The great adjustment
Between January 2018 and December 2021, I watched 569 films. I know this because I track the films I watch on Letterboxd. That’s a lot of films. Not as many as more serious cinephiles, but a tremendous amount for someone who actually wants to be a novelist and not a filmmaker. I‘ve watched 157 films this year so far, which is on average fifty minutes a day, the length of a session of psychotherapy.
There was a gradual increase—2015 (11), 2016 (34), 2017 (61), 2018 (140)—and it’s linked to submitting my novel-as-dissertation in September 2017. After that, I needed to get away from writing, so I discovered horror film podcasts, and started a completely different adventure. I told myself that it was useful, which it was, to understand how the great (and not-so-great) films worked, thinking about story, narrative, dialogue, character arcs, all that good stuff, but looking back, I should have disengaged earlier and brought that knowledge back to my writing.
When the pandemic hit, and I was stuck working at home in a new job, with a constant newsfeed of virus fears, Trump and Brexit, I doubled down on films as a coping mechanism. (I know I keep going over this, but I think a lot of us are going to be dealing with a form of PTSD around the pandemic experience for some time to come.) I stopped reading for pleasure, partly because I lost my commute, and partly because I could feel a pressure building in me to be writing the next thing. I could watch a whole film in a ninety-minute evening slot and tick it off a list, but a novel was a longer undertaking, over several days, taking up valuable headspace that I could be using for writing. I would pick up a book, and quickly have to fight the urge to scan it, study it, and jump to the end. This was reading without engagement. I was still reading novels, but in a begrudging, desperate, manic, miserable way.
Films made me feel better in the world. Books made me feel worse. Films immerse you through image, sound, story and the fact you have to watch it for as long as it lasts, like a fairground ride. This intensifies the experience and heightens emotions, so it is closer to real life. I love that. But reflecting on a film is hard while you are watching it because it is still happening to you. It’s quite an invasive experience. It can feel overwhelming.
Books, on the other hand, give the control to the reader. A reader can be distracted by a knock at the door, read sentences a second or third time, look out of the window and daydream, recall a memory, read faster or slower, skip over a stressful scene, or even read the ending first. They can make notes in the margins and write in a notebook. You are immersed in the world of a book, but the book doesn’t demand your undivided attention. Books are a very forgiving companion. (I heartily recommend the chapter on reading in The Art of Rest, by Claudia Hammond.)
Here’s the heart of the matter for me: I can’t write without reading. To write, I need the written word as nourishment, and for me to feel nourished, I need to read slowly, with curiosity and my mind engaged.
This realisation, which is completely obvious on the surface, arrived because, in thinking about 2021 and what I might do differently in 2022, I looked back at the books I had read, and the films I had watched, and knew there needed to be an adjustment. I’m out of balance in how I get my story fix.
After four years of my adventure in films, I’m starting the great adjustment—fewer films, more books, and getting reacquainted with the gentle art of reading.