Having never been a Writer in Residence before, I was extremely excited about the idea of getting an enormous amount of work done before having to head back to inconvenient ‘real life’. Write one book? The library is open from 9am to 10pm every day, after all - the problem will be writing too many books, if anything!
Looking back, my expectations may have been…overoptimistic. But I’ve discovered something else much more valuable.
I’m two weeks now into my stay at Gladstone’s Library, and while I have been doing plenty of writing, I’ve also learned a memorable lesson that sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is not actually writing. By which I mean: time reading is not time wasted, even when it’s for fun.
Since getting here I’ve read more books than I have in ages. I’ve read before bed, in the afternoons, first thing upon waking. And while at first I felt guilty for reading when there were words to be written, I quickly remembered that reading is the best way to revive your tired brain - the quickest way to remind yourself of the sheer joy of reading, and of how to tell good stories with craft and compassion.
There’s no better place to read but here, either. In the Reading Rooms it’s an everyday occurrence to see a book on a subject you’ve barely heard about before, but which suddenly seems incredibly enticing, and so I’ve been letting my instincts guide me. When I’m working at home it’s all too easy to reach for my phone when I’m taking a break; here I grab a book instead. I’ve skimmed books on the historical treatment of mental illness, interviews with spiritual visionaries, studies of the history of witch-hunting, a book about the lives of female martyrs. Books on ethics, feminism, folklore and more. All books which have been fascinating, and which I know will feed into my future ideas, turning up in a short story or a novel down the line.
Apart from the incredible selection in the library, I’ve also read so many more books for fun than I usually have the opportunity to. I’ve read a mind-spinning novel about time travel, metaphysics and love (The Heavens by Sandra Newman), a spooky old classic (The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson) and a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages (How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti), among others. In my day-to-day life I read as much as possible - it’s a vital part of being a writer - but it still ends up being crammed into odd moments. Here I’ve luxuriated in being able to finish a book in a day or two if it grips me, settling down by the fire in the evenings and letting myself sink blissfully into the story.
The result? Making time to do this has actually meant that my writing has improved, even as it’s taken me away from the laptop. I’ve been riveted, interested, and had some real breakthroughs that I wasn’t even expecting. I’ve scribbled notes and felt overly enthusiastic to get back to my manuscript, I’ve been having fun, and I feel more rested than I have in months.
Perhaps the most important aspect of making time to read is that it reconnects us with the reasons we started writing in the first place. I know that as a child my favourite place was in a chair too big for me, reading a stack of books for hours and hours, and that this kindled my joy in writing. It’s easy to forget the elemental pleasure and awe of it, that feeling of stepping into another world, when you’re an adult with a slightly more jaded outlook.
Holding myself to a 12/13 hour a day writing schedule risks making it into a chore, the word count just another thing to be ticked off the list. But allowing myself the space and time to rest, to be excited by the words of others, and to remember why I write at all - especially at a time of change in my writing career, as I move from debut author to my sophomore effort - has been more valuable than any 10,000 words bashed out in a panic over the course of 12 stressed hours.
By Sophie Mackintosh, February 2019 Writer in Residence