The Healing Power of Reading

power of reading

Today I’m talking to Becky Karush about the power of reading for our mental health and overall wellbeing. Becky is the founder of Read to Me Literary Arts, where she hosts group writing salons, which I attend and am devoted to. And she also coaches writers individually. Becky is also the host of the wonderful Read to Me podcast, which if you haven’t checked out yet, you really must. You’re going to love it. Becky is a certified teacher of the gateless writing method and has led more than 250 writing salons. She lives in Southwestern, New Hampshire with her family and her cat. And that is where she is working on her novel.

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Becky, welcome. So you have a podcast called, Read to Me. You are clearly a lover of reading. Why?

I think it’s one of those things that your brain is kind of born into. That the act of reading fires off a lot of dopamine in the brain. And whatever the wiring was in the womb, it just happened that way. The way like goats will eat anything, but sheeps really like grass. Like my brain really likes books. But what they did for me as I got older is they were total refuge. They were the place where time slowed down. Where there was mystery, excitement, adventure, peace, resolution. They were home.

Hmm. Resolution and home. Oh my goodness. Hook those two things to my veins. So what does reading have to offer us? Us who are human beings who want to be decent humans?

I think it’s two things. And one, the physical act of reading, which I acknowledge is not easy for everybody. It does not light up everybody’s brains and it’s not the only way to become a better person clearly. I just wanna make room for that. But for those, for whom it does feel good. I think that thing about time slowing down, I think that’s really part of it. Even if you’re a fast reader, there is a different relationship to time you can’t race through it exactly, if you’re reading with attention.

it’s different if you’re like skimming a grocery list. But when you’re reading something  that’s engaging your imagination or challenging your beliefs, there is a way that your eyes literally have to move on the page. Whether it’s digital or, or paper, they have to move through time and space to make it happen. Even that tiny engagement with the body, it just slows us down. And then in that like micro slower space, we have to enter into our imaginations.

And honestly, I think imagination might be the building block of empathy. Even before you understand why you care about other people, that ability imagine a world beyond your own circumstances. I don’t know, makes a lot of things possible. Terrible things, but  certainly the building block of good things.

You say, and I agree that everyone has a gift for writing. So what does reading have to offer us as human beings who would like open up our innate gift for writing?

Reading is where you fall in love with words. Reading is where you fall in love with sounds. It is where you fall in love with images. And reading is where you begin to pay attention to something that’s outside the daily run of things. All of that; words, sounds, images, a world beyond our world, those are all things that come into writing when you’re creating something new. It’s really the only way I think, if you’re long to be a writer, you’re curious about it. It’s the only way to understand the craft.

Because someone can tell you, oh, use description in order to slow down the pace. And you’re like, okay. But until you see that, like say you love Harry Potter and you notice there’s a spot where she’s describing Haggard’s beard. And I’m using Harry Potter because whether we wanted to, or not, most of us have encountered it. Like, oh, she slowed down using Haggard’s beard. That’s what it means. It’s like the experiential way to see how people do the things that make you feel things when you read

It also, it adds this cool layer to reading, doesn’t it? When you’re thinking about reading, in terms of understanding it as something that has been written. It’s like your kinda brain sort of splits into two and there’s part of you that’s just taking it in and appreciating it. It’s cultivating something that I think of that I learned like through studying meditation, which is the ability to witness.

That is so beautifully put Kate and you’re exactly right. George Sanders calls it his meter, like a positive negative meter. And there’s part of him experiencing the work, feeling it, reacting to it. And there’s part of him with this meter being like, oh, this is interesting. Oh, that’s interesting. And the what happened there? And that split consciousness where you’re observing an experience,  it can be a little tiring of course. But it does give you this super power of understanding that experience is created. That it can be changed. That  the simple thing of one word changing means that it’s a different reality.

I read recently that reading is what first teaches you, how to be alone. You got thoughts on that?

I was thinking about that earlier on my walk. And the funny thing is that you’re not alone because you’re with this imaginative or intellectual other world, and you’re with an object. You, your Kindle, or your physical book. But you’re not looking toward anyone else for stimulus interpretation, permission, confirmation. You are in your experience. And if it feels good and if it’s an assignment that you hate, then you know, then that’s a really different thing.

But if you’re in it and you’re enjoying it, you’re getting a positive response from it. Then being just you and a book is the best feeling in the world. It’s peaceful, it’s full, it’s kind of heaven, but there’s a hardcore introvert talking here. But even if you get your energy from people you’re still  imaginatively engaging. So I think that ability to feel full and engaged without needing confirmation from another creature is really, really powerful. And actually, I think it’s a beautiful question, because I don’t think we think about that very much reading as that kind of spiritual tool in that way. It’s beautiful.

Well, I wanted to ask you about it because when I saw that on social media, you know, some kind of meme or something. I was like, that is why when my husband tries talking to me, when I am reading, then it’s like the hair on the back of my neck stands up like a dog who sees a dog walking past her porch.

Yes, yes, yes. You are fully involved in an experience and they are not.  Like that split that isolation and you’re somatic like your body is involved. Your brain is lit up. And the other people have nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. It’s actually, you know, having a young child, I really stopped reading because I couldn’t. It was like, I couldn’t afford to disengage from him in that way. It took a long time to go back to it.

I can identify with that. And thank you for validating my experience. So Becky, what practical advice do you have for listeners on reading? Like how to do more of it, how to find the time for it, etc?

I think the first thing is to give yourself full permission to read exactly what you like. If you like romance novels, read them. If you like magazines, read them. There’s really no curriculum. There’s really no inherent betterness to Hemingway. He’s doing really different things. You’re gonna learn really different things when you do that. But the reading that you’re doing, that you have done that you’ve liked, it’s good. If it’s Steven King, great.

And then in terms of when that’s a tricky one. It’s tricky for me too, because my eyes are in use all the time on my screen like so many of us. And that screen gives a lot more immediate, easy pleasure. So that’s just the truth of it. But I have started having a book at the kitchen table in the morning. Right now, I just picked up station 11, which my husband had on his shelves. And I’m giving myself permission to read a page.

As a lifelong reader, it’s much more often that I would read like four chapters at a time. Like that’s really satisfying, but I don’t have the stamina right now. So I read a page and I’m gonna be good with that. And honestly, I know this is might be a little intimate, but put a book in the bathroom, man. Like you’re there for a while sometimes. It’s really private and we do it. So, embrace it, go for it.

I did ask for practical advice, Becky. (Laughter)

For people who are interested in literature, they probably found their way already. But if not, those the hundred word short stories, they’re just perfect snacks. If you just Google hundred word stories, there’s a bunch of different online magazines that have them.  I call it like a literary spiritual practice when you haven’t done any other spiritual practice today. So those are some of the things I do

I love them. What about advice for listeners on how to engage with reading in a way that is a little more philosophical, Can reading help us be better people? And if so, how should we approach it?

I think applying principles of radical love to the work helps us open our hearts. And by that, I mean, when I’m reading this, what do I really, really love about it? And taking time to name it. Not just it made me happy, or I really like the characters, or past the time. Those are wonderful reasons and I’m not discounting them. But after those, what were the colors that I loved? What was one line where the author really landed the plane? What was it about the end of that chapter that made me cry?

And this comes back to the writing practice that you and I both do Kate, gateless writing, which is grounded in looking for and naming the parts of the writing that we really love. Really trying to think about why. When you start to do that, it does change your relationship to the piece because you’re looking at it with that split mind in a really focused way. But it opens your heart to the work of the author. It opens your mind to really simple things like commas and dates.

Like sometimes you’ll see like 1971 and you realize that’s the moment when the piece bloomed. It opens your mind to craft, to being able to see that something can be composed carefully, and be new in the world. And that’s a worship. It’s like an appreciation practice. You know, I think appreciation gets a little bit of short shift because we wanna learn and we wanna make the use of our time and be productive. But the active appreciation it again, it slows you down. It makes you humble and it makes you really happy. And then that kinda carries over. It can to other circumstances in your life.

Yeah. I like to say what you appreciate, appreciates

Yeah, that’s it. That’s totally it. And that happens in reading

Becky, for listeners who are loving what you’re saying and want to connect with you some more, where can they find you?

Well, I have a website, there are a lot of words on it. And that is a readtomeliteraryarts.com. Then I’m on Instagram @readtomeliteraryarts. And then if you’re in New Hampshire, just  you know, holler, I’ll hear ya.

And your podcast, remind us of your podcast name

It’s called Read to Me with Becky Karush and you can find it on Apple and Spotify. And I’m gonna announce something here. We’re coming into our final season!! Fourth and final season. And it’s gonna be all episodes of people who have asked to be on the podcast.  Emerging or largely emerging writers who have published their first book or they’re just about to publish their first book. To just love them up and show them that their work is deeply appreciated for very specific, smart reasons.

Daily Tiny Assignment

If you don’t already, start underlining, or turning down the corners, or writing down the sentences, you just love in the books that you read. I get a weekly newsletter from Anne Friedman, who is co-host of the podcast, Call Your Girlfriend and co-author of the book, Big Friendship. And she sends out a newsletter every end of the year with her favorite sentences of things she’s read throughout the year. And it’s so cool to read them.

For bonus points, make sure you’ve got reading material in your bathroom. I hope you’ll come back tomorrow when I am sharing seven easy ways to read more, to build on the great tips that she shared today.

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