Thursday, February 23, 2012

Readin' & Writin' & Judgin' a Book by Its Cover

How does one become a writer? What does it take to be a writer? Why does one become a writer? That last one is easy to answer. Have a story and the desire to tell it. That also answers the second question. Have a story and the desire to tell it. The first one also has an easy answer. You sit down and start writing the story you have and desire to tell.
While those simple answers certainly are true, they don’t tell all of it. Especially in regards to that first question. In my opinion, there is something far more fundamental that is needed to serve as the foundation before one can look to writing.
That fundamental is that one must first be a reader.
If you don’t like to read, then the chances are pretty good that the thought of writing a book will never occur to you. There is something that goes even deeper than that. The phrase, “Monkey see; monkey do,” applies very strongly here. Humans—heck most mammals and a notable number of non-mammals—learn by observing others. If you read a lot, then your brain is going to be conditioned how to write by the example of how other writers have written. If I complete writing a chapter and then sit down and read a book for a while, when I return to my own writing and reread it, I catch my mistakes fairly easily. If you do not read, then you are not going to be exposed to the structures and flow of writing. Without those examples as stimulus, you are probably not going to write very well.
When I was a young boy, I was not much of a reader. The desire and motivation was just not there for me. I just could not get myself interested in reading a book. In kindergarten, I was excited about learning to read. In first grade, that excitement disappeared as I realized that reading was boring and by second grade, it was starting to get annoying and I was starting to not like reading. It was boring!
The third grade at the age of seven was a critical year for me. I knew my reading skills weren’t as good as other kids my class and it bothered me a lot. Enough so, that I began to try and figure out why I wasn’t getting into books. I used to love reading when I started learning to read. There were books that I absolutely loved pulling out! I remember when I got my first library card, I was so excited! So what was the difference?
What happened that caused me to lose interest in reading?
It was when they handed out our third grade reading books that the answer to that question began to reveal itself to me. I did not like those books at all and reading went to the bottom of my list. That only heightened my concern.
High Plains Elementary was an unusual environment. It wasn’t until my family moved and I found myself in a completely different school system that I appreciated the difference. At High Plains, the children’s culture determined your social ranking not by your size, strength or speed, but by your academic standing. That was probably brought about by the fact that the school system was a very progressive one.
For example, they started teaching the students French in the third grade. I was abysmal at it! For the next three years (third, fourth and fifth grades), French was my worst course. I could not at all wrap my brain around that language! It didn’t matter how hard I tried, I just could not understand it. The last thing I ever tried to say in French was, “I have a dog.” (“J’ai un chien”) What came out of my mouth instead was, “Je suis un chien.” (“I am a dog.”) That’s not something that you say in the fourth grade. The entire class burst out laughing and I felt utterly humiliated! I completely gave up on learning French at that point, and forever more would just sit and either sulk or daydream whenever French class would begin.
The reason for my failure at French was because at no time did anyone explain that the word order in French was different from English. As a result of this, I could never make sense of the sentences. I could never picture the meaning of what was said.
It would be many years before I would be able to understand the concept of what was going on with me. But I was beginning to understand that I was different as a child.
The foundation of my problem with learning French was the same as my issue with reading.
I realized that the reason I didn’t like the new reader books for the third grade was because they had almost no pictures in them. In first grade, we used pictures books—kiddy books—when learning the read. In second grade, the text was smaller and there were fewer images. By the third grade, they were weaning us off the picture books and going for more textual narratives.
My favorite books were several of the Dr. Seuss books, such as Green Eggs & Ham, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and a number of other books of which I can remember the pictures and the stories, but not the titles. I absorbed the stories through the images. I would study the images and lose myself in the images. But not the words themselves.
The third grade readers had almost no pictures in them. It certainly didn’t help that the subject matter of the stories were boring as hell. I had no interest in drawing myself into those stories. Without a picture, I couldn’t generate the image in my mind needed to see the story I was reading.
The issue being, I think in images.
My favorite books were picture books, “kiddy books”. Not exactly something a seven-year-old boy wants revealed before his peers.
On one particular day in November, soon after that realization, my class was marched down to the school library for library studies. It was not one of my favorite activities. Dewey Decimal system, pick out a book. It was all boring. But at this particular moment, I was keenly aware that some of my classmates were picking out books that were several grades above my current reading level.
Not wanting to be embarrassed, I turned my back to the book section I might have chosen and walked away. I decided it was time I look for something else to read.
A little more than forty years later, I can say absolutely that day was the most pivotal moment in my life. The choice I made that day set the course my life would follow. A choice made by a seven-year-old.
I don’t know why I actually looked at the books in particular. I think I recognized the covers on the Hardy Boys series, a favorite of my older brother. I wasn’t interested in mystery series, so I glanced down at the other books that had similar covers. The books were by the same company that published the Hardy Boys series: Stratemeyer Syndicate.
The books that caught my attention were the Tom Swift, Jr. series of books. A teenage scientist and his adventures with the things he built. Not exactly the most sophisticated reading, those books. They were written to formulated plots and set structures. But for a seven-year-old boy who wanted to read, they were perfect.
The book I pulled off of the shelf was particularly important. I flipped through the pages and noted there were no pictures in it. Oh! Wait! There were actually two or three drawings in it. Just enough to give my mind an image to build on while reading. But the cover was what really caught my eye. At the time, one of my favorite TV shows was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and my favorite cartoon was Marine Boy. Like these two TV shows, the book featured something that was the absolute epitome of coolness to a seven-year-old boy.
The cover featured a flying submarine!
What was so vitally important for me at that time was something that I would not quite realize until I was a few years older. The Tom Swift, Jr. books featured covers that showed a particular scene in the story contained within. It was vital because that image portrayed on the cover was the seed from which I was able to create the imagery of the story in my mind. It was a skill that I had not yet developed and it was a skill I needed to become a reader.
I sat down and began to read an “adult” book for the first time in my life. A story about a flying submarine.
And for the first time in my life, I began to enjoy reading.
It would be a few more books before I began to really visualize what I was reading. When I opened a book and began to read, I would no longer see the words on the page, I would instead see the imagery of the story like a movie played out in my mind. The passage of time would go unnoticed until I had to put the book down for one reason or another.
I began to read voraciously!
It wasn’t long before the drawings in the books that I originally relied on began to get in the way of my reading. Eventually, I graduated to more sophisticated reading.
It was my fourth grade teacher, Lark McGuire, who introduced me to the activity that would eventually become my career: writing.
The exercise was simple. She would write a sentence on the chalk board and our assignment was to take that sentence as the beginning of a story.
A fire lit in my soul like the flames of the sun! I couldn’t contain the incredible euphoria I felt! Where most of my classmates wrote one or two paragraphs, I was on page two and going onto page three.
The whole class enjoyed the exercise. So much so, that during one rained-out recess, Ms. McGuire asked us what we wanted to do for a game, and we begged her to write a sentence on the board so we could write.
I remember her asking, “Don’t you want to do anything else?,” and trying to talk us into playing a game or something. She had the biggest grin on her face when she turned and started writing something on the board. The more often we did those exercises, the longer and more fantastical the stories I wrote. A number of the kids in my class—friends and not-friends alike—wanted to see just what was going to come out of my imagination next.
I still have some of those stories, saved by my mother. And I can say with all certainty that they are pretty much as bad as the Marine Boy episodes linked above.
I loved to write. I yearned to write! Creative writing became my favorite exercise, because it gave me the excuse to write. But as time went by, creative writing gave way to more practical education. It wouldn’t be until my junior year in high school when we would have a creative writing class, and then only for about two or three weeks as part of English.
Because of the need for more “important” educational matters, it never occurred to me to just sit down and write for myself. It wouldn’t be until college when I would be sitting in a boring lecture, that I would begin to write stories again. Beyond that, the need to work in order to make enough money to survive would become my primary focus, and I kept putting off the thought of writing a book for some other point when I wasn’t so pressed.
Writing and reading go hand in hand. Each one reinforces the other. The more I read, the more I want to write. When I am having trouble writing something, I sit down and pull out a favorite book to read for a while. After that, I usually find it much easier to get started writing.
When I write, it really is the reverse of reading for me. As I read, I see the story played out like a movie before me. When I am writing, I am trying to write and describe the scenes that are passing before my mind. The more I write, the more I see the visualization of what I am writing.
I wonder what might have become of me had I not picked out that book that day? Which direction would my life have gone? Would I have ever found the joy of reading at a later age or would I have given up on it completely? I have no way to answer those questions.
I do find it interesting that the course of my life was determined by a frustrated and embarrassed seven-year-old boy over forty years ago. That my eventual career would be determined by a fourth-grade writing exercise a year later.
And that you really can judge some books by their covers….


  1. Your experience of becoming a reader is so different from mine. I started reading in pre-school and by first grade was using medical dictionaries and reading encyclopedias because Mom and Dad didn't have the time (or often the knowledge, by their own admissions) to answer my questions to my satisfaction. I read my first "adult" book in 3rd grade and then the six sequels in rapid succession; that is still one of my favorite series ever, as it brought to life Colonial Williamsburg, which was my favorite place to visit at the time, and the American Revolution; the Civil War; the "Gay 90s" in America and England; World War I in England and Germany; and then the interwar era and early World War II in America and England. Elswyth Thane, I still wish you had written the final book so I'd know how Mab and Jeff ended up!

    Along the way, I picked up Heinlein, Uris, Wouk, Michener, Asimov, Clancy, Cussler, and only God knows how many works of non-fiction history books. And then, even though I DESPISED the literature component of English (the analysis annoyed me; I never have liked being told what to think about what I read!), I minored in European literature so I picked up Proust (yuck), Rabelais, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Levi, Turgenev, Dante...

    I am utterly at a loss when I have nothing to read. I think there are only two things I would rather do than read. Though one of them I can do AS I read. Reading during the other would be rude :p

  2. If it's the other and you're reading...either it's a *really* engaging book (N,ACBO, perhaps...nudge, nudge, wink, wink, grin, grin, saynuhmore...) or somebody's doing something dreadfully wrong :-)

    1. It's all a hypothetical, anyway. The other is so far removed from memory that I'd likely have to be reading a "How To" book. Not for lack of trying... :p

  3. I enjoyed your post, particularly because I also went to High Plains, and also had Lark McGuire as a teacher. For me it was 6th grade in 1975-76. Best-


    1. Great to hear from you, Bill! You and I were classmates before I moved away! Well, same grade, different teachers at times. It was just before school ended in 1975 that my father announced we were moving in June. It was very likely I would have gotten Lark McGuire as a teacher again in the sixth grade. I took one look at your name and thought, "I know that name!"

      I'm working hard at finishing "Nobody" and I'm hoping to release it soon. Then it is on to the next book…

      Keep in touch!