I turn to books, my closest friends, when my life is most out of my control. As a kid I read more frequently than my parents moved, which was often. Socialization of any kind is and always has been a frustrating game in which the rules always change. Even while haphazardly uprooted and transferred from place to place, my obsession with books unlocked doors and windows, opened wormholes and portals to wherever I wanted to go.
In elementary school in Phoenix Arizona, I frequently snuck away from class to walk with dinosaurs in the library. I preferred non-fiction scientific classification about pre-historic ages to any kind of fiction, much to the annoyance of classmates who I would try to connect with by rattling off facts and theories I had discovered. I was fascinated by the idea of so many creatures with an entire world of their own having existed before I was born and suddenly not existing anymore. It was my first concept of mortality and inescapable change, and I dug in books for their bones like an eager grave robber.
In fifth grade I was dropped into the kudzu-covered woods of Tuscaloosa Alabama to live in the first trailer park I had ever seen. I felt the fresh pain of transplant and felt further alienated when my consuming obsession with proper formal English clashed for the first time with twanged slang and southernisms. When I heard “I ain’t got no money, ya’ll,” or anything like it, I would lash out with a harsh and thorough correction. This habit did not endear me to my classmates. They also didn’t like my constant questioning as to why the black kids and white kids never hung out with one another.
My world spun, reeled and morphed out of my control. I needed something to cling to, something that could help take me away from my confusion and fresh anger. My fifth grade instructor Mrs. Estes came to the rescue. She began reading a book to the class, a tradition I’ve always appreciated. My favorite moments of elementary school were the reading circles, in which I enjoyed stories like James and the Giant Peach and Charlotte’s Web.
She chose The Giver, a Pulitzer Prize winner by Louis Lowery. The novel was about a society in which a council chooses and plans each person’s life for them, including their schooling, career, life partner, and children. Every individual begins taking pills to control and suppress their natural emotions when he or she reaches puberty. The Giver, the only person who has memories of true emotion and the way the world used to be, chooses Jonas, the only person of his generation to see colors, to be the next Receiver of Memories.
The class sat attentively for all of three or four chapters, one or two chapters read per day, before the fidgeting and complaining began.
“Wait, what’s going on?”
“This is complicated…”
Classmates let their attention wander. People kicked their feet under their desks, until one day Mrs. Estes called for a vote on whether or not she should continue reading the story at all. As each hand rose for the vote to discontinue the story for its complicated nature, my glare at each student intensified to a ferocity that would contribute to my complete social rejection by the entire class. My fifth grade class in Tuscaloosa Alabama decided that The Giver was too complicated to casually enjoy. Luckily, when I approached my instructor about my disappointment, she allowed me to borrow the book. I never returned it, and now I always keep at least two copies of The Giver in case I ever see Mrs. Estas again and have the opportunity to finally return her book.
In middle school I participated in the Excel-Erated Reader program. By then I had developed an obsession with fiction that exceeded my previous obsession with dinosaurs and other prehistoric-related nonfiction. I began sneaking off to the library during lunch and other odd hours again. I overtook the entire reading competition by hundreds of points by reading the Shannara series, anything by Piers Anthony, and several other fiction stories about groups of people of different races who embark on quests together to save “the realms.” I would not know to classify these stories as Lord of the Rings rip-offs until years later.
When I began home schooling, I had all my time to myself and my books. I read everything I could get my hands on in an order that only made sense to me. I read a massive text book on the history of art and a book about how baby brains develop in utero and through the first five years after birth. When I began reading nursing textbooks from the 80’s I realized I was forcing the habit instead of enjoying the pursuit of knowledge. When I realized there were only so many books I would ever get to read in my lifetime, I experienced a depressing burn-out.
In the beginning of my adulthood, I went through a fragmentation. I had wanted to be a writer since I read the first story I had ever written out loud to my third grade class and received positive feedback, but in my late teens and early twenties I became obsessed with making as much money as possible, and writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction until 3 in the morning just wasn’t cutting it. I began to socialize more and got caught up in the inevitable drama of the pursuit of sex, career, and trying to define personal success. For some reason I decided that success and the pursuit of it meant saving what I really wanted to do – writing – for a time in which I could afford to do it. That meant, for the most part, that while scrambling and focusing on work, I mostly didn’t read. Reading meant that I would have the unstoppable urge to write. I kept away from books, pen, and paper for their time consumption.
In that span of four years I remember reading Stephen King’s Cell and a book about the A to Z of historic serial killers. I felt like I was sleeping through part of my life and part of my potential. I ignored my monstrously hungry mind in favor of blazing through paths that could have destroyed me. Those paths and their potential destructive outcome are a story for another time.
My first attempt at college got me reading again. I participated in my first English class in years, then a creative writing class. “In order to write, you must read,” teachers and textbooks urged me. I unlocked parts of myself that I had put away as if they were toys that turned out to be essential tools.
My poems came back first. They were short, bitter, disturbing, and stilted. They would drop onto notebooks between school notes, with bits of flash-fiction peppered in between.
I unpacked some of my boxes of books and rediscovered Jewel’s book of poetry, A Knight Without Armor. I discovered poetry by Dorianne Laux, who instantly became a favorite poet when she came to Georgia Perimeter College to read us some of her work. I wrote clumsily in my first attempt at English 1102 about how much the vivid imagery and life in her poems inspired me while I bought more notebooks and started writing chunks of larger stories. I even unearthed some poetry from inside that wasn’t all about dark alleyways and anger.
Unfortunately, when I fully engaged in my own writing again, my attention outside of my own art became fickle. Soon I didn’t want to write anything that wasn’t an expression of my creativity. While I missed deadline after deadline, I sent poem after poem to online publications. I failed my English 1102 class, but three months later, amid pages of polite rejections from various literary magazines in my email inbox, there was one letter from Mused: Bella Online Literary Journal informing me they had accepted my poems “Breathe” and “Control” for unpaid publication.
Two days ago I finished reading Always Looking Up by Michal J. Fox. In the book he explains that the title is partially a height joke and partially about the importance of his positive outlook while living with Parkinson’s disease. Before that I read On Writing by Stephen King, in which he describes his agonizing journey with the necessity of writing when it competes with a lifetime of poverty and working strenuous and monotonous jobs for survival. He also describes how difficult but necessary it was for him to get back to writing after his near-fatal accident.
I am 27 years old. I’m back in school and trying out English 1102 again. I have published seven poems in four different publications. After I finish this piece of writing, barring a sudden bus accident, I will finish reading the book Timeline, a science fiction novel by Michael Crichton. Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park, which Steven Spielberg made into a Hollywood movie in the 90’s that fueled a dinosaur obsession I had for two years of elementary school. He died in 2008. A year before his death I decided making money was more important than writing.
I like to think that I’ve woken up and returned to myself since then. I now remember each day that a reader has the unique privilege of living in a multi-verse composed of stories, and a writer has the privilege of leaving unique new worlds behind for others. I won’t forgive myself if I don’t take the chance to create at least one new world before I leave this one.