Who could imagine that mere marks of graphite or ink on white pieces of paper—and I’m paraphrasing John Updike here—could stimulate a reader’s imagination to such an extent that a glorious escape to another time and place fills a person’s mind and holds him or her tightly? And, by the same token, electronic images of squiggly symbols on a screen? They do the same.
I encounter this stimulation through both writing and reading. Writing, for me at least, consistently requires a bit of discipline, as there are so many distractions. So, I press myself to do some writing every day (at least every weekday) as though it were a job. While sometimes I’m composing a review or a blog or an important email, I’m usually writing or editing one of my short stories. I try to write for two hours straight. Which means for two solid hours I am preoccupied with my characters’ thoughts and actions, happening in a place I myself have created and which is so firmly fixed in my brain, I am just totally there. For two hours I am completely immersed in that place and in the words and sentences I am seeking to make perfect. I am just gone, as in a trance. And even though my characters may be going through difficulties (they usually are), it’s a delightful place to be.
I also make it a point to read every day, most often sitting down with a novel in the late afternoon when all the busyness of my little world has been attended to. There again, if the book is well written, I become completely absorbed. I share faraway places and situations with the book’s characters, and I have an intense feeling of being there, away from “it all.” Again, it’s a marvelous place to spend time.
So, for four hours a day, roughly one quarter of my waking hours, I am somewhere else. My husband rails at me often for not listening to him, and he’s right, I’m not listening; a good part of the day I am elsewhere or wandering around the house doing things but thinking about elsewhere. It’s no wonder he’s impatient with my absentmindedness. If only I could make him understand…
I wonder, is all the writing and reading I do a manifestation of escapism—let’s face it, the world we inhabit is often a scary place—or is it something more than that? Is it perhaps more a search for enrichment? I will likely never see Beirut or Greenland or north Texas, the settings for novels I’ve enjoyed, but the fine books I’ve read have taken me there, and my life has certainly been enriched by those travels. Inhabiting the lives of memoirists and other nonfiction writers has had the same effect. Oh, my gosh, when you think about it, what a huge number of fine thinkers and writers are out there!
For people who do not write, and particularly for those who do not read, I feel a certain sorrow. They are missing out on so much life has to offer. Chances to escape and enrich themselves are passing them by. Yes, there are many other distractions and means of escape from our troubled world. But to me, nothing matches the effect of quiet words on a quiet page.