The Ray Bradbury Reading Diet — Week 2

When I say high volume reading brings the stories to life, I mean that literally — Midnight in Paris style.

Weightlifters know that one’s results are a product of three things: training, rest, and nutrition. If you want extraordinary results in the gym but continue to eat like an ordinary person, good luck to you.

It’s the same with writing. When you produce a lot of words but don’t take in very many, by reading, atrophy is inevitable. To use another analogy, it doesn’t matter how good the engine is if you never put petrol in the tank.

If you want to get the most out of what you put into your system it helps to have a diet. For the past two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with Ray Bradbury’s reading advice from his 2001 keynote address.

He urges young writers to “stuff their heads” with a daily bedtime reading habit of:

  • One short story
  • One poem
  • One essay

These are my observations after two weeks following Bradbury’s diet.

My Reading is Improving

I’m not talking about my speed or my reading level (if that’s still a thing for a mostly literate adult.) What improved (dramatically) was my reading “gut.” The brushstrokes of craft became more obvious.

I saw where I could edit authors who I thought were infallible before. I’m not sure I could write a better story than Hemingway’s “The End of Something” but I know what I would have done differently if it were mine.

It feels like I’ve developed my close-reading skills more in the past two weeks than in the four years since I finished college.

My Writing Mind Keeps Lighting Up

I’ve been seeing story potential everywhere — it’s like opening a window in a stuffy room. It’s hard to describe this feeling without sounding dramatic and touchy-feely.

To go back to the weightlifting analogy: writing is training, reading is diet and calorie intake, and life experience and observation is rest. All three are equally important and mutually sustaining. My observations make me a better writer, and writing and reading make me a better observer. All the time I spend thinking about the words others have chosen to communicate their observations gets me in the habit of observing with my own words in mind.

When I say high volume reading brings the stories to life, I mean that literally — Midnight in Paris style.

Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is a one of a kind story about the kind of ordinary scene you can find anytime you leave the house. The genius there is in the noticing.

I’m Curious About Things Other Than Writing

Part of Bradbury’s recommendation is to read broadly and outside your chosen genre. I struggled with that when I was reading less. If I’m only gonna read one book a week, it’s not often that I’m going to choose something about Samurai ethics or an anthropological study of women’s sexual fantasies (both are now on my reading list.)

Reading a ton changes the purpose of reading. Since I started this experiment, I’ve been approaching my bookshelf (okay, I mean my Kindle) with the question “what am I curious about?” not “what will make me a better writer and/or tick a box on the books-I-ought-to-have-read list?”

I Feel Better In General

I’ve been calmer the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking in coolheaded complete sentences as opposed to tangents, and I’ve discovered that the best way to get into the proper headspace for writing is to never leave it.

What I’ve Read so Far

Stories from:
The First 49 — Ernest Hemingway
Break it Down — Lydia Davis 
A Thousand Perfect Strangers” — Kathy Fish in SmokeLong Quarterly

Poems From: 
New Selected Poems — Ted Hughes
(and a recording of Sylvia Plath reading “Lady Lazarus”)

Essays: 
Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence — Sgt. Rory Miller 
The Biggest Threat to Your Success is the Story You Tell Yourself About Success” — Ryan Holiday
My Obsession with a Beatles Song” — Alec Wilkinson
The 1000 Day MFA” — Shaunta Grimes (The essay that turned me on to Bradbury’s advice.)

Novel (in progress): 
At Play in the Fields of the Lord — Peter Matthiessen

Valencia, 2017