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Detoxing for readers and writers

There are a lot of things I learned from my friend Riccardo, who’s been gone now for a few years. He was the one that taught me the one trick you need to know to start reading in English, and he was the one that asked me if I was crazy because I wanted to show my stories to a certain publisher, thus saving me from a fate worse than death. And he taught me that sometimes we need to detox, as readers and – as I would later learn – as writers.
He also taught me how to do it.

You come to a point, he used to say, when everything you read feels the same. It’s because you’ve been reading too much of the stuff, be it science fiction or fantasy or horror or any other genre. Or just any fiction. So you need to take a break and clean up your systems.

He would do it from time to time. He was an ace translator, he had translated everybody, from Leiber to Le Guin, Howard and M.Z. Bradley, and he would go on to be the Italian translator of Dan Brown (“But I had to improve him somewhere,” he would say), among many others.
And from time to time he would leave behind the genres that he loved and immerse himself in some ancient Chinese novel, or some esoteric non-fiction book, or some memoir.
Or maybe a cookbook.
Or a book of physics.
Or just go and read a fair chunk of Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

I used to do that, too – maybe not with such massive books, but I learned to recognize the signals, and get a break. That’s how I started reading cook-books, for instance.
But also books about history, and philosophy.
The great thing is, only one book is enough, to set everything straight again.
It’s a gateway to that “within” that Marcus Aurelius mentions in the quote above… you force your brain to work on something different, something that’s new and that’s not work at all – it’s play.

And I’ve noticed, in the last years, that I once used mysteries like this – as a break from imaginative fiction. But since I started writing mysteries and thrillers it doesn’t work anymore. I can’t read them “just as they are” anymore – my brain starts looking for the mechanisms, the technique, the tricks of the trade.
Bummer.

Anyway, today I recognized the signals – because in three days I started three short stories and was unable to finish none of them, not even a sucky first draft. The ideas are there, but like a deck of old cards when it’s wet outside, they just won’t play.
So I placed a postcard between the pages of the (excellent) science fiction book I was reading in my breaks, and went browsing my shelves for something to help me clean up the system.

So I am now reading Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu’s From Mindfulness to Heartfulness, one of the books about Zen I was keeping here in case of necessity. This book is perfect to clean my system because there is nothing in it I can plunder to improve a story or to make a blog post (apart from this blog post, of course).
This will be reading just for the pleasure of discovering.
It promises a quiet weekend and a much-needed reset of my mental machinery.
Then I’ll finish my stories and mail them to the editors and be happy, and go back to reading stories about starships and monsters and what not, with my taste-buds back in working order.

And you out there?
What do you read when your favorite genre just won’t do?
Because we know it happens, right?

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