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Reading for wellbeing

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a list of things I started doing during lockdown that had a positive impact on my wellbeing, that I wanted to keep doing after lockdown ended. (I’m happy to say, I’ve kept all of them in some form).

One of them was reading fiction: an old love of mine that had fallen by the wayside somewhere. But the conditions of 2020 opened the door for me to reconnect.

Early in the pandemic, I decided to step away from social media: I knew that for me, scrolling through covid updates and speculation would trigger an unhelpful level of anxiety. What I didn’t anticipate was what I would gain from making this choice. I suddenly felt like I had the headspace and attention span to read more than a few sentences at a time. I noticed that I also felt energised somehow by reading books again.

Why did I find that reading fiction seemed to boost my wellbeing? I believe we need to be in touch with our imaginative capacities to feel whole as human beings. Starting to read stories again was like plugging my imagination back in, and it sparked – among other things – a richer, deeper experience of my meditation practice.

Reading fiction feeds me, in a way that factual content doesn’t. It’s as if I start to see life in full colour, when I’m connected to writing that makes the everyday feel poetic.

I also noticed that I was no longer attracted to all the same sort of material that I loved in my teens, or my twenties.

My first step in recovering my fiction-reading practice was to find out what I like to read now. (And second, stopping myself when I picked up something I thought I ‘should’ read).

I always thought I didn’t like short stories. Then I discovered flash fiction. And folk tales.

I always thought I preferred fiction grounded in the ‘real’ world that I could relate to. Then I discovered speculative fiction.

I always thought I hated ‘horror’. Then I discovered Shirley Jackson.

I always thought I had to finish a book, even if I didn’t like it. Then I discovered how much is available for free – from my library, the BorrowBox app, and online – so that it felt ok to be more experimental, without any wasted investment.

This spring, if you feel like growing a few new shoots in your own imagination, why not explore something fictional that’s different for you? Maybe it turns out you do like poetry, or historical fiction, or gothic horror, after all.

If a thick novel feels like too much to take on, there are some brilliant short forms emerging – here are a few places to find them:

Free Flash Fiction website

Retreat West – for online micro stories and printed anthologies of short fiction

Judy Darley’s list of places her own stories have been published includes some good sources of online flash and micro fiction.

Straylight – for online short fiction including novellas

For concise fiction you may be able to find in your local library – you could try titles by Jenny Offill and Sarah Crossan, or collections of folk tales and fairy tales (they definitely weren’t originally told just for children!)

For more about how reading fiction promotes mindfulness, see my post Slow down and be in the story

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