Again, for the people still doubting themselves: you’re still a writer even if you’re not writing.
This is one of those phrases that I think I need to print out and plaster all over the wall behind my desk. That wall is meant to inspire me. It’s basically just a physical Pinterest board, different photos printed out that make me think of a few of the novels I’m currently writing, interspersed with a few pictures of real life. That wall is also where all of my tea sits, so I’ve got easy access to my favorite writing drink. If I look to the left, there’s usually a cat on the tower or on the windowsill. If I look around, there are books all around me. My room is a sanctuary for writing.
And yet, and yet, sometimes I find myself thinking that, since I’m not currently writing a book, can I really call myself a writer?
Oi. You’ve probably at least once asked yourself this question, even if not quite so directly. Maybe it’s just this subconscious nagging feeling that you should be doing something more productive with your time, that you should be working on that novel, that you should put down the book or the TV show because it’s not directly progressing your writing.
I read this really amazing article the other day that talked about how, as writers, sometimes we tend to tell ourselves that we don’t have time to read (and watch TV, but that’s my addition) because we need to spend that time writing. The thing is, though, that we started writing because we loved reading. And yet, now we’re not reading?
If you haven’t fallen into this trap, I applaud you. I did it to myself for a long time. Granted, I didn’t read a lot for pleasure during my school years because I was reading for school, but when I had wide open weekends or free time during the week, instead of reading or watching TV, I would write. Most of the time, this meant I was on Tumblr, bored out of my mind, occasionally clicking into a blank document. Sometimes, though, this did mean I was actually writing. During college, I wrote a lot of fanfiction. I’m not even going to attempt to give you stats because it’s rather obnoxious. I worked on Ronan, too, during college, but it was mostly fanfiction.
But reading–well, that was another story. When I would pack for school, I usually packed a few Maggie books, though I’d already read them, a few other favorites, just in case I needed them, and not really anything new. This was a problem, obviously, as I didn’t really want to read any of these, I just wanted them around. Thus, the only time I really read in college (again, for pleasure) was when a new Maggie book came out, or if I was rereading something, which really wasn’t that often, or if it was fanfiction.
Mostly, this was because I thought that if I wasn’t working on Ronan or fanfiction, then that meant that I wasn’t really a writer. Which is crazy, I know, but it’s a real thing that writers experience. We think that reading books and watching shows are a waste of our time. And sure, some people might agree that sitting on your butt to binge watch Netflix isn’t productive, but I am adamant in the belief that sometimes, that can be inspiring. Just as I draw inspiration from the books I read, I draw inspiration from the shows that I watch.
But back to books. Because when I was in the fifth grade, the new Harry Potter book was coming out, and I was out of mind excited. I went to the midnight release with my dad at Barnes & Noble, and I found a few other books to buy while I was there. I sat beneath one of the tables and read while I was in line, and then, when we finally got home, my dad had to lock up the new book so that I wouldn’t read through the night. I spent the next few days doing nothing but reading, reading, reading.
Where did that person go? Why did I stop reading? Why did my brain decide that reading did not equal writing?
YOU’RE STILL A WRITER EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT WRITING, especially if what you’re doing is reading.
Reading = Writing
A frustrated writer who just wants to read some damn books
So, rewind to college. In my senior year, I was kind of starting to get back into books. Maggie was in the middle of writing The Raven Cycle, and it was making me want to read other books like it. I didn’t really have a lot of time to read for pleasure in my last year of college, though, since I was taking a few workshop style classes, the dreaded American literature that I’d been avoiding for three years, and interning at Alice James Books. I had a lot going on in that last year, but I kept saying how excited I was to finally start reading books for pleasure once I graduated.
And then, I graduated, and that didn’t happen. I got promoted at my then-job, took on the life of a 40 hour manager, and found myself just wanting to crash in between shifts. I would watch shows, I would write fanfiction, and maybe I’d get ten or fifteen minutes on my lunch to read when I wasn’t scrolling through Instagram or doing something else on my phone. My brain was still convinced that, by reading, that I meant I wasn’t writing. (Don’t ask me why my brain thought it was okay to watch TV, I have no idea, but I suspect because I wasn’t watching anything that would inspire Ronan and watching TV kind of felt like scrolling Tumblr at that point.)
Obviously, something changed.
In December, 2016, I went up to Maine to visit Erin, and we went to a bookstore. For a long time, I’d had this stupid (and clearly not working) rule that I wasn’t allowed to buy any new books until I finished the 100 unread on my shelves. Hm. Well. That was dumb. I still have about 100 unread books on my shelves, but I’m also reading nearly 100 books a year now? So, I think I’m doing pretty good. But, we went into this bookstore, and I said, “That’s it. I’m done. Let’s go to the YA section. I’m going to buy some books, and I’m going to start reading again.” It was also around this time that I had finally decided to let go of Ronan, and I’d just finished wrapping up writing on Mason. But it was, truly, a very conscious decision. I’d had enough. I wanted to be a reader again. I wanted to read books that were going to inspire me to write. I wanted to read other books that had faeries in them. I wanted to read books with boys in love. I want to read books with romance, adventure, fantasy, crazy, wild things. I wanted to read it all.
Before this, I had been reading a little more. In an effort to read more, I’d started a two-person book club with Jack, but we were mostly reading myth anthologies, poetry, or adult novels. This was good because it was making me read more, but it was also not what I needed. Ronan was always an adult high fantasy, but Mason was not. And every idea that was starting to bubble up was also not. I needed to read, yes, but specifically, I needed to read YA.
A short while after that fateful visit with Erin, Christmas came, and the world started to open up. I started to adjust the way that I looked at writing. Before, the in-between time between novels was a scary place that I didn’t want to linger in. After finishing a draft of Ronan, I’d immediately either jump into editing it or start writing the next book. I didn’t give myself time to breathe. Even with Mason, as soon as I finished the first draft, I started editing it. After I finished editing it, I started writing Miriam’s novel, which is no longer a thing. But I kept writing. I thought that I couldn’t stop. I had to keep going, going, going. Wrong, brain, wrong. Take a break. Stop writing. Breathe. Read a damn book.
So, 2017 arrives, and I’ve got two giant book stacks to read. I was wary that I would suddenly revert back to normal, shelve all 22 books and never read them. This was my MO, typically, but I’m happy to say that of these 22, I’ve read 17. The ones I haven’t read are either anthologies that I plan on taking my time with or research books that I just haven’t been in the space to read. But all of the fiction and YA have been read, and it feels really good.
Shortly into this beautiful new world where reading = writing, I just kind of went crazy. I started buying books every couple of months, started flooding my bookshelves with new books and my brain with new words and worlds. I was reading like crazy, but also writing like crazy. The ideas were out of control. It was like, by giving up Ronan, losing Jack, and reading more, I was ready to do anything. I came up with the Pen boys on a four-hour drive to New York, finished figuring out the idea on a beach in Gloucester, and started writing a few days later. I made this blog public, and put together a list of the ideas that I had, which were way more than I originally thought. There were so many different stories that I wanted to tell. Short stories that I’d quickly flung together were suddenly unraveling into novel-length ideas. Saints was born overnight, and after a week of plotting, I started writing, and was done in under two months. What was happening to me? I’d always thought that when I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t a writer. I’d always thought that spending time on a book meant I was wasting time that I could be writing. Oh my gosh! How wrong I was! These books. These wonderful, beautiful, amazing books. Because of them, I was writing again. “Hello, world! I’m back!” I wanted to shout. And that’s really what it felt like.
I could just keep pasting pictures of my book stacks in here from over the last year forever. Every time I visited Erin, we went to at least one bookstore. During our August vacation, when we both hung out in Massachusetts and Maine, we went to two, and hell, I just bought stacks in both because WHY NOT? Why deprive myself of the thing that was helping me write again? Because if we’re really being honest here, I wasn’t writing before. Sure, I was releasing fanfiction like it was going out of style, and I was working relentlessly on Ronan, but I wasn’t writing. I was just plodding along, working on the same story over and over again, though it was making me crazy. And hell, when I look back on that time now, it hurts. Ronan was terrible. It still is. I don’t know if we’ll ever get along. But I do know that when I finally made the decision to be a reader again, the words just fell over themselves trying to get to my fingers. I was alive. I was feeling definitely a lot crazy, but in a good way.
Now, this is great, but I’m going to circle back around to the point of this blog. You’re still a writer even if you’re not writing. I’m not writing right now. And that’s okay. I’m currently editing Saints, and I’m reading this really fantastic biography about Mike Collins, one of the first men to go to the moon. He piloted the first mission, so didn’t walk on it with Neil and Buzz, but he was still one of the first three. He’s hilarious in a really dry kind of way, and I’m absolutely loving it. After this, I’ve got plans for a few more unread YAs, as well as rereading The Mortal Instruments series slowly, but surely.
Quick aside: Rereading is okay, too. That took me a long time to understand. Even when I started reading again, I kept telling myself I had to read new things. I had just finished rereading Harry Potter, and told myself I needed to focus on all these new books I had. But really, truly, it’s okay to reread. Sometimes it’s nice to go back to our favorite stories to remember why we love reading in the first place.
While I was in the middle of this influx of words and worlds, I was missing Maggie big time, so I picked up The Raven Cycle again, read the whole thing, breathed a sigh of relief, and went back to my unread books. It feels really amazing to just dive back into a familiar world sometimes, to remind our brains why this process of reading feels so damn good, so it’s okay to reread! Don’t reread all the time, but definitely reread when you want to. I’ve been wanting to reread TMI for a few months now, and finally digging back into City of Bones just felt wonderful.
And though I keep repeating this to myself, that I’m still a writer even if I’m not writing, I caught myself the other day thinking it. I was editing like crazy, flying through chapters of Saints, telling myself that I had to get to the end of it so that I could start writing the next one. I’ve been in limbo again, in that scary in-between place, trying to figure out what I wanted to write next. I spent a couple weeks like this, trying to decide which way I was swaying and getting frustrated with myself every time I kept moving in different directions. Why can’t I just settle on one idea? Why is it Mason one weekend, the Pen boys summer novella a few days later, and then Saints overnight? Why can’t I just pick one and hang out with it?
Oh boy. Calm it the heck down, Mary. It’s okay to sway. It’s okay to be unsure. It’s okay to not be writing because you’re still a writer even if you’re not. Go read a book.
So, I did. I read three, actually, because I’m insane. Does anyone else have this problem? I started rereading City of Bones, but I’d just got this new gypsy magic book in the mail, and I really wanted to read it before I got too far into editing Saints in case I wanted to use it, but I had also started Mike Collins’ bio way before I started COB since I was feeling the astronaut jam, and suddenly, I was reading three books at once? How does this happen? I don’t know. Sometimes, when I read nonfiction, I feel like I need to have some fantasy on the side just in case it gets boring. It never does with astronauts, but here we are. But when I was starting to get that oh crap, I’m not writing, so I must not be a writer vibe, I picked up three (good grief) books, and plunged back into inspiration.
Because that’s what not writing is! It’s building inspiration. If not writing looks like floating around on Pinterest, A+. If not writing looks like rewatching the entirety of Peaky Blinders because heck, there’s a lot more Saints inspiration in there than I realized, A+. But please, for the love of yourself, read a book. Let your inspiration be words as well as other things. Give yourself the gift of escape. And if your brain is still being an asshat, find a book that’s going to inspire your world.
When I thought maybe I might dive back into Mason, I read Tithe by Holly Black because it had faeries in it. Though I did want to reread TMI for awhile, I actually finally started rereading it because of Saints. Don’t ask me why it inspires me to write Saints because I really can’t figure it out, but I wanted to play with those characters again, so I read City of Bones. When I just wasn’t sure, but knew that maybe magic was going to play into my next writing adventure, I read a bunch of YA that had some kind of magic system in it, or at least played with the idea of magic. (Outside of books, I finally watched Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children because I wanted magic, and I promise I’m going to read the books eventually because YES THAT WAS GOOD.)
In conclusion, stop listening to your brain. It’s dumb. You’re not being unproductive by reading a book or watching TV or going for a walk or getting lunch with a friend or just not doing anything. Actually, you’re being the opposite of unproductive. You’re experiencing the world. You’re collecting ideas for your next writing adventure. That interesting conversation you just overheard? Steal some of it. That crazy twist in the book you just read? Do something like that in your own. That delicious dish you ate at that restaurant? Give yourself a foodie for a character because they’re hella fun, and then you get to write about the food you eat. (Hi, Miles, I love you, and thank you for the hot dogs.)
You’re still a writer even if you’re not writing.
Repeat that, over and over and over again.
Write it down on a slip of paper and paste it on your wall, close to where you usually write so that you can look up and see it when you need to. Stop staring at a blank Word document. It’s not worth the headache. Stop forcing yourself to write. It’s not worth the heartache of looking back at your words and finding that you hate them. Go read a book. Please. And if you need permission, here it is. Pick up that book you keep glancing at, and dig into it. Do it. You owe it to yourself. And if you catch yourself thinking well, this isn’t writing while you’re in the middle of reading, KEEP READING. Even if it’s only for five minutes a day. Read the book.
You got this.
I believe in you.
You’re still a writer even if you’re not writing.
PS: I tried to get all of my book stacks from the last year in here, and I did it! Huzzah! Last night, Jen and I were talking about money (ew), but she asked me how much a book generally costs me, and then asked if I wanted to know approximately how much I’d spent on books in the last year, AND NO THANKS. OH MY GOD, DON’T TELL ME. I know it’s a couple hundred dollars, and I just don’t care. It’s my therapy. It makes me so happy. And today, when I find myself rushing through Saints again, I’m going to put it down and keep reading this Mike Collins bio. Life goes on. You don’t need to be writing every second of it.