This is a short memoir piece that my wonderful wife wrote and the essay won second place at a local ARC conference.
I have, since I can remember, always been intimidated by writing. Upon thinking about what is important to me about reading and writing, I began to think about my childhood. A few events stand out as bends in the road. When I was about seven years old, I read a book entitled The Adventures of Mabel by Harry Thurston Peck. I remember being intrigued by the antiquity of the book as I read it, adding to the sensation of mystery and time travel. Mabel is a fantasy story set in the 1800’s. My book was a 1916 printing, passed down from my grandmother and mother, both of whom had written in it, of course. The doodle marks lent a feeling of being connected to the past, a part of it. This was my first experience with an antique book, and I still love to collect them on occasion; however, more than that, it was my first in depth story in which I became utterly engaged. I was Mabel for a time, and loved it.
Fast forward to the 3rd grade. I remember little from my childhood except what I consider to be these moments of change or awakening. Sometimes these moments were negative. My teacher asked each of us students to write a short paragraph or two about our neighborhoods. I wrote a veritable masterpiece of poetic prose about my 1970’s subdivision that provoked quite a bit of snickering. I was a victim of what I learned later to be termed “purple prose”. I still feel a twinge of embarrassment when I think of that moment. Everyone else’s stories were normal, and mine was a lesson in melodrama. I faltered at the laughter and stopped reading. I don’t remember what happened after that. I probably blocked it out.
That same teacher, however, did introduce us to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which again, whet my appetite for adventure and fantasy. To this day, I love these stories and reread them regularly for comfort and escape. I truly began at this point to learn the benefits of the written word. This awkward shy kid could be anything, or anybody, just by opening a book. I never attempted writing again, of my own volition, and hated it after 3rd grade. I don’t remember being an especially good student in my English classes, just fair. I never forgot, however, that reading could still offer an escape from the realities of the everyday drudgery of gas station coffee, beige cubicles, fluorescent lighting, and tyrannical bosses. I may not be a great writer, but I can still benefit from the talents of others and live another life outside the cubicle.
Another turning point for me in my failure as a writer is when I first entered college and had to take English 1101 as a requirement. My professor graded every paper on a scale of zero to ten. When he returned our first papers, to my horror, I made a two. Now, since I am currently an English major, this is difficult for me to admit. That red number two had such power over me. I heard the giggling of my 3rd grade class again. I quite gave up ever thinking I could write or analyze literature. I thought I probably couldn’t write a decent paper on Are You My Mother by Dr. Seuss (another childhood favorite). I saw the writing on the wall, and yes the pun was intended. My writing career was over before it started. I went back to my dorm room, reflected on my 3rd grade experience, cried a little, and let it go. I would never be a writer.
I passed that English class with a C. I finished all my English requirements and decided to major in Art. What really happened is that I dropped out of college and went to work at the Emory University Clinic as a medical records clerk. My life of cubicles, impatient doctors, and disgruntled patients had begun. College became a memory, however, what did stick with me was my desire to read. This desire quickly became a favorite pastime. I would sometimes sit at my desk and wonder what would unfold in the next chapter of my current read. My lunch breaks were spent in whatever quiet nook I could find. If someone sat down to talk to me, I would, as politely as possible, try to let them know I didn’t like talking while I was reading. This proved to be quite difficult due to my timid personality; therefore, finding a good hiding place was essential.
In the course of my adventures in office life, I also got married. This would prove to be a gross error in judgment. I clearly lacked wisdom when I was in my twenties, and my choice of a mate was the surest sign. I had somehow missed the fact that the man I married was a raging alcoholic and motivated crack addict. For reasons I cannot fathom, or due to some temporary insanity, I felt the need to hide this and pretend I loved being married. I was deeply embarrassed but more than that, I was trapped in an increasingly dangerous situation. My home life was chaotic and unpredictable. I constantly had to stay one step ahead of my husband’s next crack binge—hiding money and valuables and sleeping with one eye open. My only escape at that time was a collection of beloved books. When my husband was gone, I ran to my bookshelf and chose where I wanted to go. Would it be Medieval Scotland, Revolutionary America, or Middle Earth? Would I be traveling west with Willa Cather or stay in the South with Harper Lee? Perhaps, I would take a trip to China with Pearl Buck. Or I could visit Judah Ben Hur in Jerusalem during the time of Christ, which was one of my favorites. Whatever I chose, I knew I could escape for a little while from the mistake to which I was bound. I can truly say those books were my friends. I read a quote, attributed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which she wrote, “No one can ever be called friendless who has God and the companionship of good books” (Goodreads.com). I know from experience the truth of those words.
Now I am nearing my forties, and I have returned to college at the encouragement of my current husband, best friend, and fellow English major. When I first came back, I was unable to decide what to major in. I thought about going into the medical field and remembered that math and I did not get along well, at all. I considered art and history again, but I couldn’t deny a little flame of desire in my heart. I really wanted to study literature. But in my mind, I was convinced of my lack of ability as a writer and, therefore, could never study English with such a handicap. My age may have something to do with the path I chose, but I finally decided I would rather risk failure. George MacDonald once said, in one of his many fantasy stories, that “To try to be brave, is to be brave” (89). This became my motto for returning to my first love and, also, finally pushing back on a fear that took root so many years ago. If I dare to risk failure, then I am being brave. The attempt takes courage, and the journey will give me the chance to gather wisdom. To walk away from a seemingly insurmountable challenge is failure in the worst form—by giving in to fear. I have no idea if I will be a successful writer in the worldly sense, but I have lost interest in that now. I want to remain humble, learn, explore, and finally claim victory over my old fears. For me this truly is an adventure. So, I will conclude with another quote from one who has been described as a master of purple prose—J.R.R. Tolkien:
The road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet,
And whither then? I cannot say (62).
Browning, Elizabeth B. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2014. .
MacDonald, George. At the Back of the North Wind. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1994. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 1969. Print. The Lord of the Rings.