I started wanting to be writer around the same time that I started loving books. I didn’t recognize that writer-feeling at the time. I thought it was just the way reading feels. There’s pleasure, but also yearning. I wasn’t just reading, I was dismantling, studying, trying to figure out how it’s done. And also, cultivating that tiny sadness that comes when you secretly admire every page that you didn’t write.
I remember being obsessed with the library by second grade. Checking out enormous joke books which I knew even then, were tacky and profane. I read them with a frown, intent on figuring out how puns were funny, and trying to get the gag. My elementary school had several large volumes of knock-knocks and other puns. I remember considering them somewhat sacrosanct, filled with secrets, underneath the gaudy.
By the time I was reading Mad Magazine it was with a similar seriousness, and respectably, in private. I adored it, but I didn’t laugh. I was studying it, without even noticing that I was analyzing and holding the pages with an envious grip. I was solidly and emphatically impressed. And I read slowly, cover to cover, every word, illustration, and doodle examined and consumed.
Reading was a way to escape, of course, the dour living room of our little rental, a new one each year, and fall into Judy Blume’s scandalous narratives, Beverly Clearly’s lovely dating girls, and the endless questions brought about by the mystery of The Godfather, which I read at age 10.
My mom (single by then) had one bookshelf filled with trade paperbacks, astrology guides, health food cookbooks and things like Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Khahil Gibron’s The Prophet. I read that, Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, and The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford on the cover. And I poured over Rolling Stone and Cosmopolitan, the mags she subscribed to. I read whatever we had.
My mother’s books, grown-up books, were not particularly enjoyable. They were mysterious and often sexual (i.e. Sonny Corleone’s large-cocked adventures in Godfather), but I read them with a kind of duty. I hadn’t quite articulated yet that I was educating myself as a writer.
And it’s no wonder I was able to stay in school for so long, eventually getting my doctorate. I was already used to reading up a few levels, standing on tip-toe brain-wise, trying to grasp meaning.
I have only just recently been calling myself a writer. Without apology. I can safely say that I have been one since, perhaps, if I’m honest, kindergarten. Isn’t that when the murmuring rhapsody, then slipshod, slipping, stuttering, began?
How sweet that it took me so long to admit it. Even after spending all of my life either writing or reading or doing something that would enable the one or the other.
That is how it happens.