The poet Wendy Cope says she can always tell when she’s entering a particularly fecund creative period because she starts to read lots of poetry.
If you never read a boring sentence, in time it will be impossible for you to write one
Reading whets the creative appetite, but it has to be the right kind of reading. The reading you do to switch off is unlikely to stimulate your creativity. Switch-off reading involves stock characters and predictable story-lines. The experience is as familiar and recognisable as a Domino’s pizza. Switch-off reading is fast food for the mind: nothing wrong with that in principle, but it won’t nourish your little grey cells.
The kind of reading you do to switch on is challenging and energising. Jeanette Winterson believes the effort we put into appreciating a piece of art – painting, music or literature – is proportionate to the enrichment you receive from it. Reading challenging work will feed your writing in a similar way.
So step three in rewriting your life is to switch on your creativity by reading something you would not normally attempt. As you will be substituting something more energising for what you normally read, this shouldn’t take up any more of your scarce time.
To make it more sociable, you could join one of the 50,000-odd reading groups in the UK. Your library should have a local list; and the Reading Agency and the BBC’s Book Club programme on Radio 4 have guidelines for starting a new group. A subscription to the Poetry Book Society will give you an introduction to the best contemporary poetry. For stylish factual writing, go for a really high quality magazine – Time and Newsweek are exceptional – or order a daily broadsheet newspaper.
I’ve heard some writers say that they avoid reading because they are afraid of compromising their own originality. But the very opposite is the case. Those who restrict their reading to a few favourite authors are in danger of condemning their own writing to banality and cliché. Creative writing tutors claim you can always spot a non-reader by the lack or originality in their work.
Reading challenging work expands your concept of what’s possible in writing. But it operates on a deeper level too.
The act of engaging with a piece of rich and complex writing forces your brain to make new connections, and exercises your conscious and unconscious thought processes. It introduces you to the author’s way of thinking and begins to establish the habits of creative thinking in your own mind. If you become accustomed to firing on all cylinders, when you come to write something yourself the habits of creative thinking will already be well-established.
If you never read a boring sentence, in time it will be impossible for you to write one. Why confine yourself to the nursery slopes when there is a whole mountain to explore? The view, when you get up there, is breathtaking.