I first heard about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992) in a writers’ workshop a few years ago. It sounded intriguing, so I bought it. It sat on my bookshelf unopened for another year or so. Then I read it, but parts of it scared me, and I wasn’t ready to commit wholeheartedly to the 12-week program. Instead, I took bits and pieces of it that I was ready to try, such as the Morning Pages. (If you haven’t tried this specialized kind of journaling, it’s an amazing head-clearing tool and I highly recommend it!)
About a month ago I decided to commit to the whole program. The main reason I didn’t commit to it earlier is because some of the tasks seemed silly and unproductive. But as Cameron suggests, what you most resist is often what you most need. Last week’s task was the craziest and most terrifying of all: stop reading for seven days.
This is Cameron’s rationale for the week of reading deprivation:
For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers. We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our systems. Too much of it and we feel, yes, fried. It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions we are actually filling the well.
Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some of us begin to immediately fill with new words—long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion. We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration, above the static.
Our reward [for reading deprivation] will be a new outflow. Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings, will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely.
Although I’d read The Artist’s Way before, I had forgotten about the reading deprivation, and I reacted the same way Cameron says her students commonly do, with shock and anger. My reactions followed the typical five stages of grief (with apologies to people who are grieving the loss of more important things and people):
- Denial: You want me to do what? Not read? Reading is my life! You don’t really mean that. I’ll pretend I didn’t see that.
- Anger: Who do you think you are, telling me not to read? I have to read for work. If I don’t read I’ll lose my mind/job/friends/Twitter followers. Only a moron would tell me not to read.
- Bargaining: Ok, I won’t read novels, but I will read online articles. Surely that’s acceptable. Nobody avoids online reading. They do? Ok, I won’t read articles but I’ll still read my e-mail. I have to read e-mail, right? No? Fine. I’ll just read work e-mails.
- Depression: I’m not reading. All I want to do is read. How will I survive this week without reading? Nothing matters. I want to die.
- Acceptance: I never actually reached this stage because I cheated (more on that below). I did manage to avoid reading novels, though, which was a feat in itself.
The first day of reading deprivation was the hardest. It was January 1, a holiday. No stores or businesses were open, so I couldn’t mask the horror of reading deprivation by doing errands or going shopping. I was also expecting a shipment of new books that I’d planned to start reading that week, so the timing was particularly bad.
As the week went on, I began to cheat, first in little ways, then big ones. Working out at the gym without listening to an audio book was so horrible that I’ll never repeat that experience again. Then I found myself “needing” to Google certain things. I began to check Twitter “just for five minutes” to see if anyone was saying anything interesting. I felt the need to re-read parts of my writing craft books.
Then the new books I’d ordered started to arrive. I left them in their original packaging for a couple of days because I knew if I opened them, the temptation to read would be too great. Then I opened them (this was day 4) and petted the covers. By day 5 I was sneaking a peek inside and reading prologues and first chapters. (Yes, Tara Sim, I’m talking about YOUR new book!)
Here’s what I learned from my attempt at reading deprivation: that good things can get in the way of better things. That when I actually do deprive myself of all reading, including the internet, I have time to sit and stare out the window or have long, interesting conversations with my husband. I can also see that reading even the most soul-nourishing books can fill up up my head and prevent my own words from flowing. It can also help me avoid difficult people or problems that I don’t want to think about.
Reading deprivation is a kind of silence. I’ve never thought about myself as someone who’s afraid of silence. In fact, I’ve been made fun of for my love of silence. My husband sometimes grumbles that our house is like a tomb because he likes to have background music on while he works, but I usually ask him to use headphones so I don’t have to hear it. I love music and am a musician myself, but if I’m listening to music, I focus on that and don’t do anything else.
Although I’m used to silence in the literal sense (aside from cats purring, the best sound in the world!), I’m not used to silence in my brain, an absence of mental noise. And as much as I love reading, I’ve started to understand what Cameron means by the sort of mental noise reading can create.
I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions anymore, at least not ones like “lose weight” or “get more exercise,” but I do sometimes have a theme word or phrase for the year. 2017 will be the year in which I cultivate more mental silence. That includes another stab at reading deprivation when I’m feeling braver and more prepared. But right now I’m going to enjoy the new books that are waiting for me!