On Reading and writing

On Writing

This week I started reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, a book that has been mentioned a few times by people I usually interview for my weekly podcast as something that is both inspiring and has had a major impact on their lives and careers. After the third or forth time someone mentioned I finally broke down and got myself a copy at the local bookstore.

I have to say that, so far, I am completely blown away by this book! I can totally see why everyone else recommended it as something that people should add to their BTR (Books To Read) list! First of all, the first section of the book, which Stephen King calls his 'C.V.' (and not his memories or auto biography), covers his early life as a child, his experiences and struggles (there are quite a few passages that will most likely get you to laugh out loud) growing up with his mom and older brother, Dan. This section, roughly speaking around 100 pages or so, are so easy to relate to that you can probably be done with them in about 2 hours no matter what your reading pace is. I am always captivated to learn how someone 'came to be', the real 'behind the scenes' if you will, of how someone started out their lives and the paths they took to get to where they are now.

The next sections talk about what any aspiring writer should add to their 'toolbox' and it covers many interesting topics and suggestions which, if you really think about it, makes a ton of sense. This is where I am in the book right now, and though it isn't as captivating as the first section, it should still appeal to anyone looking for solid advice on how to become a better writer in my humble opinion.

Though I one day do aspire to become a published writer (fiction most likely), and I am enjoying this book that I'm having a real hard time putting it down, the reason why I chose to write about it is related to a piece of advice that Stephen King shares with the reader about the habit of reading.

Stephen King claims that, to become a better writer one must at least obey the following rules:

  • Read every day!
  • Write every day!

It is by reading a lot (something that should come naturally to anyone who reads every day) that one learns new vocabulary words, different styles of prose, how to structure ideas into paragraphs and rhythm. He says that it doesn't matter if you read in 'tiny sips' or in huge 'swallows', but as long as you continue to read every day, you'll develop a great and, in his opinion, required habit for becoming a better writer. Obviously, based on his two rules you'd need to write every day too, and if you're one of us who is toying with the idea of becoming a writer one day (or want to become a better writer), I too highly recommend that you give this book a shot! I know, I know, I have not finished it yet but still... I highly recommend it!

Back to the habit of reading and the purpose of this post, I remember back in 2008 my own 'struggle' to 'find the time' to read non technical books. You know, reading for fun? Back then I was doing a lot of reading, but mostly it consisted of blog posts and articles recommended by my RSS feeds, and since I was very much involved with a lot of different open source projects, I mostly read about GNOME, KDE, Ubuntu and Python. Just the thought of reading a book that did not cover any of these topics gave me a feeling of uneasiness and I couldn't picture myself dedicating time, precious time, to reading 'for fun.' But eventually I realized that I needed to add a bit more variety to my reading experience and that sitting in front of my computer during my lunch break would not help me with this at all. There were too many distractions to lure me away from any book I may be trying to read.

I started out by picking up a book that everyone around me had mentioned many times as being 'wicked cool' and 'couldn't put it down' kind of book. Back then I worked at a startup and most of the engineers around me were much younger than me and at one point or another most of them were into 'the new Harry Potter' book. I confess that I felt judgmental and couldn't fathom the idea of reading a 'kid book' but since I was trying to create a new habit and since my previous attempts had failed miserably, I figured that something drastic was just what the doctor would have recommended. One day after work, before driving back home, I stopped by the public library and picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Next day at work when I took my lunch break, I locked my laptop and went downstairs to a quiet corner of the building's lobby. I picked a nice, comfortable seat with a lot of natural sun light and view of the main entrance and started reading... or at least I thought I did. Whenever I started to read a paragraph, someone would open the door at the main entrance to the building either on their way in or out, and with them went my focus and my mind would start wandering. Eventually I'd catch myself and back to the book my eyes went, only to be disrupted by the next person opening the door. Needless to say, experiment 'Get More Reading Done' was an utter failure!

The very next day I performed the same ritual but this time around I chose a different seat, one that though it looked as comfortable as the one from the previous day, was located far from front door and with a panoramic scenic view of a plain wall with yellow wallpaper! With nothing to distract me, how could anything go wrong, right? Well, it turns out that I neglected to consider my cel phone as a possible source of distraction. Every time a new notification made my phone buzz, whether it was a new email or some other message from Twitter, like a Pavlovian reaction I'd close the book and spring for my device so not to miss on whatever it was that was happening 'out there.' One email or 'Tweet' led to another which then led to another... Needless to say I got close to no reading done and I was very frustrated for not being able to something as simple as concentrate on a book.

By my third attempt I was ready to completely unplug from the world and when I took the elevator to go down to the lobby, I turned off all notifications and with my bad to the front door I set out to read my first non-interrupted paragraph! Then, I moved on to the next and about 5 minutes into it my body started to fidget and I felt like something was missing... I felt a bit of anxiety and restlessness, a feeling like something was happening around the world and I. Just. Had. To. Know. About. It! My hand went into my pocket and I saw myself opening my email app... and that is when it hit me! I had become a slave of my own 'thirst' for information! I couldn't even go 5 minutes without checking my emails or social networks! That was quite an epiphany for me and an answer to my 'problem' became very clear to me: "TURN OFF THE CEL PHONE," I said to myself. Having accomplished that, I proceeded to spend the next 50 minutes fidgeting but stoically reading the first few pages of the book.

For the next couple of weeks I continued with my experiment and after the first couple of days the act of reading became easier for me. I also noticed something interesting: if, for whatever reason, I was not able to take my reading break, I'd feel a bit more stressed in the afternoon and even a bit cranky. Without my ritual of reading for at least 40 minutes every day, I felt physically tired and stressed out. After only a couple of weeks 'forcing' myself to read every day turned my new habit into my way to decompress and clear out my mind! Not only was I learning more about other authors and genres but the process itself was therapeutical? I was sold!

I have ever since those days become a voracious book reader and huge advocate of getting people to make room in their schedule so that they too can read more books. This is why Stephen King's message resonated so much with me, for I too believe that it doesn't matter if you 'read in 'sips' or long 'swallows', the most important thing is to always read!

Going back to the book and the rule of reading and writing every day, I definitely got the first part down pat! Now, on to starting to write a little bit every day for me :)

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