This article is the third in a series on the subject of writing, “Why do you write (what you write)?” Read previous entries by Michael N. McGregor and Katherine Willis Pershey, and check back in next Thursday for our conclusion to the series.
My first teacher was a Finnish educator, as innovative and laid back as all the news stories would have you believe. She introduced fractions by having us bake bread. At lunch, we ate our labors—1/9 of a loaf—with guava jelly. If math could be tasty, reading was better. Reading was it.
My Finnish teacher was also my mother. We lived in Kenya then, and my mother and Mrs. Cochran took turns homeschooling four children—the two Cochran brothers and my sister and me (our parents chose not to send us to the local school because the principal used caning to discipline students). When it was my mother’s day to teach, she hustled us through the required curriculum and then pulled out a book.
“Okay,” she’d say, conspiratorially, “we’re on chapter six.” The work was done (or half done) and now we were getting away with something. As she read to us, her voice took on a natural cadence. It was as if she and the author were writing the scenes together. When the story was over, she’d hand out paper and crayons. “Draw a picture of how Laura Ingalls felt,” she might say.
This was how I learned to analyze literature.
When I was ten, our family moved to Texas, and for the first time, I attended a real school. No Finnish educator could have prepared me. I ate wrong, dressed wrong, fixed my hair wrong, and even read wrong. Phonics worksheets and spelling tests replaced stories. On the school bus, I squinted at vacant lots, pretending they were savannahs. I cried in bathrooms.
I found a copy of A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. The author was also disillusioned with humanity in general and America in particular. His descriptions of loneliness resonated with me. I skipped all the heartwarming places—and there were many—because I wanted to read about the struggles of the road. I was a ten-year-old cynic with a Cabbage Patch doll and a worn out copy of A Walk Across America.
That Christmas, my parents bought me the Anne of Green Gables series. I read it straight through and then began it again. “But you already know how it ends,” my father teased. I murmured something—the yeah, yeah, yeah of the reader—and returned to Rachel Lynde sitting by her window, wondering why Mathew Cuthbert was going into town so dressed up.
Books were more than plot. They were foremost about characters: Jo March, Lucy Pevensie, Francine Nolan, Siegfried Farnon, Will Tweedy, and of course, Anne with an E. When I was reading, I was experiencing life sideways and discovering, occasionally, that my most secret and embarrassing thoughts were not so peculiar after all.
Books were also about places. Who hasn’t stepped into a closet and wished you could be whisked away to Narnia? But, of course, books did that. They carried me to Burma and Prague, Minnesota and India. When my mother insisted I wash the dishes or clean my room for goodness sakes (cleanliness trumps all other Finnish virtues, even educational ones), I’d pinch the corner of a page and emerge, blinking. I’d been there, and now I was oh so reluctantly here.
In high school, I discovered yet another way to read. I discovered P.G. Wodehouse and never quite recovered. There was a pleasure that came from bumping into a wonderful turn of a phrase (those Wodehouse similes) or a particularly apt word choice. I’d been reading L.M. Montgomery’s masterful sentences for years without ever noticing the prose, but once my eyes were open to language, I couldn’t unsee style. I swooned frequently for writers, reading all they had to offer. There was Annie Dillard, Michael Ondaatje, Marilynne Robinson, Arundhati Roy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Iris Murdoch, Ben Okri, and on, and on.
All of this is to say that I am as much a professional reader as I am a writer. When I attended an artist residency in Pennsylvania, I was delighted to find myself in a farmhouse filled with unfamiliar books. Each day, I would read and write, read and write—the two inseparable.
I write for many reasons:
- I have opinions about everything—composting, grizzly bears, adverbs.
- I enjoy rearranging a sentence for an hour before ultimately deleting it (I also just spent 10 minutes adding and removing the word ultimately).
- I’m nostalgic for the places I have lived and the people I have known.
But I’m a writer because my mother set me on the path of reading.