I apologize that this may appear to be my most self-centered outing to date, but I assure you that there is a motive behind this blog. Not too long ago, Mrs. Pedro implied that the readership of these faculty blogs falls somewhere between “several” and “a handful.” Well, I have ensured a larger audience by requiring all of my 11th grade AP English students to read the following and to use it as a model for their essays. While some might accuse me of providing TMI, I hope that at the very least, my future students will see this as an opportunity to reveal a bit of their personalities to me.
My History as a Reader
As far back as I can recall I have always been a reader. I don’t have any memories of my parents ever reading to me, but this may have more to do with logistics than with neglect. I am a middle child. My older brother was born a scant eleven months before me; my younger brother was born fourteen months after me. People referred to us as the “Irish triplets.” This may explain the fuzziness associated with my earliest years. I’d like to think that they read to me, but as a smooth-talking bureaucrat testifying before a Senate subcommittee might say, “I have no recollection of those events.”
Like most good children, I learned from what my parents did, and then did the opposite. My wife and I have three children, but we seem to have opted for the college plan—there’s a nine-year gap between our oldest and our youngest. Of course, what this means is that I have spent roughly thirteen years of my adult life reading children’s literature. Believe me, that is plenty of time to realize that for every one well-written child’s book that you will enjoy reading over and over and over again, there are at least a dozen mind-numbingly, soul-sappingly bad ones that you won’t. Can you say two bears on one wheel?
Growing up, I was one of those earnest, quiet, self-conscious borderline geeks who naturally gravitated toward books. I remember being an intensely curious child. I tore through dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases. I read books about animals, astronomy, the oceans, and human oddities. One of the dustiest artifacts from my reading past is a well-worn first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. Perhaps crossing the line into full-frontal geek-dom, I still remember that at eight-feet-eleven-and-a-half-inches, Robert Wadlow was the world’s tallest man and that Chang and Eng Bunker were the planet’s first Siamese twins.
As for fiction, comic books proved to be my gateway drug. Most of the kids who were my age poured their allowance money into baseball trading cards. Not me. I bought comics. I’m pretty sure that I started with Archie, Reggie, Veronica, Betty, and Jughead but quickly moved on to Batman, Spiderman, Superman, The Hulk, Swamp Thing, and Sergeant Rock. As the years went on, I continued to experiment. Adventure gave way to humor. I bought Mad Magazine and its knockoff, Cracked. Humor led to horror. I couldn’t get enough of Tales from the Crypt, Eerie, Creepy, Famous Monsters and Fangoria.
This stage of my life as a reader climaxed with National Lampoon. From the moment that I saw the issue with a cover illustration of a loaded handgun pointed at the head of a doe-eyed mongrel and the exhortation, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog,” I was hooked. At age thirteen, National Lampoon was the most subversive thing I had ever seen; the language was blue and so, too, were some of the pictures. I remember hiding copies from my mother’s prying and far more conservative eyes. Each page contained sins that I would one day have to confess. The humor was all over the place. It was lowbrow and highbrow, sophomoric and scholarly, scatological and cerebral. I laughed even when I didn’t get the jokes.
Two of the novels that I remember liking most during my high school years were The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. To be certain, I liked them both for the usual reasons: the cynicism and adolescent angst of the former and the palpable sense of danger in the latter. What was most appealing to me, however, was the whole notion of prep school. The idea that children could live apart from their parents was particularly appealing to me.
Why do I read? I read because I enjoy it. It is a pleasurable experience to be alone with a book. Reading is an emotional, intellectual, rewarding and infuriating experience. I read because there are writers who comfort me with the knowledge that my thoughts are not quite so singular. I read because there are writers who challenge me to see that my thoughts should not be quite so intractable.
My History as a Writer
Good writers intimidate me. They awe me with their talent, their imaginations, their effortless manipulations, their ability to turn a phrase, and the way that they can wring emotion from a few well-chosen words. Good writers make it look so darned easy.
Bad writers, on the other hand, infuriate me. I hate it when an author promises so much, but delivers so little. There’s nothing worse than ending a book with the feeling that—had I been sequestered in a room with three chimps and four typewriters—I could have written something better.
For me, writing is like therapy. Chemotherapy. It is a long and often excruciatingly painful process, but without it, I, or more accurately, the part of me that I consider to be my best—my creativity—would die. I can’t sing, I don’t play any musical instruments, and if you’ve ever seen me out on the dance floor, you’d know that I derive no pleasure from watching myself gavotte.
Writing, then, is the only creative outlet available to me. I like to think that I do it well, but I sure don’t do it easily. “Blood from a stone” is far too watered down an analogy to use when describing my process. I agonize over word choices. I am my own worst editor. I make multiple revisions before and after I commit words to paper. I can find any number of excuses not to write. The toilets in my house are always at their cleanest when I’m writing.
Like many writers, I, too, was blessed with a thoroughly dysfunctional family. We Crawleys had our dirty little secrets, but we knew how to keep them. Very early on, my brothers and I realized that we were members of two very distinct families—the one that was trotted out for public consumption and the one that slowly imploded in private. Unlike many writers, I am either unwilling or unable to air out my family’s soiled sheets. Perhaps someday I’ll write my own heartbreaking work of staggeringly semi autobiographical genius while running with scissors. Perhaps I’m still waiting for a few more family funerals.
I have had a few successes with my writing. It is very likely that my ability to put pen to paper convinced my wife that I was indeed marriage material. Before we were engaged, we were in a long distance relationship. Three or four times each year we shuttled between Illinois and Rhode Island, but when we were apart, we spoke on the phone and wrote to each other—rambling, unequivocal, surprisingly-for-me unselfconscious letters. Three years worth. Enough to fill an eighteen-gallon storage container.
I have also been paid to write, albeit poorly. For two-and-a-half years I was a reporter for The Woonsocket Call, a daily newspaper with a circulation of roughly 28,000. Let’s just say that I know why the Egyptians didn’t build inverted pyramids. I chafed at the necessity of having to follow a rigid format and to essentially write the same story over and over and over again. I wasn’t too keen on the unwritten edict that my copy never offend, nor provoke, and I definitely did not like the deadlines.
Writing may have actually been the hidden agenda in my becoming a teacher. When I returned to college in my early forties, I did so primarily to acquire my Secondary Ed / English certification, but I also returned to school with the hope that the academic setting would stimulate my creativity. I also thought that if I could find someone to hold a gun to my head (figuratively speaking, of course) and force me to write that I would do it. So far, the results have been mixed. In my second year of college I won a scholarship for critical writing. The following year, I wrote a short story that nabbed me a scholarship for creative writing. The natural trajectory might be short story gets published, followed by first novel, followed by chatting on the couch with Oprah… Of course, as my name on a fading placard still adorns the door of room 135, we can all see that this is not exactly how the scenario has played out.
Once I graduated and began teaching, I pretty much stopped writing. My short story still sits in a drawer at home, unaccompanied by others and unsent. It might be the fear of failure that has kept me from sending it out into the world. As for the not writing, it probably comes down to the fact that writing takes discipline, commitment, and time. Three things that are often in short supply. Don’t kid yourself; very, very few people think that writing is an easy task. And most of us despise the people who say it is…
Ending on a positive note, it appears that Mr. Perry—in shall we say “encouraging” me to write these blogs—has essentially pointed a six-shooter at my noggin’. This is my fourth blog this year (if anyone’s counting—Nanny, nanny boo-boo!) and I must say that I’ve really almost enjoyed each of the experiences cobbling them together.
Someone had better tell Dave Eggars and Augusten Burroughs to watch their backs.