One of my writing friends asked me a week ago whether I'd ever heard of a problem where writing is going fine, but all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it completely hurts to read. Hurts to read? I asked him. You mean like back pain?
"Sort of! My eyes just won't go there. I open books. I can't focus on them."
We were catching up over chicken sandwiches, followed by a tart with sliced pears and caramel sauce. Yum. But honestly, this is a hard time for my friend. His parents are unwell. In a short 8 months, he’s changed jobs and ended a marriage, and just lately, he’s moved onto some of his own medical tests.
He was surprised. But I wasn’t. At least, not very. I’ve known a number of colleagues, students, and members of my very own book-addicted family who have gone through a period of time where reading, once an outlet and a pleasure, felt almost palpably painful. The introspection. The quiet in one’s own head. Quiet that has to stay quiet enough to open to a writer’s voice, to another human’s point of view. Sustained focus. And all of this striking a self who no longer feels like the same, stable self.
I call it "reader's block" and it can feel just as insidious as the writer's version.
I do have a few strategies for dealing with it, though....
1. Try to read a single poem like a meditation every day.
Maybe twice per day. Give up on whole books and turn to the kinesthesia of repetition. Find and notice every piece of punctuation. Basically, run your mind mouth over the words multiple times and try to emblazon them into you.
I found this exercise during a time when I was going to shul regularly. During the month of Elul (usually sometime in September), there is a tradition of reading the same psalm every day. I have now done this three times--three whole months, exploring the words of this single poem. I'm amazed by how the poem begins to open--familiar, calming, and yet somehow also always fresh.
I would also note that Theodore Roethke was famous for asking his poetry workshop students to become so familiar with a single poem that they could transcribe every word, every punctuation mark, to take it wholly inside them and be able to write it out, and say it out, as if it had come from them.
2. Read an old book that you love again.
Focus on a new angle. Read in a new genre. Try biography. Or lyrical essay. Or science writing. Or your eight favorite books from high school. Or picture books for gradeschoolers. Or a book of poetry you loved when you were first in love.
One of my friends picked up all her Charlotte Brontes after her divorce...when the tomes of historical biography made her dizzy. I made it through a Readers' Blocked bedrest pregancy on the complete works of Pearl S. Buck--which I had read first in high school.
Ezra Pound in The A,B,C's or Reading recommends that to read a book completely, we must engage with it three times: once when we are younger than the viewpoint speaker or main character, once when we are the same age, and once when we are older and can look back.
3. Read directly into the heart of the problem.
Find poems 'for' someone about whom you are worried, poems you might imagine sharing with a friend who has died or a baby who has not yet been born. Make an anthology for yourself of these problem-resonant poems (and songs). If you had to share five poems with your dad, or your child, or your gradeschool teacher, what would they be?
Use a relationship, and deep thinking to ease the loneliness and alienation of reader's block.
(Note: I think reader's block most often strikes when the reader is going through a change of identity--the way becoming a parent can be a change of self, or losing one. I think that's why it helps, when the self is fragile, to have an "other" to direct your reading toward.)
4. Try reading in an alternate language....not English. (Or if you were raised in a nonanglophone household, then try reading in any language not your own.)
Your synapses will be fresher and safer there. You'll escape the stories of your life, the connotations clinging like yanked roots to each word. The naughty will be clean again. The devastated somewhat removed from the bodily-responses to it. And you'll notice language happening, beautiful, and distant all at once.
5. Try reading aloud, or listening to books on tape.
While the resistant self resists, the ears follow the words tumbling out, like water over rocks. If you're lucky, the story itself, or the poem itself, may lead you onward.
In any event, I know that there is a loneliness to Reader's Block. A head shut off from others. Shut off from the kind of trust that makes words matter. May your suffering ease. May you feel safe and well again--inside and out. May your own words keep coming out to meet ours.
Oh writer/reader, come back!