When I was young, when I wasn’t reading (or rather, absorbing books in great gulps), I spent a huge proportion of my time telling myself stories. Stories about prisoners with wings, about women Marines fighting in gruesome battles, about romantic and sexual love of every flavor. I could make my heart pound. I could make myself cry. I could work myself into a state of paranoid rage. It was fun.*
I replayed scenes and rewrote them obsessively. My teachers and my family were often startled at how I could miss clear instructions so often, since I seemed attentive and alert. I was attentive, but not to the outer world. It was a method of coping, or rather of not coping. For all its downsides, it was rich and rewarding.
Growing up and learning how to function was very bad for the daydreaming process. It’s a trade-off. Functioning is a wonderful thing; it pays the bills, it’s often entertaining, and it gives you a ticket to participate. But you lose the languid, wild, immersive world of the daydream.
As a result of being more functional, I continued to write stories and to read, but gradually over the course of years, both my inner and my outer life interfered with my stories. I became absorbed in my creative, funny, demanding job. The increased volume of information from television and the Internet took over the role of tale-telling for me. And on the inside, I just didn’t have time for my stories any more. I doggedly kept writing, but I had lost the ability to enter the maze un-selfconsciously and wander the paths without thinking about what was outside the green walls.
I am working on putting story back inside my life. On letting story drive my brain again. I don’t have a problem with the writing part. It’s the reading part that is lost, and the joy of story. Here’s how I’m doing it.
Put reading first. Make it important.
I plan (1) free reading time (2) Internet reading time (3) listening time.
The first is harder than it sounds. Habits are hard to unlearn, and not only have I developed the habit of scanning a screen when I’m moved to read, I have also developed the habit of acquiring more books than I can actually read.
I won’t go into why screen time is less productive. We all know about that. But you would think having lots of books would help my reading. It doesn’t. They’re all lurking there in potentia, but I have gotten out of the habit of really digging into books as a result of having too many around. And I rarely re-read, which was a habit I now realize made up a good third of my reading time when I was young.
So I’m scheduling it. One book at a time. Baby steps. Right now, I have half an hour of reading scheduled today, and am aiming at more.
Also, I put all the unread physical books I have acquired on a bookshelf, I made a list, and I am working my way through the list. I just finished getting through two science fiction magazine issues (there were four or five stories that were worth re-reading) and am doggedly re-reading a YA book I don’t like but will finish soon.† And if I come across a wonderful new book I just have to have, I put it on my Goodreads TBR list.‡
As for planning Internet reading, the idea is to do my screen reading with my notebook handy.§ When something strikes me, I stop and write down a note.
A classmate in an online class told me in passing that one of his instructors told him to do “Wikipedia writes.” That is, call up random articles on Wikipedia and use them as story starters. It’s a way of letting research drive story. Today, for instance, I found two story ideas: One is about how a pregnant woman uses protective coloring|| to protect her against the pregnancy police, and the other is about a world in which the only immigrants allowed into countries are foreign professional athletes on teams owned by oligarchs.** Yesterday I outlined a story which is a series of emails to parents from an increasingly panicked school principal who must usher children through a life-and-death test.
I am deliberately making those random connections that used to set me off into story land.
Listening time? That’s what I do in the car.†† I listen to audiobooks (the last two have been Fifth Season by M.K. Jemisin and Tenth of December by George Saunders) and podcasts on long drives. And as I drive, having my hands on the wheel and much of my attention on the road, the back part of my distracted brain starts assembling ideas. Sunday, the combination of a 99% Invisible episode about a housing project and some behind-the-scenes rumination resulted in a poem about consuming the past and a story starter about urban renewal on a planetary scale.
I’m starting to enjoy reading more as a result of making it a habit. And I’m starting to have more stories simmering in the back of my mind.
* Nothing like a good paranoid fantasy to get your blood flowing. I have news for you, getting outraged is really enjoyable. That’s part of why comments sections are such a pool of effluvium.
† I believe in tossing books that you don’t like without finishing them, but I also believe in giving a book a chance; because it’s YA I’ll finish it soon even though I don’t like it. But I’ll probably toss the sequel in the trash. Yes, I said it. In the trash. I do throw books out.
‡ Or else I buy them anyway. I bought Lincoln in the Bardo when it was released. I bought a few books when I got Bookbub or Goodreads notifications that they were on sale for $1.99. Oh, god, help me stop.
§ Notebooks. I have a tiny little bullet journal that is always with me. I have a slightly larger journal where I stick story ideas. I have an even bigger journal where I write every day. Also, I use Evernote compulsively. In the car, I tell Siri to take a note and transcribe it from my Notes app later on. DO NOT TRUST YOUR MEMORY. It is fugitive, easily wiped, and nothing like the photographic vault you think it is in spite of all evidence to the contrary. My students never believed me when I told them that, and I really enjoyed playing “gotcha” when they trusted their memory and it betrayed them.
|| Tarachodes maurus, a praying mantis, has aposematic coloring on the front and camouflage on the back. Thus, when it is prone, you can’t see it, but when it rears up it’s scary-looking. Aposematism is from the Greek “away” and “sign” and usually mimics a nasty animal that is poisonous or can hurt you. Skunks and honey badgers have reverse counter-shading (light on the back and dark on the front) to alert foolish predators not to attack. Some species seem to be reverse counter-shaded, but it’s because they live with their bellies up and their backs down, like the Nile Catfish. You’re welcome.
** I recently read that a Japanese-American baseball player who is fourth generation and doesn’t speak Japanese is learning the language in order to communicate with a Japanese pitcher who has been acquired by his team. A South Korean plays for an Indonesian football club. A German plays for a British club. An Argentinian plays for a Bolivian club. Meanwhile, Paul Allen owns both the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers.
†† I also listen to meditations on an iPhone app, but that’s different. That’s not reading. That’s reminding me to stop thinking about politics when I’m trying to go to sleep.