Photo by Michele Asselin
It is ironic that I am a writer who, as a child, did not like reading.
In a family of readers, I resisted. I preferred to make up stories about an entirely imaginary family only I knew. They lived with me, or I lived with them, through their tribulations, illnesses, and adventures. We spoke a private language, which I translated for my mother and father, occasionally, for my brother.
When I was ten, my concerned, well-read librarian grandmother offered me fifty cents for every book I read. I saw this as a bribe. Instead, I wrote a play. I remember nothing about its characters or plot. I do recall lying on my bed with pencil and paper, hatching a story as the sound of the pencil scratched across the paper, forming sentences.
But I would not read except the books assigned at school as homework. Everything changed when I was about twelve. Each summer, my family and another with whom we were close, rented a house at the beach for two weeks. This was the best time of the year. We explored the giant fern forest, the sand dunes and moss-draped cedar trees behind it, played the Rock Game, another story, ate home made blackberry pies, sang songs. Reading did not enter this picture for me at all so I do not know what caused me, one afternoon, to pick up a book, The Secret Garden, and read it through. I was amazed at the power of the story’s characters transmitted to my heart right there in that beach cottage. After that, I chose Drums Along the Mohawk, another library book in the stack at the beach. I was hooked.
What any of this might mean to writers and readers today, I cannot say. Websites are stuffed with advice for writers, and I’ve offered up my share to writers in courses I’ve taught. Maybe what I’ve written here is for people who can read but aren’t reading—yet. Maybe it’s about moving at your own speed. Reading widely certainly improves a writer’s writing, and writing creatively is allied with reading, but at times they do not occur necessarily in lockstep, a statement I can make from my own experience.
For me, the best part about writing a book or dreaming up a movie is that first moment when the idea appears, whole, emotionally formed, in imagination. Often, it never looks like that again, depending on how well you translate its first appearance into words, but the purity of that first impression, and the excitement of it, keeps me, as a writer, going through the tough, fractious course of bringing it into a form and a story that can be shared with everyone else.