Writing nearly killed me. Reading saved my life.
At least that is how I saw it, almost thirty years ago, when I was fresh out of grad school teaching freshman composition at Virginia Tech.
I was twenty five years old. As a child I had endured years of manic writing binges that started around the age of 12. I began by writing on the covers of school notebooks. The lined paper inside these notebooks held no interest to me. But the covers! Little blank canvases. Achingly blank. Deliciously unspoiled. I savaged them with my pen. Words, doodles, random thoughts, witty witticisms, lyrical lyrics, repetitive looping designs. Jumbled. Disjointed. And chaotic. Oriented in every direction.
Then one fateful night, in the Spring of my seventh grade year, I was in my bedroom flipping a penny when it took a wild hop off my bed, slipped miraculously into a crack, behind the wall’s wooden baseboard. I was so neurotic in seventh grade that I couldn’t stand the idea of the penny being trapped behind the baseboard and nobody knowing about it. It isn’t that I felt sorry for the penny. But I did feel the immense responsibility for letting the entire world know where the penny had gone. And that responsibility weighed heavily.
Instinctually, almost as a matter of self-preservation, I stooped by the wall and hurriedly wrote the following message: Penny lost down here on the night of April 12, 1976 at 2 till 9 PM and 5 seconds by Allan Dean Wolf.
At once I felt light as a feather. Giddy. My fingers tingled. And the rest of the wall stood before me, beckoning and blank. From that day forward, I wrote on my walls daily. All four walls and the ceiling too. On the furniture. In the closet. Even on my windowpanes. I eventually graduated from pencil to pen to permanent marker.
I wrote mostly, it seemed, for the sake of writing; an ache to fill the empty space. But amidst the random nonsense (“We eat the organs of cute little bunnies.”) was the occasional observation, record, thought, or opinion. Sometimes even poems. You could read my walls for a glimpse of who I was—or more precisely, who I was becoming.
But my passion became an obsession—an itch made worse with the scratching. Especially during late-night sessions of hypergraphia I would enter a kind of fugue state. At first it had been meditative, but it would become exhausting.
Then, in my senior year of high school, I discovered reading. More specifically I was lead to reading by my English teacher Mrs. Maybury. Of course, I remember certain books from my childhood. Winnie-the-pooh and Curious George. Harry, the Dirty Dog. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Doctor Doolittle. And Charlotte’s Web. But from then (pre-puberty) until Mrs. Maybury’s class (post puberty) my past reading life is a blank.
That year we read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and memorized the introduction. We read A Separate Peace by John Knowles. We thrilled to Edgar Allan Poe’s Telltale Heart. It struck me that there were books full of words, already written down! No writing required. I could escape into the pages of a book in much the same way I would escape into my writing—except when I was finished reading I felt calm and refreshed. Not exhausted.
We wrote in Mrs. Maybury’s class as well. In fact I wrote a short essay about my bedroom walls. She turned it into an “overhead transparency” (remember those?) and showed it to the whole class as an example of good writing! Believe it or not, until that day, it had never occurred to me that I might be a writer—even after literally years of writing on my walls. But all those years, I had been a writer who didn’t read. And writing without reading is like swimming without water: the result is mostly awkward and you can’t go very far.
Reading is an art distinct from writing. I’m certain there are many master readers reading this blog post. And I know many voracious readers who do not write. I believe it is possible for one to be a reader without being a writer, but I have learned from harsh experience that it cannot happen the other way ‘round. Thanks, in part, to Mrs. Maybury, I was now a reader, too. (Mrs. Maybury actually makes an appearance in my latest book, Who Killed Christopher Goodman?)
I went on to study literature in college and graduate school. That’s where I truly fell in love with poetry, especially the British Romantics—Blake, Byron, Shelley, and (Ahh~!) John Keats. I became a teacher myself, at Virginia Tech where we used a literature-based approach in our Freshman composition classes.
So now my narrative has come full circle. In 1988 I am a 25-year-old with my shiny new masters degree telling my freshman students the story of how I wrote on my bedroom walls. And how it nearly killed me. And how I discovered reading at a late age. “You cannot hope to become a writer in this class,” I would say, “Unless you become a reader as well.” As an “adult-onset bibliophile,” I held myself up as an example of how it is never too late to become a reader.
Now I am in my fifties, and I realize that I was slightly misguided as a young buck. Writing did not nearly kill me. The writing I did on my bedroom walls (as distressing and manic as it sometimes was) was not just some Sisyphean exercise in futility. With each word I wrote, my mind and heart and hand were learning to work as one, much like a young pianist practicing scales. With each word I wrote, my sense of self was being born, no less uncomfortable and confusing as my actual birth likely was. I had begun writing on my bedroom walls because I lost a penny behind a strip of baseboard. Then I had become the penny writing its way out. I was literally writing myself into existence.
The part of the story I got right, as I spoke to my students in 1988, was the part about how reading was fundamental to becoming a writer. Whenever you write something down in a journal or a letter or a poem, you are writing yourself into existence. You may not understand, at the time, how the disjointed entries fit together, but write it down you must. Time is linear, but life is not. Eventually it will all make sense. My latest book, Who Killed Christopher Goodman?, is testament to how the pieces of the puzzle will all eventually connect themselves if you only trust in the process.
Just as we write ourselves into existence, we can read ourselves into existence too. Well-written books are a scaffold rising up around edifices of enlightenment, wonder, and innovation. They marinate our hearts in empathy. They reboot our minds and upgrade our intellectual software.
Reading engages us in conversation. Reading beckons us to adventure. Reading throws monkey wrenches into our entrenched status quo. Challenges us to be better. And rattles our cages. Reading makes the ordinary extraordinary. Reading makes the extraordinary ordinary. Reading helps us see the world as if seeing it for the first time.
Fast-forward, now to 2017. Here’s what I wish I had told those students in my freshman comp class: “Writing did not kill me. Writing midwifed me to life. But it was reading that made my life make sense.” And at this point in my speech I would draw the students all around and lower my voice to reveal the most amazing secret of all. “And then my friends,” I would continue, “I realized that writing was just reading … in reverse.”
The students will gasp in wonder. We will open our books. And we will begin to read.
Allan Wolf, author of The Watch That Ends the Night, Zane’s Trace, New Found Land, The Blood-Hungry Spleen, and others is a two time winner of the North Carolina YA Book Award, and recipient of the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award from Bank Street College. His YA verse novels and children’s books, showcase the marriage of history and poetry. Wolf travels the country presenting author visits and poetry shows for all ages. His latest YA novel, Who Killed Christopher Goodman? (Candlewick Press) is coming out in March, 2017. Website: http://www.allanwolf.com