As the previous post
makes clear, I can go for depressingly long stretches of time without writing, but I’m unable to function if I’m not reading for fun, even sporadically. Which got me thinking about the trade-off of time spent writing and time spent reading, what the golden ratio is.
Stephen King*, who admits to being “a slow reader,” manages to read “seventy to eighty books a year,” which to me is an astounding number. I’ve been keeping track of my reading habits only since 2006, when my average reading speed increased to the point that I couldn’t feasibly remember a given year’s reading. So I started an inventory. My highest tally was 2007, when I had an office job, so an hour for lunch and a ninety-minute commute translated to a lot
of reading. But like King, I’m not an especially fast reader. I’m fairly picky about the books I read, and I savor my books, mostly. If I can work in somewhere between thirty and forty books, I’m happy with that.
Sticking with King as an example, he writes that his goal for every writing day—virtually every day—is two thousand words/ten pages. “On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime.”
King doesn’t command that his habits become someone else’s. And even if he did, his circumstances are not yours are not mine. Writing is his job
. No commute. No required overtime because it’s some particular business season. Not even an eight-hour day by the sound of it. Meaning he has a not-insignificant amount of time freed up compared with someone with a more traditional job and who makes routine choices about whether to read or write off the clock.
I look back at my own situation over the past few years, as both a reader and a writer. Books: In 2008, I just hit thirty books, my arbitrary minimum, and barely passed that the following year with thirty-three. Over the next four years I read forty books or more, with 2011 being an outlier at fifty-six. As for writing, my record year was 2009, my first at Stonecoast; I wrote ten stories. No other year even comes close. I wrote four in 2008 and 2011, three in 2007, two in 2010, and one each in 2012 and 2013—and 2014 if I can finish a draft.
What I expected the numbers to tell me was that as I read more books in a given year, I wrote less. And vice versa. That isn’t quite the case. My most productive writing year was only my second-lowest in number of books read. My second-highest year for reading was also my second-most productive writing year.
The numbers, of course, don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, my book totals represent sheer number of books, regardless of whether they’re children’s books or novellas or comics trade paperbacks I can breeze through in an afternoon. The number of books doesn’t reflect the actual quantity of words read. It also ignores all the other reading I do, especially as a teacher. I leave the books I’ve read for the PhD off because, if I’d had a choice, I wouldn’t have read them. For the MFA, the books I had to read counted toward the total because I’d wanted to read those anyway, which was awesome.
As for the writing, being enrolled in an MFA was a huge motivator. Besides being accountable to a mentor, having a deadline, and paying money for the whole experience, I got work done because, when it comes to school, I take it seriously to the near neglect of other responsibilities. When I’m just writing for me, it’s easy to prioritize other things over my fiction. So no wonder I wrote ten stories. But the numbers represent finished
drafts, however terrible. I’ve lost count of all the random snippets and opening pages I’ve written only to put aside, or stuff that informs a story without being an explicit part of it. And besides, this is all just quantity. Heaven knows how these stats matters in terms of quality.
It’s intriguing that the year I was neither teaching any classes nor enrolled in a post-grad program was one in which I read and wrote a good amount. I’m sure that’s not the sole reason, but it makes me ponder.
What are your daily/monthly/yearly goals as a reader and/or as a writer? What do you consider a good balance between them for you?*All quotes taken from On Writing. That’s all the citation you’re getting from me.