In his excellent book on writing, creatively titled On Writing, Stephen King lays out just how to become a writer:
1. Read a lot.
2. Write a lot.
That's it! That's the secret!
King goes on to write several hundred pages more, but everything in his book, and everything else written in every other book on writing, more or less falls into those two categories. They're like the Ten Commandments of writing, summing up the tedious entirety of Mosaic Writing Law.
The second item, write a lot, is probably the one that writers have the most trouble with. Yes, some people were born scribblers, filling page after page of their notebooks with essays, poems, and fiction. But most of the writers I know have to make some sort of effort when it comes to getting words on the page.
What most writers (aspiring or established) don't seem to have a problem with is King's command to read a lot. Writers like to read. So much so that I wonder if we don't do it to our detriment. Or more precisely, I wonder if we don't consume too many words in a day.
In her excellent book on how to become a writer, creatively titled Becoming a Writer, Dorthea Brande talks about the fact that writers are unusually susceptible to taking "busman's holidays." The term refers to the fact that if a bus driver wants to take a vacation he must get to his destination by riding a bus thereby making his vacation very similar to his work. If you're a writer your job is to...say it with me (hint: it's written up above)...read a lot and write a lot.
Now, raise your hand if you're a writer. Now keep your hand up if you spend your free time reading.
Uh-huh. Pretty much everyone.
What about watching movies or television? Listening to the radio (or your iPod)?
Yep, that's all of you.
"But," you say. "I thought Stephen King said it was good to read a lot. Also, listening to a Kenny Loggins record isn't reading."
Good points. Reading is good. It's one of two things you must do if you want to become a writer. But modern technology has made it so that we are reading almost constantly throughout the day, what with facebook, Google news, and those always-entertaining Cracked lists. Honestly, I probably don't go more than a few hours without reading something.
And yes, listening to Kenny Loggins isn't reading, but it doesn't fall into the category of "consuming words." Unless that is, you're listening to some terrible instrumental version of Kenny Loggins songs. That's also why movies and television count. When you watch them, you're consuming words.
Overall, this is a good thing, I think. Exposing ourselves to writing--whether it be in song, screenplay, or news article form--is good. The wider your scope, the better.
But there is another part to writing that perhaps doesn't fall into the above mentioned categories of reading and writing a lot. And that is thinking. Stories need time to ferment, to grow. This is the part of the process with which modern writers have the most trouble, I think. We're so busy consuming words on our televisions, our computers, our iPhones, even in those old-fashioned things called books. And when we aren't consuming, when we can manage to wrangle our butts into the chair, we're producing. There's not a lot of time for thinking, for turning things over in our minds.
And to be clear, I'm not talking about consciously working a story over. Sitting back from the keyboard and thinking through a plot twist or character arc. I'm talking about unplugging, letting your unconscious mind do the work for you.
Certainly I didn't come up with this idea on my own. It is in fact a goodly portion of what Brande writes about in her book. She writes, "If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways...If you conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage."
Different writers have different ways of doing this. Joyce Carol Oates says she comes up with stories while running. Fredric Brown used to take hours-long bus rides. Stephen King goes for long walks. (Yes, this activity also casued him a bit of trouble, but hey, occupational hazard.) The point is to let your mind unplug from all the reading and writing you're doing (and you should be doing lots).
Honestly, this can be a bit hard. If I find myself unoccupied for even two seconds my first instinct is to get out my phone and check my e-mail or facebook. This has become such a habit that I don't ever have to be bored. Sometimes, just right in the middle of everything I'll feel the urge to read some crap on the internet. (This is a problem, I know. Look at this blog post as a cry for help.)
There is no doubt that having all of this media at our fingertips is, by and large, a good thing. If a book you want to read is out of print, you can probably download a digital copy. If that option isn't available, you can hop on eBay and buy it used. You can expose yourself to great writing on the interent (like this blog, for example). In short, it's never been easier to read a lot.
It's also never been easier to write a lot. Computers aren't exactly new things, but I think it is useful to remember just how cumbersome writing, and especially editing, on a typewriter or by hand really is. Also, need to do research for something you're writing? You don't even have to leave your desk!
All of this is great. But, it has come at a cost. So, the next time you feel like reading for a few hours, or checking your e-mail, or watching a movie, maybe just let yourself be bored for a while; it might just help your writing in the long-run.
Also, if anyone gives you grief about doing nothing for hours a day, you can tell them you have to. You know, for work.