Whilst faffing around with my blog the other day—in a regular incidence of “it ain’t broke but I’m going to fix it anyway”—I discovered some old half-written short stories that never made it to the web. (These two, if you’re interested.) Scrolling through the list of files that comprise my past attempts at fiction, it was immediately obvious that I’d not written even a scrap of a story since 2013. Worse, it’s been four years since I wrote anything complete—a paltry 342-word story called “Silence”, which my wife pestered me into writing. The last time I wrote something complete for myself was 2011.
More worrying was the train of thought that followed that—when was the last time I read a work of fiction out of preference over doing anything else? Not a book read in a holiday’s abundance of free time, not a bedtime story for my child, but a book read out of pleasure, when I could or should be doing other things? Probably Neal Stephenson’s “REAMDE”, also in 2011.
I received two books for Christmas, and I’m slowly making my way through one of them: “Trigger Warning”, a collection of Neil Gaiman’s short stories. Even though each piece is well written and at most 20 pages long, I’m finding it hard going. Every little thing is a distraction. Someone will talk, there’s my concentration gone for another five minutes. Another paragraph, and it’ll occur to me that the floor is dirty and I ought to hoover. Another two lines. I’m thirsty. I should make coffee.
Can it be that not only am I out of practice at writing, I’m actually out of practice at reading too?
It feels like I’m turning into a modern-day version of the parents of Roald Dahl’s Matilda; I read recipe books and Facebook shares and gadget blogs and clickbait articles and never once settle down with a real good book. Even now, Trigger Warning sits a mere two feet away from me, all is quiet and calm, and here I am ignoring it to tap away at a computer keyboard.
Perhaps the answer is to force myself, to set aside an enforced reading time every day, until I remember how to do it again—until I remember how to get so stuck into a good story that I stop caring about hoovering the floor or who might be commenting on my Facebook status.
Maybe with enough practice, I might even remember how to write again.
This happens to me too every few years or so. I'm lucky in that I have the freedom to carve out sometime to read through some old favourites and get my focus back into shape.
Trigger Warnings great! Listened to the audiobook last week, which is read by Neil. It's interesting to hear how he voiced some of the characters, particularly where they're at odds with how I'd voiced them internally.
I can't say too much for the writing side, but at least for the reading I actually find setting goals makes me better at doing the things that require a longer attention span. Of course it requires me to not do other things though, like watching Pokemon episodes on Netflix. I think the achievement to be reached (for me at least) has more sticking power than a simple "I should read more".
Usually the goal is a simple read x books in x time. The longer the period the goal is over, the more I find myself slipping. I haven't yet found the ideal period of time to think in, the only thing I can say with certainty is that usually if I make it a year long goal by about 8 months I'll have drifted and be flagging.
That might be worth a try—at the very least I can set myself a goal of finishing both my Christmas books by, say, the end of February.