Favorite Books: A Journey

Do you ever travel back through memories to see if you can pinpoint which things or moments altered your course in life? Not necessarily a big shift, but just recognizing that once that thing, whatever it was, was said or done or experienced you were different. Sometimes it’s special because it’s a first. The first time you jumped off the diving board. The first time you skated all around the roller rink without falling. The first time you finished a book that did something more than entertain you. As I’ve been practicing my craft and building my writer muscles, I started asking myself which books I think really made a difference. I wanted to examine which stories stayed with me over the years and what I feel they gave me.

This blog is supposed to be about my writing life and my reading life is a big part that. As you know, I’ll be sharing my reviews of newly published books this year, but I couldn’t neglect the books I’ve already read that helped lead me to this point. I want to use my love of books and writing to reach others who share that love. Maybe I’ll introduce you to a new book, or remind you of an old one you haven’t thought about in a while, but I don’t want to just talk about them…I want you to read them.

Once a month I’m going to share a book with you from my past. One that is meaningful to me in some way. If you share my blog and send a screenshot to me on Facebook or email it to me here, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of the beloved book I share that day. I’ll leave the pool open for one week and then draw a winner! This won’t make me a dime, you won’t be entered into some weird database or anything, I just want to put more books in people’s hands and I thought this would be a fun way to do it!

What book is first on deck? Let’s see, shall we…

I believe I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this book. We read some of it aloud in class, but mostly had chapter assignments to read at home. While other students groaned at the reminder, “Make sure you finish Chapter Three over the weekend so we can talk about it on Monday!” I was thrilled and grateful for every spare moment I could read.

I always read ahead, even when we were asked not to. Reading books in class felt painfully slow to me. The flow of the story was broken horrendously when only a chapter a week was assigned. And reading aloud in class? Torture. As an adult, I appreciate the importance of having children practice this, but, at the time, I could hardly sit still listening to classmates stumble over words and read an emotion-filled scene with all the passion of a dust mote. I would watch their lips move, and their finger trail along under the words and wonder if they were even aware of what they were reading or just making the sounds required.

I’d trudged through weeks of trying to pace myself, only allowing a chapter or two ahead of the class before going back to read along again and wait, but I reached my limit and decided one weekend to just finish the dang book already.

I sobbed. The book made me sob. I cried so hard, my emotions swaying in a synchronized dance of heartbreaking sadness and honest surprise at the heartbreaking sadness that my mom came running into my room to see what was wrong with me. I think I just pointed at the blasted book. That! That’s what did this to me!

I’m sure she smiled, I’m positive she hugged me. She knew. She knew how books could grab hold of you and make you care. This was my first real experience with it. I had been reading since two, had gotten teary-eyed a few times before, but this visceral reaction to the written word was entirely new. That day a door opened for me. The magic of books had just jumped from card tricks to vanishing acts. The magic of books that was growing alongside me suddenly shot over my head and through the sky. Simple words. Simple story. Deeply complicated feelings. Who knew?

The book was Where the Red Fern Grows.

If you’ve never read it, don’t let my sob story keep you from it. It’s an exceptional book. I have a copy on my bookshelf waiting for the day my son is ready for it. It wasn’t originally written for children, but Rawls truly captures the spirit of childhood. The energy, the thoughts, the dreaming.

If you’ve had the unfortunate chore of growing up without having read Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s a story about a boy living in the foothills of the Ozarks. He saves up his money to buy his heart’s greatest desire, a pair of coonhounds. The journey of their friendship and training winds through the forest of his childhood so closely you can smell the leaves crunching underfoot.

Read it as an adult to reflect on days of running around barefoot and the unconditional love of a dog. Have your kids read it to discover a different time, a different way of life, and perhaps some deeper emotion stored up somewhere just waiting for a good book to draw it out. Read it for nostalgia. Read it for heart. Read it for soul. It’s worth every salt-spiked tear.

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…and bleed.

Several years ago I had this amazing professor who, beyond all other things he taught me, helped me accept my path to being a writer. I’ve always been the person to get distracted by ideas and the excitement of something new, and while that feeds the creative in me, and makes for some great fun, it really generated a map of winding roads of potential that made me dizzy.

I loved books and writing, but there’s that societal judgment I’ve referred to before about how useful or worthwhile people perceive writing as a career to be. I also love photography, showed a flair for marketing in a few jobs over the years, cooking held my eye, stomach, and attention all the way up to meeting with an advisor for a culinary arts degree before deciding the hours weren’t what I wanted. Teaching had held a residency in the possibilities section of my brain since I was in first grade, and after years of bouncing ideas about the future off myself, I finally thought I’d settled on a winner.

I had a plan, I had mapped out all the courses I’d need, and settled on a practical (gag) History Degree/Teaching Certificate. I love History, don’t get me wrong. Intricate stories, exotic settings, heroes and villains that switch roles depending on perspective? Hello! It was certainly up my alley. But the idea of settling for something “practical” irked me and made me fidget in my seat with discontent. Luckily, one of the required courses, when I started off, was Creative Writing. It was not lost on me that I was more excited about that class than any of my History courses.

Enter Professor Harmon, who confirmed every hope I had about writing to be true. I had never had a teacher so passionate about writing. His love for the craft poured out of him into his lectures, leaving my fellow classmates and me to wade through the water of creativity. We had no choice but to bathe in it. He expected no less than our best. He expected growth. He expected respect for writing and its power. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t animated, but he spoke with such deliberate care and consideration for every word. I was giddy with joy. I went into every class with butterflies of anticipation and left every class riding a high of adrenaline.

Not long into my semester, I realized there was a voice in my head that was getting louder with each day. I could feel my journey down the path I had chosen starting to list to the left. My heartstrings were pulling and I could hear the call. THE call. You know, the one people talk about but seems too cliche to be real.

Along with this indisputable realization that I was going down the wrong road came this sickening feeling of shame and absolute dread at telling people that, yet again, I had changed my mind and was going to shift my trajectory. How, I asked myself, could anyone possibly take me seriously when I’d danced all over the map of life goals like a nomad of dreams, but no, no…THIS is the real one. This time I’ll put down roots. This time is for real.

When I did start talking, man, could I feel the invisible pat on the head and the subliminal, “That’s nice, dear.” I resented it and felt I utterly deserved it all at the same time. But let me tell you a little something about me. I know how to rise to a fucking challenge. Every patronizing smile, every word of masked exhaustion with my pattern of flitting from aspiration to aspiration, every infuriating dismissal drove me harder. Yeah, I had some setbacks, but, to my credit, this time they were valid ones. I moved across the planet, I got divorced, I worked hard to create a stable life for myself and my son, all the while, taking notes and holding tight to the “one day” on the horizon where I could pick my dream back up again in earnest.

When I made new friends, my writing was one of the first things they learned about me. The more I talked about it, the more my tribe gathered around me in support. I was gifted journals, books about writing, a beautiful vintage typewriter, and unwavering belief. All that time of not being taken seriously, it was the bed I’d made. But I tore the sheets off and traded the Bed of Maybe for a Writing Desk of Definitely.

There’s a quote from Hemingway that says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That intimacy of writing is everything to me. Good writing requires you to be authentic, to show up, and this quote follows and haunts me with every word I type. See, when faced with the truth of my future, I fell so deeply in love with it that I realized that I could never let it go. Not for anyone, any fear, any bit of doubt. The best relationships are built on a layered trust that holds us up during times of trouble, and I trust in writing. I trust myself when I’m with writing. And I know that no matter what happens in my life, writing will be there for me. Asking nothing of me, but myself.

So here’s to professors that don’t know they are changing a life, to friends who see the spark of true calling and won’t let you ignore it, to quotes that resonate in your soul at just the right time, and the guts to throw caution to the wind and chase a dream…a truth…with everything you’ve got.