Read to Escape—Just Remember to Come Back

Fellow bibliophiles…I do not need to sell you on the joys of reading.

Reading feeds our minds and souls. For creatives of all shapes and sizes who work with words, reading is critical. It’s juice for your creative…juice. They’re two sides of the same coin *cliche groan*.

But as creatives, it’s important to balance reading and writing. For the longest time, I was a reader who didn’t write. I was creatively blocked, choosing to receive, but not give; choosing to absorb but not release–you get the gist. To grow as a writer I need to read. Reading exposes me to diverse styles, topics, ideas and ways of life that’ll push my creative boundaries.

Writing keeps me accountable. Reading keeps me humble. Some days, after writing a killer draft I sit back, smugly patting myself on the back. Then I read something else, written by a phenomenal writer, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can come up with. Coz let me tell you: there are word artists who make my writing look like my 4-year-old niece’s letter asking her father for chicken nuggets and fries for lunch. And to add insult to injury, she writes it with a pretty, red shade of crayon. My plain, old comic sans black font is garbage I tell you!

Reading to Hide from My Life

Reading was my salvation when I was cooped up in our apartment during the lonely, dry, hot, Kuwaiti summers. We didn’t have summer camps and didn’t go on vacations. The Sweet Valley High Twins delivered again and again in the 2.5 months of summer breaks that stretched like years. Reading built a solid foundation for my curiosity for the world. I still think of the first time I browsed through a glossy, visually stunning book on the earth’s deep indigo oceans. Reading made me a student of the world.

But reading, while bringing immense value to my life, also made me passive. Passive to the point where it contributed to my creative block. Sure, it fueled my imagination, but my imagination stayed in one place—in my head.

When I was a teenager, a wise woman said to me, “Live your life. The books are just there for references.” I instinctively didn’t agree. I loved losing myself in the stories I read, exposing myself to life outside the confines of being a female in the Middle East, where every move was monitored in a restrictive, judgmental environment. My books were my salvation. So, I dismissed her statement all the way to the back of my mind. Over twenty years later, I thought of it again and I suddenly understood her point of view.

What she meant is that I shouldn’t hide. That I need go out and talk to people, live, be present. Or in the most obvious sense for the sake of this post—create.

What she meant is that I should experience, not just watch. Instead of reading books, I had to write them. Instead of admiring an actor on-screen, I needed to audition for a role. Instead of consuming Hasan Minhaj’s informative segments I should record myself talking about a topic I was passionate about. In other words, I need to live in my creativity, not watch it from behind the waterfall that is the world.

Literally Feel Your Creativity

For the longest time, I thought I was an introvert. But the more I started to heal, the more my real self unveiled. My real self is way more extraverted than I initially believed.

When you’re creatively blocked, you push feelings down—whether you’re introverted or extraverted. You dismiss the clues your intuition is sending you. You hide. You cower. You dismiss. And just when you feel like you could create—you procrastinate.

I absolutely love writing this blog. But I must add that it’s only one outlet of my creativity. Writing still feels more behind the scenes, even if I am– at the risk of sounding dramatic– baring my soul. When discovering what makes me tick creatively, I am also drawn to forms of expression that are…tactile. Think of:

Feeling my muscles open when I dance.

Feeling exposed to the front of the camera to portray an emotive face.

The sound of a singing voice submerging on my eardrums.

The tactile keeps me grounded. When I’m grounded, I’m present because I have to use my senses. And when I’m present I don’t run away with my thoughts.

I am so tactile that I hate e-readers. I only use them when I travel because I don’t want to lug heavy books in my carry-on suitcase. E-readers don’t make me feel connected to a book. I love the smell of freshly printed (or old dusty) monographs and the strength of a spine. I love the colours that pop out of a cover and the feeling of accomplishment each time I flip a page.

Each book I read on an e-reader feels like being forced to study a pointless manual: I see boring, black and white letters like an instruction manual for a blender. I don’t even remember if I’ve read a certain title because I have no memory of physically holding the book. To boot, I don’t know what the cover looks like because it’s a black and white image on my Kindle. Reading on e-readers feels like cheating on real books!

Now that I’m unblocking, creativity comes through engaging in various forms of the tactile, and books are only a point of reference to understand how I can grow. They enhance my perspectives, prod me to try new approaches, and give me insights into the lives of works (and people) I probably would have never discovered on my own. Sometimes they come out in my writing, sometimes in a script when I’m getting ready to portray a character, and sometimes when I’m dancing to an instrumental flamenco tune on YouTube.

To circle back, engaging in the tactility of the real world gives me fuel to create more. I have something to create.

Anton Chekhov said: “if you want to work on your art, work on your life.” Guess the ol’ Russian knew what he was talking about.

Social Media

Creatives can let both their thoughts emotions run away and can take a long time to return. Some never return, instead indulging in vices.

Vices come in various forms: unhealthy eating, alcohol, smoking, I could go on. But the most recent addictive, easy to fall-into-vice has been social media. It’s so accessible and is literally at our fingertips.

When social media came along it was a tool that artificially made me feel more connected to my social circle. When I virtually reconnected with friends, I believed I was being social. But the more I delved into its addictive nature—think refreshing my newsfeed tens of times a day– the lonelier I felt. Now, not only was I stuck in a loop of loneliness that wasn’t fulfilling, I didn’t even have fresh stories and non-fictive knowledge to share…which was what reading provided. I hate social media for taking me away from books for years. It also affected my mental health.

For my friend, his vice was Netflix. “I didn’t see a point in reading anymore after I discovered Netflix” he remarked. “I could get through a story so much faster.” But at what expense?

Today, my Goodreads list is alive and active. In fact, it keeps me accountable to my reading because I log the amount of progress I make (a beautiful benefit of gamification). But I had to take notice of how much social media I was consuming first, to act.

Reading New Genres

I consider myself a wide reader, but I still have my easy-read guilty pleasures. In the past, I was so unhappy with my life that indulging in a beach read was the only way I could cope. They were my way of unwinding after long, arduous days: my mental bubble baths.  I loved curling up with a page-turner and a giant Toblerone bar that consumed me all night (“shit, I have to be up in 2 hours to go to work. ONE MORE PAGE!”).  The problem, for a long time, was that it didn’t push me out of my pleasurable comfort zone. Think of having a chocolate ice-cream sundae three meals a day.  And, you’ll notice that in this blog, I repeatedly talk about how comfort can stop growth.

I used to feel ashamed of my genre choices. And it stemmed from being creatively blocked.

For example, many people read romance. When I was in university, the Dean of our Faculty was a Library and Information Science professor whose research focused on people who read romance novels.

Romance novels have a reputation for being trashy. They are the chick-lit’s mother hen, pun intended. My mother read these bad girls while working at the hospital where she conducted two EEG tests a day–max (that’s nothing, for those of you who are not nurses. They literally take an hour each, maybe less). To pass time, she read. To hide that she was reading these novels, she covered them in plain white paper so that no one could see she was reading something with Fabio and his juicy nipples on the cover.

But romance novels are still a genre. All novelists need to carve out great plots. Sure, they’re mostly the same but they still need to be well-executed to hook the reader. That skill—whether you’re writing a Pulitzer-prize winning piece or a romance novel– is still difficult to develop. In other words, romance should still be respected as a genre.

For the longest time, my tastes, as one elitist woman remarked were “juvenile”. It made me ashamed. I was ashamed that I enjoyed reading Young Adult, even way into my 20s. And because of the shame I felt, I white-papered-myself. I would still read Young Adult (YA) novels, but I would downplay or hide it from my peers. To ‘compensate’ I also read things that were extrinsically accepted, like Ernest Hemingway. High-brow, low-brow. Call it what you want.

Now, I read whatever I want. And yes, I still read both the guilty pleasure-books, and the high brow books, but my reasons for reading high-brow books changed. It wasn’t because I wanted to be accepted at the next dinner party that served fancy avocado toast—it was to grow. Now, however, I don’t call it high-brow. I call it ‘required’. And the definition of required, is what you require for yourself to read.

Your customized required reading– or rather, venturing out into another genre– can stretch your creativity. But I tell myself that I need to separate my fun reading and my required reading. Sometimes, my required reading turns into fun reading—always a gamble, followed by delight if I discover something riveting.

Now, that’s not to say that all required reading is high brow or pretentious. Required reading is reading that you feel would push you out of your usual genres. So, it could be a scientist who reads peer- academic journals switching to comics, or an erotica novel aficionado delving into country-music biographies.

When I find a book compelling, even if it’s difficult to read, I keep going. In the last year for example, I decided to pick up Game of Thrones.

Ok, I don’t know about you, but even for someone who is a native speaker of English, that book got me looking up words in a dictionary like KFC sold chicken. My old English vocab was non-existent. And, because it was such a visually detailed book, I didn’t want to sweep through the imagery so I was diligent. Heck, it took me almost two months to finish Clash of Kings (the second book of GOT). In some instances, I had to Google-image things because I couldn’t visualize something from its’ written description.

When I finished GOT, I a couple of things came to light. One, because of its stunning description of visuals, I was inspired to paint (I’m obsessed with how The Wall looks). Second, I realized I somewhat liked fantasy novels. Third, my old-English vocabulary improved. Was it a pain in the ass to have to look up a new word every few paragraphs? Yes. But I felt a sense of accomplishment, just how someone feels after doing something they didn’t know how to do when they started. It was empowering.

It is important to note: required reading can be exhausting, so I switched to a different, easier genre afterwards. It’s similar to exercising—there’s only so long you can go hard. You gotta ease up a little to reset, in this case, your brain.

I love reading. It’s an indulgent, educational and soul-feeding activity. And I will always recommend it to anyone. There’s just so much good stuff out there and I hate that I must be selective because I can’t read all the books in the world. But I am mindful of my relationship with it—because I cannot forget to use it as a tool to enrich my creativity and consequently…my life.

How about you? What is your relationship to reading? Do you use it to figure out what to write about? Do you avoid it? Let me know by commenting below!

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