The first and most important step for any writer is to consume stories. Most of the time, people who go on to write are people who have grown up as voracious readers, who obsessed over the films that inspired and excited them and who felt the need to replicate the things they loved about those stories.
For me, wanting to be a writer stemmed from being so head over heels in love with the stories I grew up with but knowing on some level that no matter how much I adored them they would never really be mine – they would always be the invention of the author. In the end, the only solution to that was to come up with stories completely my own that I could love just as much. This led to a balancing act; from my teenage years into adulthood, I would absorb TV shows, movies and books, become completely obsessed, and fold the themes, ideas and aspects that I loved into my own work, an act of cherry picking that, when combined with life experiences, led to the development of a unique voice.
The theory, this symbiotic relationship between the stories we tell and the stories we consume should continue forever. Watching a great TV show or being inspired by a brilliant book can be similar to putting fuel in the tank of a car; the healthy creative is one who learns from the genius of others rather than being jealous of it. And as we move from aspiring to professional it’s important that we keep a finger on the cultural pulse for more reasons than one. We need to know what types of stories are being told, we need to know what makes them good and, on a personal level, we need to keep alive that love for stories that first made us put pen to paper.
If only it was that easy.
Recently I saw an article called ‘I have forgotten how to read’. I actually couldn’t finish it because it was so depressingly familiar; the author was talking about the fact that, whereas ten years ago they would be inclined to read a book before bed, now they just look at stuff on their phone. And now, when they do read, it takes a lot to maintain attention. In the past sticking with an initially slow book was par for the course. Now, it’s impossible.
I hated reading that article because I’ve felt the same way for so long. Half the reason I was so glad to commit to the fourteen book monstrosity of The Wheel of Time was because it meant that I always had something to read that I was invested in. The series was so long that I could keep going with it in the background, while occasionally reading other stuff if I needed a break. Over the course of the year it took me to finish those books, I read more than I have probably since high school.
The thing is, we live in a time when there is just so much content. Every week there is a new must-see Netflix show, another blockbuster movie, a new novel that all the highbrow literary websites tell us is required reading. And faced with all of these essential works, isn’t it so much easier to just… not? If I’ve finished a long day of work, if I’m tired and want to turn my brain off, I am so much more inclined to chuck on old episodes of Scrubs or Community than start that new show everyone is insisting is incredible. Recently, in response to me tweeting something about watching The Prince of Egypt for about the millionth time, somebody replied with the comment that I seem to just watch the same things over and over rather than any of the brilliant films people recommend me on a daily basis. That stuck with me because of how true it is.
It makes me wonder; what the hell happened to me? When I was a teenager, you could barely get my nose out of a book at any given minute. I watched movies almost nightly. I would start any TV show somebody told me was good. Same in my early years at uni. There was a time, not that long ago, where almost every night of the week I had new episodes of at least one great show I was following. The best nights were the ones where I had two or three. And when you’re a writer and you’re consuming that much good stuff on a regular basis, it’s hard not to exist in a state of almost perpetual inspiration.
A few factors contributed to the change. My TV habits fell off sharply after Dexter. Before that show I stuck with everything, even if it was only just north of mediocre. Before Dexter, if I was committed to a show I was committed. But after putting up with eight seasons of sharply decreasing quality that insulted anybody with even the slightest investment in the character, it was hard to feel anything other than betrayed. After Dexter I started dropping anything that didn’t hold my interest for more than a couple of weeks. Even shows I’d been really enjoying. The Americans, Ash Vs Evil Dead, Orange Is The New Black, House of Cards, The Exorcist – the list goes on. None of those shows came close to the level of shark jumping infamy as Dexter. Most, I’m assured, even got better. But once I’d checked out, I was out. And with that in mind, starting any new show felt like starting a new commitment I wasn’t sure I’d see through.
Similar things happened with books. At least once a year I decide to get gung-ho about reading again. I buy a bunch of books I’m slightly curious in. I read a couple, I enjoy them, and all it takes is one that doesn’t grab me early and the next thing I’ll go weeks, sometimes months without reading. Then the same vicious cycle will repeat. Habits, as it turns out, can be hard to form but easy to break.
I love watching a good TV show. I love reading a good book. There is, in fact, very little in the world I love more. But I seem to have reached a point where I’ve gotten it in my head that my time is so valuable I can only sit down and commit to the stories that really grab me. And that is not healthy at all. It has distanced me from the reason I became a writer in the first place.
I’m taking steps to change it. I’ve cleared every Tuesday to go to the cinema around the corner and watch two films. I don’t always get two in, but I’ll try. And nothing can get in the way of my movie day. I go alone, I see something I wouldn’t see normally, and sometimes I have a shit time but sometimes I see something special, something that otherwise would have slipped under my radar. I’ve found myself really looking forward to my movie Tuesdays, as a way to clear my head, escape the world, and regularly consume new stories. As I should always be doing.
Th truth is that it’s easy to be hard on ourselves, but life does get busy and mine, of late, has been especially so. But that doesn’t mean I should ever lose sight of the things that helped shape me into who I am. Things like picking up a random book or going to the movies to see a film I had only the barest interest in. Because if I had never done that stuff to begin with, I never would have discovered any of my enduring favourites.
I do know, from experience, that all it takes to break a habit is making an exception. A few years ago I used to go to a different arthouse cinema every Monday to see films. One Monday something happened and I didn’t go. After that it was easy to skip the next, and the next, and then the habit was gone. Maybe that will happen again, but I’m going to do my best not to let it. Because I’m really enjoying being surrounded by stories again. It’s doing a lot to keep alive my passion for telling my own.
Writing words about writing words.