I had to drive my love of reading far away in order to find myself again. I’m no stranger to reading slumps, but I’m grateful for my current pause from reading. My slump isn’t so bad right now—only going on since January after end-of-the-year burnout to meet my reading challenge—and I’ve definitely suffered longer ruts, like the Great Year-Long Reading Slump of 2015. But this time, not feeling jazzed about books has been an eye-opening reckoning with my existence and purpose as an artist and creator. (Yeah, that epic!) It wasn’t until this year, when I lost my love of reading yet again, that I realized I had found comparably satisfying parts of myself that I had buried under books and jeopardized my ability to tap into my creative side. My reading slump? It saved my artist’s soul.
art: the luna bar of my soul
Books are core to my identity. Stories, narratives, books, and tales, have filled my life and been my raison d’être as far back as I can remember. Dealing with depression and social anxiety at an early age made me retreat into books. Living down the block from our town’s public library gave me limitless opportunities to explore the world of books. And my father, an English teacher, brought literature into my home.
As a teen, I was very open to exploring different arts. I acted in plays. I painted for hours after school. I drew a comic for the student newspaper. I sang in chorus and played alto saxophone in band. I was introduced to obscure art movies and the Criterion Collection through Fine Films Club. I flirted with the idea of going to culinary school. I knitted scarves and crocheted washcloths. And of course, I wrote: poems, mostly, but also short stories and essays. It might seem unfocused at fist glance—typical overachiever, scattered attention—but in retrospect, it was one big, homogenous creative explosion when I was open to art in every sense, both consuming art and crafting some of it myself. Books were surely a passion of mine, yet in my mind they were all part of the same fuel that fed my artistically hungry soul. I was famished. Art fed me.
But if you found yourself in that story, then you know what comes next. You can’t do everything in college, even if you try. If I could have actually majored in all the things I declared at one point or another—Classics, Philosophy, American Studies, German, History, and more—it still wouldn’t have satisfied me. In the end—inevitably—I settled on English. Lucky for me, my school’s English Department was an incredibly supportive, intellectually challenging hub that helped me focus on literature and never quite look back. Following graduation, I thought about other careers, but I always fell back on something involving books, reading, and writing.
my big, bookish existential crisis
Then: 2014. After beginning library grad school, book blogging, and book reviewing in the same year, I entered the dreaded year-long book slump in 2015. By this point, my DNA was so entirely woven into books that any slump resonated deep inside like the aching vibration of a cello string pulled taut but never released. Books were no longer my rush-hour escape, they were my life, professionally. The longer I went without finishing a book made me more and more anxious.
My bipolar disorder made it so much worse—depression sunk me so far down I couldn’t love anything, especially books, and mania drove insatiable, all-nighter binge-reading that left me burned out. But the existential crisis bothered me most snuck up when I couldn’t sleep. What if I wasn’t a reader, after all? What if I couldn’t be a writer? Did I really have what it took to bring it and compete on this level as a reader, blogger, and aspiring writer? Maybe a bookish writing life doesn’t seem as outwardly intense as some professions, it does require a certain rigor, and an undying, unwavering love for reading. I didn’t always have that, and that made me doubt myself and my purpose.
from the page to the stage: literature = art
After I overdid it on reading at the end of 2017, I entered 2018 in a calmer state. One grey weekday afternoon, I decided what I needed to do most that empty day was go see a movie—perks of being a freelancer—and felt a renewed love for cinema and film. For years, I’d been avoiding the movies after a series of panic attacks in the theater pushed me away from my former passion. From there, I brought out my art box again and started painting, mixed media and illustration. I sketched. I brainstormed a comic. I went to museums. I struck up an interest in fashion and beauty and taking each day as an opportunity to inhabit a new woman, a new character, just like I was on stage again. I started to craft more, going beyond my limited knowledge of knitting scarves and exploring sewing. My neglected books were repurposed in organization and interior design experiments. And most of all, I developed recipes for my food blog, seeing each time I stepped into the kitchen as a chance to use every bit of creativity to improvise something new in a vivid sensory experience. Writing a recipe was like writing a novel.
The void in my life that has come with the reading slump has been filled by an intense love for art in all its forms like an echo in my soul. While I’m not reading at the rate I hoped this year, at least not yet, I have felt more connected to the books I have read. A greater sense of concentration rather than scattering my attention among several and giving into the pressure I put upon myself to read as much as possible. Even more encouraging is I’ve felt myself engage with reading on a deeper level. I’m finally starting to read a book and appreciate at it as a piece of art again, not just another digit on my reading challenge tally. What I watch on the movie screen also informs my reading. Re-watching Fantastic Mr. Fox plunged me back into reading Roald Dahl and other authors of children’s literature who inspired me to begin my MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Watching Donnie Darko (2001) and Office Space (1999) made me revisit books that were published around the turn of the millennium. All that time in the kitchen made me reach for my cookbooks again and start thinking about each recipe as a short story plus actually reading the stories the chef-authors included. What I’m most excited about is that my creative block has melted and I’ve been writing work that’s more alive than I have written in ages, edgier and fresher, with immediacy I haven’t reached in years.
I also scrutinized my unhealthy relationship to reading. For so long, I’ve been chasing numbers with my reading, pushing myself to read as much as I can, at whatever cost, even if I was burned out, and even if I was reading some uninspiring books that I couldn’t break away from and risk losing my momentum. I was reading in name only, not grappling with the beauty of a book, not lost in the intoxicating wonder of literature. My eyes were grazing the letters, but I wasn’t really stacking them together to see a work of art that someone built out of that alphabet.
Lately, I’m happy to say I’ve been finishing books more often, enjoying my trips to the library, and feeling more connected to the book world and community of readers who foster a passion for pages. And I credit my slump. This experience has taught me just how interconnected art is to other art, and how nurturing your love for other arts can only help you engage with literature more.