Quarantine Diary Day 139: A Week Without Words

I quit reading last week. I gave it all up, or tried to anyway, fiction and fact, print and online, social media and serious journalism. Let me back up.

About a month ago I started working my way through The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s guide to fostering creativity. The book is structured as a twelve-week course with readings and writing exercises and other tasks to do each week. Last week, one of the assignments was a total ban on reading. Cameron calls the exercise reading deprivation, if that sounds harsh it’s because it is. Cameron is clear that her intent is not to provide any loopholes, even going as far as to suggest that people procrastinate or otherwise worm their way out of required reading for work and school.

The idea behind the challenge is that we need white space, a break from the constant consumption of content, to allow our own creativity room to flourish. Reading deprivation is the first element of The Artist’s Way that I haven’t been enthusiastic about. I had just started reading The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and had less than two weeks left on my library loan; if I didn’t finish on time I was going to have to put my Kindle into airplane mode. I was tempted to skip the challenge altogether–I am a lawyer for God’s sake, I can’t not read–but decided to give it an honest effort, mainly because Cameron all but promised a big payoff:

If we monitor the inflow and keep it to a minimum, we will be rewarded for our reading with embarrassing speed. Our reward 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.

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

As a person who obsessively inhales information and readily (although embarrassedly) identifies as a “blocked creative” (or at least with the “blocked” part of that phrase), I knew I stood to benefit from dialing down the noise. I’ll admit that I didn’t comply with the letter or even the spirit of the assignment. At the outset, I decided I was still going to read to my daughter before bed every night and I was still going to read for work to the extent necessary to do my job. Even with those caveats, a lot of words fell right out of my life.

Here is list (incomplete because I’m probably forgetting something) of things I usually read on a daily basis that I gave up:

  • Poetry;
  • Morning news briefings from the New York Times;
  • My personal email (including informational emails from my kid’s school an day camp, the HOA, the church, social justice orgs, the running club, newsletters, and whatever other shit I forgot to unsubscribe from);
  • The paper newspaper (currently: The New York Times);
  • Tarot guidebooks;
  • Audiobooks that I listen to on my fake morning commute (currently: Daring Greatly and Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered);
  • Facebook posts;
  • Instagram posts;
  • Twitter;
  • Direct messages on FB, Instagram, and Twitter (lol no one DMs me on Twitter);
  • Articles people share on social media;
  • Articles my colleagues share at work;
  • Books I read over lunch (currently: the big antiracist guide);
  • Podcasts I listen to while running or on my fake evening commute;
  • Recipes;
  • Books I read to my daughter during or after dinner (currently: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire);
  • Books I read after I put my daughter to bed (currently: The Great Believers);
  • Books sitting on my nightstand that I keep starting and putting down because it is SAD (currently: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead); and
  • Self-help books I read before bed (currently: Boundaries and Protection by Pixie Lighthorse).

I missed each of these sources of information, entertainment, and distraction almost immediately. In their absence, I didn’t know what the fuck to do with my hands or eyes or mind, let alone all my newfound time! Cameron was right though. My imagination found ways to fill in the gaps. 

Here is list (incomplete because I’m probably forgetting something) of things I did last week instead of reading:

  • Moved pictures from four old phones to the cloud;
  • Found and looked at/watched old pics and videos of D from when she was a baby;
  • Cleaned out drawers;
  • Inexplicably listened to Whitney Houston;
  • Wrote;
  • Worked;
  • Walked;
  • Stared into space;
  • Talked to my husband;
  • Watched TV;
  • Looked at houses on Redfin (just the pictures!) (this was probably a cheat and I did it a lot);
  • Organized my Google Drive;
  • Called my sister;
  • Called my mom;
  • Played LEGO with D;
  • Organized a box of staples that had spilled everywhere;
  • Played ukulele;
  • Listened to music;
  • Ran
  • Called Dan;
  • Learned a new song on the guitar;
  • Pulled tarot cards;
  • Did writing exercises from The Artist’s Way;
  • Organized my nightstand;
  • Played Monopoly Deal with D;
  • Cooked food without a recipe;
  • Cleaned out the fridge;
  • Made chalk art on the sidewalk with D;
  • Sat outside with my neighbors;
  • Went on a date with my husband;
  • Meditated;
  • Looked at pictures of art online;
  • Laid out in the sun listening to music; and
  • Braided grass into wreaths and left them at the base of a tree.

My efforts to stick to even my modified version of the reading deprivation challenge were imperfect. I slipped. I read comments on this blog. I read the email from my daughter’s school district announcing the plan for returning to school in the fall. I checked Instagram and Facebook more times than I care to admit and and when I saw a loose FB acquaintance reference reporting on “off-world vehicles not made on this earth” I did some frantic Googling and binge-read this whole article alluding to the existence of U.F.O.s once to myself and then again out loud to my husband before I realized what I was doing. I texted.

Not reading was only inconvenient a handful of times. I hated seeing the newspaper go untouched day after day so that it was still perfectly folded in a neat little pile at the end of the week; it made me feel unproductive, wasteful, and out of touch. I worried I would miss some critical information about my daughter’s school by not reading the 22 page packet that accompanied the email from the district. Someone from the church dropped off two neon vinyl strips with velcro on the ends and said they were for (virtual) vacation bible school activity that week and neither of us had any idea what they were for since my daughter wasn’t actually going to vacation bible school and I wasn’t checking the daily emails.

In the end, I didn’t miss anything. A fresh paper came the next week and all the news was the same. My husband read the packet from the school. And on the last day of the reading deprivation challenge I drove by the church and saw a series of brightly loops making a chain across the gate in front of the courtyard with messages from the kids in my daughter’s sunday school class. Ah. So that’s what the strips were for.

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