Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Fifth of November: Celebrating The Fallow Year

"Read. Read constantly. Read the kind of stuff you wish you could write. Read until your brain creaks. Tolkien said that his ideas sprang up from the leaf mold of his mind: your readings are the trees where your fallen leave would come from."

"The first thing is that writers should be voracious readers. We live in a narcissistic age, which means that many want to have the praise that comes from having read, without the antecedent labor of actually reading. Wanting to write without reading is like wanting to grind flour without gathering wheat, like wanting to make boards without logging, and like wanting to have a Mississippi Delta without any tributaries somewhere in Minnesota. Output requires intake, and literary output requires literary intake."

"Read like a reader and not like someone cramming for a test. If you try to wring every book out like it was a washcloth full of information (and nothing but information), all you will do is slow yourself down to a useless pace. Go for total tonnage, and read like someone who will forget most of it...Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading you will not be able to remember. The most formative years of my life were the first five, and if those years were to be evaluated on the basis of my ability to pass a test on them, the conclusion would be that nothing important happened then, which would be false. The fact that you can't remember things doesn't mean that you haven't been shaped by them."

All of these very, very excellent quotes come from a slim little volume by Douglas Wilson titled Wordsmithy. I was given this book in the coffee shop I'm sitting in now. It was a gift from a friend who, I hope, didn't feel like giving it to me because she could sense my drought. I must confess the year 2014 was a year of output. Massive output. I published two novels and a novella, started a new job, and worked my precious little butt off. The understandable assumption was that the year 2015 would be the same. It was not, however. 2015 has been a year of immense personal schedules. The girls I mainly nannied in 2014 I am now schooling, which adds a dimension and a half. I now plan their lessons, teach them, and have had the huge privilege of seeing them go from their alphabet to real books, explaining our ridiculous English language, and showing them the world, such as it is. This year I have also rediscovered my love of reading.I'm sorry to say that I forgot about it for a little while. Not about my love of stories - that never faded. But of how easy and delicious it is to lose oneself in a book. To nose so deeply into the pages and words and characters that one forgets present constraints. Is it summer? Is it autumn? Does it rain outside or are we having dry weather?
I forgot about this love because I consciously kept myself in. I am a book drunkard. I give myself up entirely to the story and if I lose myself early in the day, I am lost until whatsoever time the book has coughed me up ashore like a word-soaked Jonah. Knowing this about myself, I was careful not to get too entangled in a book. I only read if I deemed I had time to read. And, predictably, my word output shriveled. If I had no time to read, I certainly had no time to write and here was the vicious cycle. Friends, however, gave me books for my birthday. I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and bought a couple more. Pretty soon I had a stack of unread books waiting on my shelf. Waiting for that day when I had "time to read." The temptation was, quite simply, too much. Since summer began, I have given into my passion and picked up Wodehouse's Summer Lightning. I don't have hours upon hours to read - I am a busy working woman. Still, I elbowed other things to make time. From Summer Lightning, it was a short step to swallowing Schindler's List piecemeal between bouts of more Wodehouse. Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman grabbed me and shook me by the throat as I soared through it in two or three days, and Wordsmithy dribbled through my fingers as well. Cocktail Time rounded to a close and Blandings Castle was waiting, all uncracked-spine and crisp pages. And do you know what? I found a piece of myself that had gone into hibernation. Ever so slowly, I'm coaxing her back out. I do have time to read. I can choose to put aside my phone, to postpone that drawing commission, or to go to bed a little early and pick up a book before sleep. I can choose to spend my evening reading rather than watching White Collar or The West Wing, as painful as that choice is.

Reading opens massive, massive worlds. How could I ever have let it go? Since picking my books back up, I have found that my mind is brighter. I am not at a loss for things on which to think. Words spring readily to mind. I've almost finished the first draft of my story for the Five Magic Spindles contest with the overflow. But you know what? The paradigm shift was as subtle as it was important: I did not read to turn the words like so much straw into WIP gold. I read for reading's sake; for the sake of losing myself in another world for what might be half an hour, or a full afternoon. I found the joy again of diving so deep that when I emerged, I had to shake myself a bit and look about and remember where and whom I was.

Farmers rotate crops so that a given piece of ground is not stripped of a particular nutrient; different crops suck different things from the soil. And though the farmers, by rotating the variety of crops grown on that piece of ground, can keep the soil fairly healthy and thriving, fallow years are necessary. A year of rest for the soil. A year of building up again the depleted stocks, of fertilizing the ground and waiting. A year where nothing will grow that is lucrative, but wild-flowers and grasses will knit its wounded, harrowed soul back together, leaving that field fresh-faced and ready for the following spring. 2014 was my insanely productive year. 2015 has been my fallow year. But a fallow year is necessary, and I will not apologize for (unofficially) taking it. I will only turn back to my books with a fond smile, write as I can, and thank God for the great, great joy it is to be literate and to know the thrill of traveling lands afar through the wilds of an unread book. I feel myself healing. Oh, rest is a beautiful, needful thing.

It has been a year today since my last release of 2014.  A warm happy birthday to my dear first mystery: Anon, Sir, Anon! If any of you feel like burying yourself deep for a cozy, British afternoon, head thataway to say hello. Supporting independent authors is a wonderful way to explore deeper waters in the joy of reading. Buy a copy for yourself, for a friend, or to show a lonely little mystery that though the promise of a sister-mystery has been delayed, it has not been forgotten.

All My Love,


Skye Hoffert said...

Great post, I have been putting off reading myself lately, and I have to remind myself that it was my first love before writing, before t.v.
Thanks for reminding me.

Anonymous said...

Oh Rachel, I adored this - it reminds me to read and *enjoy* it. I'm glad that you've had this year to enrich yourself, and I'm sure I'll see Anon's sister one day (and am always happy to run a English eye over it, whenever that day is ;) ).

I have nothing further to add, save only to thank you for penning this post.

Rachel Heffington said...

Thanks, girls! Your constant support and enthusiasm is such excellent fuel for my writer's soul! <3

Suzannah said...

Yay! I'm so happy for you getting to drink at the well of stories, Rachel, and I've always found that my writing tends to improve even when I'm not writing! So I'm so looking forward to reading another Vivi & Farnham when you get back from your holiday, to say nothing of the Five Spindles entry :).