By Mariam Said
MFA Graduate Student
Making time for pleasure reading is hard when you’re in a creative writing, literature, or rhetoric graduate program. It’s hard enough in other academic fields and careers, but the writing and reading assignments required by English classes takes a certain amount of joy out of what once may have been merely pleasurable and uncritical.
When I was an MFA student in creative writing student at Chapman University, a big question for me was: How do I welcome that joy of reading back into your life? So, I asked a few graduates and current students how they were able to read for enjoyment because honestly, I needed the help.
Dual MA-MFA student Matt Goldman embodies the fake-it-till-you-make-it philosophy. He suggests setting a minimum goal of reading ten pages every day because it doesn’t feel like a huge time commitment. He says that he finds it “extremely challenging to balance pleasure reading with program commitments during the semester, especially if [he has] a reading intensive lit class” in his schedule. Keeping his page minimum low helps him justify putting off the reading for his classes just a wee bit longer, and if he has time (or if he gets hooked), he reads more. He admits, though, that he struggles to follow his own advice, especially on days overflowing with assignments. Still, he has the plan in place, and it’s ready to be picked up whenever he can resume it.
MFA student Meg Boyles is the early-to-bed-early-to-rise type—I envy her for that. Every night, she prepares for bed before she feels really sleepy and uses her time before sleep for pleasure reading. Every once in a while, she will fall asleep after three pages, “but most of the time [she has] several chapters” in her.
I have tried this method before with print books because I’ve read that screen time before bed disrupts sleep schedules. I was able to keep it up for the length of a novel, but quickly lost the habit when I finished the book. It takes time for a habit to become second nature, and I stopped too soon. My skin never looked better than it did for those two weeks I had a healthy sleeping schedule, so perhaps I should return to this practice.
As someone who has a sometimes unhealthy level of anxiety, I carry my books and laptop everywhere with me, ignoring back pain, because I never know when I’ll have just that little bit of free time needed to get some reading or writing done. Meg is also someone who brings a book with her everywhere she goes. For her, reading bits and pieces whenever she has a few extra minutes to spare is “not as satisfying as plowing through novels,” and we both read poetry too. Reading in small doses still keeps us engaged with a book and makes reading a priority in the day.
Jilly Pretzel had five jobs, was a full-time student, and was wedding planning when she set a goal to read fifty books (outside of class) a year. A friend who read a hundred books in a year had inspired her, but by the end of January, she realized that goal was impossible. She admits that it was sometimes a miracle if she was able to read every page from a book assigned for class, and some weeks she felt as if she were skimming more than reading. Of course, she was stressed out and exhausted trying to balance everything in her work life with finishing her MFA and MA thesis projects and ended up “not getting enough sleep.”
Still, she kept working toward her reading goal. How? She turned to audio-books. With all of the driving she had between school and jobs, she realized she had a lot of valuable time to listen to books she had always wanted to read. As a result, she found herself looking forward to her long commute because of the books she had queued up.
There’s no wrong way to approach reading for fun again. The only way to do it wrong is to give up. Habits are difficult to cultivate, of course, and as graduate and debut novelist Liz Harmer pointed out to me, reading is work and takes effort, even when it is pleasure reading. If we don’t treat it a something that must be done, then we will never get to it. Now that I’ve graduated and with my peers’ advice in hand, I am jumping back into reading and ready to enjoy it even more.