My week without reading

I’ve been following Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for a few weeks now. It’s a 12-week program to recover your creativity. Every morning, I get up half an hour early, make a cup of coffee, and sit down at my desk to write three pages in my journal. Every Saturday, I spend half an hour reflecting on the week and every Sunday I read a new chapter and do some of the exercises at the end.

The morning pages are pretty interesting, but lots of people have written about that. I want to tell you about the Sunday evening when I sat down to read the chapter for Week 4. There’s a grey box on the first page of every chapter. It gives you an idea of what the purpose of the week’s work is. The last line of week 4’s box reads, “Warning: Do not skip the tool of reading deprivation!”

A reading deprivation tool sounds uncomfortable. It’s worse than uncomfortable, it’s a bit frightening. My last reading deprivation experience was in grade school when my mother grounded me from reading for a week because I insisted on reading at the table during meals.

Julia Cameron’s tougher than that. She wants you to stop reading so you’ll start making with all that creative energy. She wants you to stop hiding behind that book or screen and get working. She writes that “We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” This is true.

The truth of it was painful to realize. I bounce from one book to the next as fast as I can. This means not taking time to reflect on what I’ve read, not taking time to feel what the book has done to me and certainly not taking time to respond to any emotions the book has brought up. It’s also incredibly easy to read what someone else has written and decide I could never accomplish that. It’s a grand excuse for never even starting.

Now, I’ve developed a certain amount of faith in Julia since starting on this journey with her, so I did it. I did the reading deprivation challenge to the best of my abilities. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber sat on my desk for a week. I used Apple’s Screen Time feature to set all the social media apps on my phone off limits. Even Safari ended up giving me a warning every time I tried to use it.

The first night, I cheated. The husband and I sat down and watched a new series on Netflix. It’s pretty much the same as reading. But, the rest of the week, I actually did it. Even work documents that seemed like they could wait, I put off.

So, what’s it like to not read for a week? It was actually kind of great. With someone else telling me I couldn’t get on social media or read the news on my computer, tons of work got done! Whether I was actually more productive or not was less important than the fact that I felt good about sitting at my computer because suddenly, I was using the computer to put things into the world.

At home, I realized the times that I reach for my smartphone the minute the action stops, but not before I make the choice to pick it up. It’s an automatic action. Get the kids in from school, remind them to put things away, get everyone a drink, check my phone. But the last doesn’t need to happen! My daughter had a day off school and since I couldn’t read, a bunch of long put-off house tasks got finished. We went to the shop and when we got home, instead of checking the news or social media, we had hot cocoa and played cards.

That sounds like the same old “phones are invading family life” story – except that on Saturday morning when the papers arrived, I couldn’t read those either. Suddenly, a bunch of people reading the newspaper in the morning seemed kind of anti-social. Less cozy, more avoiding.

I went for a walk in the forest without my earbuds in. The sheer volume of thoughts bouncing around in my head astounded me. I walked for nearly an hour and it never felt quiet. And this was without newspapers to give me input all week. That might have been the most surprising part of the whole week, just realizing how much is going on not only in my head but in my heart and how important it is to give myself over to it sometimes.

Sometimes it’s important to take time to just think or just feel. We don’t do that much these days. We don’t seem to make a lot of choices about what we take in or take on. Eating too much food leads to gaining weight. We can see that, either on our bodies or on the scale. But taking on too much input leads to another kind of bloat. It’s a mental bloat that’s much more difficult to identify.

After a week without reading, I found myself thinking about not only the time that used reading, whether usefully or not, but about what all that input was doing to me. There are questions we should be asking about what we read in an age when the written word is overwhelming, when content is king and available cheap in everyone’s back pocket.

The next time you pick up something to read something, ask yourself some questions. Why are you reading it? How will it make your life better? How will it make you a better person? Will it inspire you? Would you be better of playing cards with an enthusiastic 7-year-old?

A week later and I find a lot of my habits have returned. But they haven’t returned entirely. I plan to keep it that way.

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