writing because I find that sometimes I can subconsciously copy sentences. Especially when the book is a similar style to my own work. Reading can sometimes be a dangerous activity when I’m potentially liable to do this.

  28. Jan –

    I’m a fan of the deserted island as well, but haven’t found anyone who owns one! 🙂

    Best of luck scheduling your reading time!
    Kelsey

  29. LK –

    Thanks so much for your comment. I definitely avoid the sub-genre I’m writing while I’m writing because yes, I think the writing style can bleed into mine. More than that, though, is my tendency to feel second best to the author I’m reading at the time. This is so harmful to my productivity and my mental health that I’ve learned to avoid that rocky ledge!

    Wishing you happy writing!
    Kelsey

  30. I think I need this desperately. But… what about devotions? Bible reading? That surely isn’t included! Right? Well, even if it is, I’ll bend the rules a bit 😀
    I’ve been trying hard to write for a really long time now. I’ve been reading quite a bit, and I thought, “Surely, reading this much should be stimulating my brain.” I guess by reading the ten-plus blog updates every day, as well as some of the newspaper, as well as stories, besides everything else I read, has been cluttering my mind.
    Thanks for this article!

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  32. I googled “reading deprivation” after going through the week, as mandated by The Artist’s Way. I welcomed it, but I also didn’t get hung up about reading e-mails in the course of work, because it’s work. Once work was done, though – no reading. I found even the exercise of not reading for those periods of time to be valuable. I realized that I use reading as a distraction. There’s *always* something else to read! Plus, I liked the idea of getting back to a pre-language brain state, in as much as is possible.

    Very much recommended. I can see myself doing this regularly.

Trackbacks

  1. […] can find quick discussions of the practice here and here. The latter of the two links includes a quote from Cameron’s book explaining the […]

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