Sunday, February 19, 2006

Reading as a writer

I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I’ve wanted to not be a writer for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, the latter has often won out.

My parents were never big readers, but they believed in the holy grail of education enough to sign me up for a children’s bookclub. Every month I would receive three new titles.

I think I lived each month for the certainty that one day (always a different one, frustrating but excitingly anticipatory as well) I would get a package in the mail (actually addressed to ME) that would contain my prized three books. My parents never took me to the library at that age, and I was not enrolled in a preschool. So those books were often the ONLY books I had, and were all the more precious for it, especially since by this time the three books from LAST month had been chewed on, read, reread, pondered and used as plot fodder for my Barbies’ adventures.

As I got older, my Middle Sister (my punkish mentor), as much as lover of books as I was, initiated me into the tradition of going to the library every week. Every Monday and Thursday, we’d run across the boulevard that separated us from the adjoining town--it had a lot of whirring traffic all day long--and pass the endless rows of houses, attached wall to wall to wall. I always pulled ahead at this point, wanting to hurry up and get to what I considered the pretty part of town. Pretty because it had wide sidewalks, trees planted in the middle of the road as dividers, and houses with stoops instead of mere fenced-in concrete yards like mine. Once we got there, I’d wait for my sister to catch up so we could talk about all of the books we would take out once we got there. The children’s library had a five book limit, so I always planned my haul in advance. Were there any books I could read while waiting for Middle Sister to finish her search? How should I weigh a book I loved and really wanted to read again compared to a tantalizing new title? Should I stick to my subjects (fairy tales, myths, books about dogs, Peanuts cartoons) or branch out into the exciting young adult section, with its shiny-covered novels with pretty teenagers on the cover?

I was such a voracious reader that a sympathetic librarian started allowing me to check out books from the adult section of the library about 3 years before I was old enough. This is where I found Bookish Nirvana--shelves practically to the ceiling, all covered in magical book dust, the kind that stuck to your fingers like dry mist when you pulled out a book too tightly wedged in the shelf. Hardcover books with tiny little threads pulled from the top of the scratchy binding. White lights set so dim that they looked beamed from Mars. And best of limit on how many books you could take out! Heaven, Nirvana, the Elysian Fields for a greedy reader girl.

For me, all of these books were written by some sort of divine guidance, by virtue of being in book form at all. My ideas of inspiration and creativity at that time were very hazy and freeform...I believed, like the nascent little Romantic I was, that books were born fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. Thus, I simply devoured them, with no thought of technique or craft or anything but sheer joy in what other people could do and I could not.

The flip side of that, however, was a persistent feeling that I was reading with one eye closed, because while I could appreciate the skill and the story, a horrible little voice inside me would taunt me as I read, reminding me that I could never hope to aspire to be like these writers, these Authors who were everything I was not--worldly, sophisticated, witty, brilliant. I would soothe myself by remembering my age--I had YEARS to grow up into this! To become a full fledged Author.

Too bad those ideas have only gained in strength as I have grown older. Even now that I am aware of it, I still catch myself skimming exceptionally beautiful patches of novels, as though I can’t face my own inadequacies head on. So when how-to books tell me to “read like a writer”, I have no idea how to do that. Because if I really concentrate, then I’ll know for sure that my horrible little voice was right all those years ago. I mean, here I am...32, longing for something I can’t quite commit to, or quite let go of. How to compete with the likes of John Updike and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare (yes, even the Bard gets dragged into my neurosis) when everything inside tells me they are still everything I am not-the opposite of me.

But now I have a new ally in my quest--the open face of my Madam. How can I tell her to persevere and chase her dreams when I have never had the courage to do it myself? Maybe being a good mother to her means being a better mother to myself than I have been all of these years.

So I force myself to slow down, read and appreciate every beautiful word, and try to remember the dusty bookshelves, and the sympathetic librarian. Work to stay with the longing born while waiting for that box of books when I was five. Try to read for craft, for sentence structure, for plot and characterization skills. And I try to tell myself that there IS room in the world for an author who is not an Author. Isn’t there?


Blogger Yummyteece said...

this sentence..

Maybe being a good mother to her means being a better mother to myself than I have been all of these years

....rocked my world!

7:13 PM, February 21, 2006  

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