A Writing Life is a Reading Life

My old job was one of peaks and valleys. One week, a huge project would come in. It would demand fast work and late hours. The next, I wouldn’t have anything to do. It wasn’t rare for me to spend 25 of my 40 hours reading.

It was awesome.

Of course, I got so used to those downtimes that I started to feel put upon when I had to actually work. Like, how dare you make me do the thing you’re paying me to do!

Obviously, I couldn’t stand for that, so I left that job to go to graduate school. It’s more or less the same—25 hours of reading (often more), 15 hours of productive output (occasionally, a lot more)—except that you’re supposed to be reading on the job. To some extent, it is the job.

One actual reason I made the switch was to contribute to a body of human knowledge (writing). But another part of it was to, professionally, consume a body of human knowledge (reading). Austin Kleon wrote something similar about his own decision to become a writer:

“I often tell people I became a professional writer so I could be a professional reader, and I feel like they never believe me. What I really, really love is reading books.”

read more books about space

This love of reading is vital for anyone seeking a career in writing. In an address to graduates of Columbia journalism school, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver said:

“One of the bigger mistakes that people make when they think about writing a story is that they assume that it literally consists of typing—or, absent that, starting at a blinking cursor on a computer screen. But really, that should normally come close to the end of your process. The third step is writing. The second step is thinking. And the first step is normally going to be reading.”

And that love of reading will come in handy, because this first step can take a lot of time. As world-renowned biographer, Robert Caro, writes in the New Yorker:

“I am constantly being asked why it takes me so long to finish my books. Well, it’s the research that takes the time—the research and whatever it is in me that makes the research take so very much longer than I had planned.”

blog ideas

A writing career is a reading career. It’s certainly not for everyone, but I feel lucky that it is a large portion of my job. I can’t help but feel like screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson:

“You know, like oh, my – this is so naughty. I’m actually reading at 10 o’clock in the morning. I think it’s just your upbringing – something about like you got to go to work, and you’ve got to – and move on. And still even – this is how I make my living. I still feel guilty. 10 o’clock, I mean – and it’s – but I’ve sunken into the pleasure of it – to think, my God, I’ve got my life in a way where I can read a book in the middle of the day.”

Of course, you do have to put words on the page sooner or later. But those words come much easier when you’re full of ideas. As author Cormac McCarthy said:

“Books are made out of other books.”


Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.

Header photo by me.

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