What worked (and didn’t) in 2023: Reading and writing edition
One of my favorite writers, Emily P. Freeman, shares what worked and what didn’t at the close of each year, so I’m taking a page out of her book. While I think this is a helpful practice for reflection on all aspects of life, for this post, I’m focusing on my reading and writing in 2023.
If you’d like to try this exercise, I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways! Here’s to a better reading and writing life in 2024! And now, let’s jump into what didn’t work for me last year.
What didn’t work in my reading and writing life
1. Not being intentional with my scheduling.
My work and personal life were unexpectedly hectic this year and as a result, a lot of my “downtime” was either eaten up by overflowing to-do lists or spent becoming a potato. Though I fully believe that we all need true “potato time” sometimes, there was probably too much of it this year for me.
If I didn’t predetermine what to do with my time after work and I reached the point of decision fatigue, I didn’t have the mental energy to weigh my options and decide what book to read, what writing project to work on, etc.
In 2024, I’m planning to be better about scheduling my limited time to apply what energy I have to actual writing and reading instead of succumbing to analysis paralysis.
2. Keeping my phone next to the bed, combined with heavy reading material.
Look, I know that all the people say not to keep your phone next to the bed, but the reality is that I use my phone as an alarm and I like to do the New York Times mini crossword in bed at night. Despite that, having my phone easily accessible on my nightstand was not great for my reading life or my sleep.
The other issue that compounded the pull of my phone was that I chose several heavier books to read in the evening, which I simply wasn’t drawn to during stressful or tiring seasons.
In 2024, I’m going to try setting app limits at nighttime to avoid the temptation. Additionally, I plan to have two books on my side table at all times, one that’s light and/or a page-turner and one that’s a bit denser, so I can choose whichever fits my energy level.
3. Relying on the mood to strike, rather than the habit to hold.
Look, I know we can’t rely solely on inspiration to carry our writing life (or our reading life for that matter), but particularly at the end of the year, I really let the habits go by the wayside. It turns out that when I’m stressed and tired, my default isn’t to feel inspired.
I did have stints of good habit-building, but I was easily derailed when the mood wasn’t right. I know a rigid habit doesn’t work for everyone and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a break or a day off, but my personality is such that if I break the habit one day, I’m much more likely to continue breaking it the next day and the day after that.
In 2024, I’m working on forming manageable habits that allow some grace for days that don’t work out, but also not so much grace that it gives me an excuse if the mood isn’t exactly right.
What did work in my reading and writing life
1. Picking books from reliable recommending sources and known authors.
Over the years, I’ve learned that when I need a reliably good read, I should turn to my favorite recommenders for help. That habit served me well again this year and many of my top 10 reads from 2023 were recommended by just a few key sources or were books by authors I already knew and loved.
While this means I was perhaps stumbling on fewer brand-new-to-me authors, it did mean that the books that landed on my TBR were more likely to be hits for my taste. Some of my favorite recommenders are Anne Bogel, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast, and Parnassus Books' weekly “Laydown Diaries” series. All of these sources do an excellent job of explaining the books they recommend and who they might appeal to.
The thing I’m taking into 2024 is that, in addition to listening to my favorite recommending sources, I’d like to read more backlist titles from authors I love already–Wendell Berry, Mary Lawson, Maggie O’Farrell, Colson Whitehead, Steven Rowley, and many more. Yes, I love to discover new authors, but it brings me joy to read the voices I already love, so I’m going to do that more intentionally this year.
2. Going to in-person and virtual writing events and groups.
Even during times of limited writing bandwidth (see the point above about my lack of scheduling), attending writing events was so inspiring and helpful this year. There’s something magical about being in a room (virtually or physically) with people who speak the same language and are rooting for you too.
I’m still attending my same weekly Zoom call with a group of writers who met as a part of hope*writers several years ago and I am continuing to see the value in that camaraderie and accountability. This year, I also attended a couple of in-person events through the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and I want to do more of that this year, whether it be author readings/talks, workshops, or conferences.
If you’re a writer and you’re not part of a writing community, I would highly recommend you get plugged in. Many state organizations are extremely cost-effective to join and offer a host of great opportunities to learn and connect. And of course, I’m always happy to talk about writing.
3. Timers for reading and writing.
Likely because my brain was a bit scattered, timers became my secret weapon. Though timers are having their moment for chores (am I the only one who enjoys those silly little “clean with me” reels?), I feel like they’re less often leveraged for creative pursuits or hobbies.
When it comes to reading, I found timers the most helpful in the evening while reading in bed because it forced me off my phone and away from the mindless scrolling, and often when the timer went off, I simply chose to keep reading instead of turning back to my phone. Also, if the book was engrossing, the timer reminded me that it may be getting a bit late and perhaps I should actually go to sleep.
When it comes to writing, timers gave me permission to just focus on the one thing in front of me, even for a short period. It gave me guardrails that were even more constrained than a scheduled time block on my calendar, and at the end of my timer, if I had the time, I could always continue writing a bit longer.
In 2024, I’m planning to use a lot more timers. Maybe they’ll be like training wheels and eventually, I won’t need them, but I’m happy either way.
So, what worked and didn’t work for you in 2023? What habits are you hoping to form in 2024? What are you carrying forward into the new year for your reading and writing life?