Sunday, November 2, 2008

Books, childhood, writing

I do not plan on abandoning this blog because I'm, ahem, writing a novel. I plan on being extra busy. I'm already tired, though the time change may be a good reason for that. It usually takes me two weeks to adjust to the time change. I don't mind that it gets dark an hour earlier than it did yesterday. I like the dark, and Maine is more than a bit bleak in the Winter, so I don't need to see it as much. Sounds strange, when I put that into words.

I thought, perhaps, that since it's only 8:30, I would put in a bit more time working on the novel. Let me amend that last sentence: I am not "working" on this novel. I am playing. Maybe the fact that I feel like I'm playing at being a novelist is why I have called the collection of words I've written thus far the "novel", referred to it as the "so-called novel" or wrote "ahem" in the first sentence of this post. but the truth is, I am playing a novelist (though not on TV).

Heh. I was intending to write about music. So much for that. I am not going to.

I wonder why it never occurred to me to be a writer. I learned to read at a very young age. I was fascinated with the written word. I remember very clearly that, when watching TV, if there were words on the screen, I'd call for my mother, because I wanted to know what those words were. Of course, she'd never arrive on time, but I know I did it anyway, much to her annoyance. Thinking back, I'd make a bet that the first word I learned to read was "Acme", the brand name on every product in Looney Tunes cartoons.

Saying books were an essential part of my childhood would be a gross understatement. When I was still in the picture book stage of life, I made my own, and I continued to do so after I started reading books without pictures. I still have some of these books, things made of colorful construction paper with names like "Cherry Street" and "Fun!" It reminds me that there actually was a time in my childhood when I had a happy side. There were some made of plain white paper, that I dictated to my father while he typed my words. I recall one in particular, which was a ghost story, and I wanted to draw a skeleton, but it was beyond my abilities, so my Dad drew it. I was quite impressed! My father drew wonderfully funny cartoons. On some Sundays he'd draw faces on soft boiled eggs and they were so fantastic I didn't want to break the shell. Of course, I had to, and learned my first lesson in non-attachment. Aha! Maybe that's why I became a Buddhist as an adult.

I still have some of these little books somewhere. They are the only things of my childhood that I still own. I have no family photos, nothing, but I have these.

I continued to draw but I stopped writing and became a reader instead. My reading was voracious. In the summer between the fifth and sixth grades, I made a pact with myself that I'd read one book a day. Why I wanted to do this, I have no memory of, but I remember it was a big deal. I got a roll of adding machine paper and fixed it to the ceiling of my bedroom. When I finished a book, I'd write the name of it on the paper tape, and sure enough, by the end of the summer, the paper was hanging near the floor with the names of all the books I had digested. I'm hard pressed to tell you what I read that summer, for I basically forgot each book as I started the next one. It was a contest with myself. I know I read Agatha Christie and stayed up late into the night to find out who dunnit. I had a sense that all her novels were terribly similar, but I was obsessed with reading all of them. Did I? I don't know. Probably not, but I may have read all the ones that were in our local library.

I was lucky to have a world class library in the town I grew up in. I was lucky, also, to have a father who advocated for me obtaining an adult library card before I was twelve. I still remember him arguing with the librarian at the front desk about the absurdity of not allowing a child who wanted to read good books to borrow books outside of the children's section. I'm sure my father could have taken these books out for me, of course, but I suppose he thought there was some principle involved. I did get an adult library card before I was twelve. I was thrilled. That library was a big one and there were countless books and new worlds that I clamored to dive into.

If it wasn't for that library, I have no idea, absolutely no idea, how I would have made it through childhood. The library was my safe haven, no matter what the problem was. When I was bullied at school, the library was the place where I was treated well, and no book ever bullied me. When my parents were fighting, the library was the quiet place where noone ever raised their voice. When I needed to escape from anything, the library was there, and so was the escape of both fiction and non-fiction. I could travel to ice caves in places I never heard of or far flung galaxies filled with aliens. Truth was, I was pretty non-discriminatory in my reading. My library allowed ten books to be taken out at one time and I would always, absolutely always, come home with all ten.

First I'd look at what was in the new book section. I did judge books by their covers. Whoever came up with the aphorism "You can't judge a book by its cover" is dead wrong. Okay, maybe that was true back before there were graphic designers and art directors and all books were bound in a few different shades of leather, but you absolutely can judge a book by its cover.

You can spot a romance novel or some chick lit a mile away. These are two genres that I have actually never read. It seems impossible to believe that I didn't at least try to read one or two, but I can't think of any.

I've read everything else (and I don't mean I've read every novel in the world. I mean, how many lifetimes exactly do you think that would require?)

I've gone through so many different phases where I'd read only one genre until I couldn't take it any more, or I'd read everything by one author, all in a row. I still do this now and again.

For nearly ten years, I would not read anything that was written after 1915 or so. Before that, I was a science fiction fanatic. I did think I had some sort of problem. Reading about the past or the future was certainly escapist, but isn't all fiction reading escapist? Maybe. Maybe not. I suppose it depends on how one reads.

For me, it really was mostly about escape. Reading blocked out the world. Add to that the fact that if one is reading, most people will not interrupt you, and it's the perfect thing for a maladjusted kid (or adult). And one can bury one's face in a book. Yes, a book is the perfect hiding place.

So, why did I never think of writing? I know I wrote fiction in junior high school and I got good grades, but it never occurred to me that I could write books. That was for other people, very special other people. I was not one of them. Maybe I'd keep a journal and sometimes venture into writing from someone else's perspective, but a book? No, I couldn't imagine being an author.

Writers were rarefied creatures who I imagined had immense imaginations. Coming up with a plot? How did they do it? It seemed beyond my imagination even to imagine how a writer came up with a plot. And unfortunately, I was brought up with the belief that if something didn't come naturally to you, and you had other talents, you should leave those other dreams aside. So, if the thought ever arose (which indeed it did) that I might like to try to write a book, even just to see how it felt or what would happen, I'd just brush that thought aside as fast as I could.

So, I guess I'm finally doing it. I'm writing the book I should have written when I was twelve years old. Here's one thing I'm grateful for: if I wrote it then, I would have had to write it longhand or on a manual typewriter. Ouch!

Image note: From Clara Hinton's 1906-1907 diary. Find more at the Historic Iowa's Children's Digital Diaries Collection.


jmcleod76 said...

I had a very similar relationship to my town's public library, growing up. Though ours couldn't remotely be called "world class." It was a tiny place housed in my small town's former one-room schoolhouse (which, incidentally, my father had attended as a child). Even so, it was magic to me. Possibly more so because I didcovered myself at about the age of 11 (my parents never encouraged reading). I walked, by myself, across town and applied for the card. I used to spend hours in there some nights after school, or on Saturday mornings until they closed. There's still something so psychologically comforting about that musty smell of very old, dry-rotting books.

And I did start writing my first novel at 12, on my sister's old electric typewriter, with a roll of correction tape at my side. It was a fantasy novel about a princess named Lark who wants to be a knight, and gets her wish after her youngest sister is kidnapped by a rival kingdom. Not exactly Tolstoy, I know, but I was deadly earnest about it.

Julie H. Rose said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I love libraries of ALL sizes. I hope the internet doesn't make them obsolete, but I suppose it will in time.

I love that smell, too. There's a perfume that's supposed to smell of musty books (and it has a name - lignan) but it didn't do anything for me.

Where was your little library?

jmcleod76 said...

It no longer exists. Or, rather, it was merged into a larger library, along with the the one in the next town over, about five miles away. It used to be at the corner of Route 130 and Murrysville Road in a little town called Level Green, Pa. Now it's a recreation center. That's cool, too, I guess, but I'm glad it was a library when I was a kid. If it hadn't been walking distance from my house, I may have never fallen in love with libraries.

Julie H. Rose said...

I have no idea where that is in PA. I lived in PA for a few years, and the town I lived in had the smallest library of any place I've ever lived, and this was New Hope, which is rather a fancy little town.
One of my favorite libraries was in Hoboken, New Jersey, where it felt like I was the only customer. Most of the books I took out were last borrowed when the librarians used dip pens to write the due dates. I loved that - such a sense of history - imagining what who might have read that Trollope novel forty years back. Or George Gissing - he may have been a contemporary of the reader! I loved it.

Darryll said...

Interesting post!! I love to read different kinds of books!!