“I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled.”
―Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale
I love science, deeply and dearly, but it was not my first academic love. My first love, my first obsession, was the written word.
For literally my entire remembered life, books have been magical to me. I don’t really remember the details of learning to read–I was too young–but I remember the feeling of excitement at the world opening up to me as reading transitioned from being laborious to fluid. I remember the swell of pride when I finished my first chapter book. I read constantly, dozens of books a semester during school and literally hundreds each summer.
I had my favorite places to read, though perhaps the most emotionally salient to me now is the tiny tower room in my grandparents’ house, lounging in a papasan chair while the rain beat against the windows. I read every night before I fell asleep, sometimes under the covers when I was supposed to be sleeping. When my parents were out, I’d listen for the barking dogs to announce their return so that I could flip off my light before they saw it through the upstairs window. I read in the car even though it always made me carsick, requiring me to take frequent breaks to close my eyes and breathe and will myself not to vomit. Books were my retreat, my comfort, my friends, and they never failed me.
I was only five when I started telling people I wanted to be a writer. I got incredibly enthusiastic about assignments to write stories at school–I believe my first was in kindergarden, about a girl with a rainbow dress. I’m sure my mother still has it in some box in the basement, with it’s huge scrawled words and crayon illustrations. And I kept writing…stories for awhile, and then there was a poetry kick in 4th grade, a personal-essay kick in 8th. And on and off, I wrote journals and diaries.
What captured me so strongly about stories and words was the absolute magic of taking a pen to paper, making a few scratches, and creating a whole other world. With just a bit of ink and care and time, I could invite someone else inside my head, into my own perspective or my own inventions. Beautiful.
Sadly, at some point the stresses of early adolescence combined with my perfectionism and my anxious nature to make me deeply uncomfortable and unhappy with myself, and therefore what went on in my head. I had poured every feeling into writing, and now I began to regret doing so–who would want to read the work of some stupid and silly child like me? By nine or ten, I had realized the terrible flip side of that beautiful magic of putting a piece of yourself on paper–it made you vulnerable. Letting people see the real you, even if just a peek through the window of your writing–that was dangerous.
I didn’t stop writing, but my relationship with it became rather fraught. I wrote poems that I later tore into pieces out of shame for their poor quality. I began to struggle with school writing assignments, because nothing I wrote felt good enough to be worthy of sharing with another human being. The fact that I was constantly praised for my writing somehow didn’t help–I knew that they didn’t mean it was really good, just that it was better than the output of the average 9/10/11/12 year old. I wanted to make things that were of legitimate value, not just things that were better than average.
My withdrawal into myself and my growing well of self-judgement and hatred around the time of middle school was not restricted to my behavior regarding writing, and the story of me coming out of it is a long one that is not particularly related to what I want to say with this post, so I will not explain it here. Suffice it to say that while sharing my writing with others can still be difficult, I’ve become accustomed to doing it and even do so willingly.
Why is all of this on my mind today? Well, for one, sunny Southern California is not so sunny today, and the habit of spending rainy days curled up with a book is deeply ingrained in me, such that I would love nothing more right now than to be back in my grandparents’ tower room with a blanket and a novel. For another, I’m listening to an audiobook of a book I’ve read before, The Thirteenth Tale, the narrator of which feels much the way I do about the power of words:
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”
― Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale
But perhaps the most important reason is this: I’m in a pensive, slightly melancholy mood. I have a lot on my mind and a deep need to immerse myself in one constant, steady stream of thought, words on a page. In The Thirteenth Tale, the narrator speaks of the terrible feeling she experiences when reading and immersing herself in a story fails to clear her head or comfort her. I remember that feeling, one I began to experience particularly frequently in early high school and which I met with dismay. Stories were my haven, my failsafe escape route, and when they did fail, I felt lost.
Of course, like all adults, I have learned other ways to comfort or distract myself (some healthier or more admirable than others). In fact writing, in particular, often gets the thoughts out of my head and makes sense of them. But sometimes I simply miss the days before I ever felt that sinking feeling of my fiction failing to sweep me away. I miss the days where there was nothing that a good story couldn’t fix, at least for a time. I miss the version of myself that had such deep faith in stories. And at those times, I’d really like to be home with a book, visiting with a beautiful long-lost part of myself that was actually here all along. Because that little kid with a head full of stories? She was pretty awesome, and though I’ll of course never get to be her again, I like remembering that she is part of me.