How Early Reading Shapes Future Writers

reading as a child

This is an essay by Emily Ruth Verona.

There are many ways that people come into writing. They are drawn into from different backgrounds and demographics. Some start young. Others begin later in life. There are those that write poetry, fiction, articles, or memoir.

There is no right way to become a writer. I can only attest to the way I became a writer and it started before I knew how to hold a pen.

I write aggressive fiction. My characters are deeply flawed and often unreliable. In school, I studied both creative writing and cinema studies, both of which fed my narrative interest. The films I watch are dark dramas with gritty, often painful conclusions. I’ve even been known to distrust sentiment.

But the first story I ever heard was “A Little Princess” by Francis Hodgson Burnett. My mother read it to me when I was very young, and it was the book I learned how to read on. It is the story of a girl sent to an elegant boarding school. Her life is ideal until she is abruptly orphaned, and everything changes. It is a story about believing in magic. And books. And friendship.

Since then I’ve read the classics, from Jane Austen to Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’ve read contemporary fiction, poetry, newspapers, textbooks, cereal boxes. Still, I am able to claim with confidence that “A Little Princess” is perhaps one of the most endearing novels ever written, and it remains to be my favorite to this day.

Early reading has a way of shaping people, particularly writers. Reading as a kid taught me to know enthusiasm—to recognize how passionate I felt when absorbed in a good novel.

Even before I could construct sentences I started composing stories in my head, and in later years scrawling them in my terrible spelling and illegible handwriting in notebooks. I modeled myself after the books I read. I knew story before I could define story; rising and falling action before I knew there to be terms for such thing.

In a creative writing course, a professor once asked us to define a narrative term and not a single one of us could, because our schools never taught us. They did not turn us into writers. We were drawn into it through reading. It pulled us willingly into its arms and have yet to emerge since.

Novels for children encourage creativity and original thought, both of which inform an individual’s way of reading and writing as an adult. I may not write now the sort of books I read when I was nine, but the evolution of my writing skills based on that early reading have helped to form the writer I have become.

The promotion of reading for young children does not just raise articulate adults; it is a foundation for writers. It changes us, lovingly, irrevocably, and with shaky hands and frenzied hearts guides us along the way.

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Emily Ruth Verona is a fiction writer. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and Cinema Studies from The State University of New York at Purchase. She lives in New Jersey.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Meets Memory Lane

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

“I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.” Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

I’ve written before about the idea that taking a trip down reading memory lane is a worthwhile way to re-kindle your reading interest. An old favorite–a book you read for pleasure as a child–can take you back to the days when reading was a care-free experience. Often, the mandatory reading school imposes robs us of the pleasure. Those who continue to read find ways to carve out time to read the things they like.

But, what if you have no pleasant reading memory? I recently read Neil Gaiman’s, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a book that captures the essence of what it’s like to read for pleasure. The main character is bookish, the setting is fantasy, and the book engages the mythic inclinations hard-wired in our minds.

I see Gaiman’s book as picking up where I left off when I wrote the piece about taking a trip down reading memory lane eighteen months ago. Sometimes it takes a new book to fill the gaps in our thought process. The Ocean at the End of the Lane does that for me. It’s the closest I’ve come to the feeling I had when I’d read something I loved as a child since I’ve been forced into adulthood by the passage of time. It gives me new hope that even without a pleasurable childhood reading experience we can fill the gaps in our adult lives and find a way to read for pleasure.

Gaiman invokes three things in the book that make it have the effect it does:

1. Gaiman’s main character takes us back to our childhood.

Gaiman must have poured much of himself into the main character of the novel. His bookish ways, the manner in which he views the world, his old-soul makeup. He’d rather be reading than adventuring. But, as children, we always end up doing something other than what we want and it’s often those things that make us grow the most.

Gaiman recognizes, though, that even as adults we’re still pretending to be something we aren’t. We’re still forced to do things we don’t want to do and the way we keep ourselves in tact is by taking some time to be alone with our inner-selves and even our inner-child.

2. Gaiman invokes our sense of nostalgia.

The novel begins with an adult main character returning to his childhood home. The novel becomes a reflection on his childhood past. The effect of this is to take the reader back in time to our own childhood. Gaiman guides us, through the narrative, to our own past. Those experiences are a combination of pleasant and unpleasant events that have shaped us into the people we are. Gaiman’s novel acts as a guided meditation down memory lane and it can supplement or fill the gaps of our childhood reading past.

To explore this aspect of the book, I recommend reading slowly enough to allow time for reflection. Make annotations in the book or in a notebook of the memories brought to the surface by your reading. The interaction you have with the novel can cause you to remember things you’d thought were long forgotten. In that way, the book serves as a path by which you can arrive at some of those sentimental places that exist, now, only in your mind.

3. Gaiman’s fantasy setting carries us far enough away from the real.

Fantasy settings allow us to step out of the world where we’re expected to know how everything works, and to have an answer for every uncertainty we experience. If a fantasy setting is done right, there are enough things there to remind us of our real lives, but it’s equally important that we be asked to temporarily suspend our rational thought processes long enough to accept the fantasy the author’s created. Gaiman masterfully mixes the two. We can both relate to the world we’re told of, yet not completely understand what will come next.

The benefit to the reader is that they’re given a break from the real. They’re given an opportunity to live in the world created by the cooperative effort of the author and the reader. Just enough distance is created by the fantasy to give space for you to explore our own thoughts and remembrances.

Gaiman’s novel does what I could never do in a non-fiction piece. It creates a fantasy that fills the gaps or reminds us what we used to be like when we were willing to admit we don’t know how everything works. It’s a novel that takes us down memory lane and it can, I think, re-kindle our love of reading even if we have no pleasurable reading memory of our own.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to foster the love of amateur reading in adults.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by ajvin.

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer – Part One

writing child writer

This essay is in two parts and was written by Elizabeth Simons.

Part One: The Essence of Being a Writer

In the third season of the overwhelmingly popular drawing room saga Downton Abbey, the imprisoned Mr. Bates receives a packet of letters from his beloved wife, Anna. She, in turn, receives a packet of letters from her husband. The last scene in this episode shows them, side by side, each totally absorbed in reading the other’s words. The camera juxtaposes the two images as if they were next to each other. It’s a breathtaking moment.

This is the power of words. Human beings are born to communicate, to make connections. Words give us the means to reflect and interpret the world around us, and to share this world with others. We use words to bring thoughts to life on the page, and the page comes to life in the hand.

In the days before electronic communication, or even the typewriter, one wrote with a pen, one letter at a time, each letter blooming into a word, each word shaping the structure of a sentence. How you wrote, and what you wrote about, were uniquely your own.

But you wrote.

It has been said that speech shapes thought. As babies we imitated the language of those around us, and the words we learned echoed in our souls and reflected meaning. Dog! Cat! Tree! We learned the essence of these expressions before we grasped, through thought, what it meant to be a dog or a cat or a tree.

As artists, and especially writers, we long to recapture the enthusiasm of childhood, creating wings for our words, releasing them to soar and reflect the life within them. Speech is never more alive than it is at the threshold of thought.

We all create with words, spoken or written. We write stories and essays in school. Some of us keep a journal or a blog. We write business letters. And while we may have exchanged the computer screen for pen and paper, we express our emotions through personal letters.

Everyone writes.

For some, writing is redemption. We sculpt ordinary words until they shine, putting out into the universe something that has never existed before, tales that can delight or entertain or inform. Regardless of our individual circumstances, we can create worlds that are beyond what is personal. In the process of writing we discover that our stories are true because they reflect a universe in which we are inexplicably linked to every thing and every one around us. We make imperishable connections.

Somewhere in the unseen world there are words with our name on them, imprisoned like the fairy tale princess, waiting to be released. It is our task to discover them and share them with the world in which we live.

No one else can do this for us.

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Elizabeth Simons is a writer who lives in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. She is the author of “Dancing With Words,” a creative writing course she wrote for the University of Missouri’s online curriculum for advanced middle school students. She also edits manuscripts for publication at Prosecraft. You can see samples of her writing at Words By Heart. Elizabeth is currently making peace with her muse and is working on her novel “To Die For.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by Marin.

Free Online-Education Introduces Science Fiction and Fantasy Classics

 This is an essay by Deanna Zachrich.

Coursera is an educational technology company that works with universities to make some of their courses available online. They currently work with sixty-two universities across four continents offering courses in engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, business, mathematics, literature, and many other areas. It’s a great way to engage your brain without spending a small fortune on tuition because every course offered is absolutely free.

I recently participated in a literature course that changed my perception on science fiction – a genre that I steered away from in the past. Yep, I was a science fiction snob. But I’m happy to report my opinions on the genre have changed due to the inspiring lectures of Professor Rabkin from the University of Michigan and insightful peer reviews from hundreds of other students.

Throughout the course, “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World,” I read books that I would never have read otherwise. I gained many new insights on Grimm’s fairy tales, Poe’s  poetry and short stories, Shelly’s Frankenstein, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and several others.

Professor Rabkin’s video lectures not only explained each narrative’s story structure, he discussed characters, plot details, and even the writer’s style. As the class moved on to the next book, he compared previous stories to the current study. It was a great way to expand my knowledge in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I learned how to analyze texts which had been difficult for me in the past.

A great motivation for me during this course was the Tuesday deadline for my story thesis. The pressure of finishing a book and writing a short insightful surmise in a week has improved my organization of time for reading and writing.

The peer reviews were good experiences because they showed the diversity of expectations in so many different people. The reviews and comments from other students from around the globe enriched my experience by picking out specific pieces of my thesis that were right on target as well as areas that needed better explanation. The reviews opened my eyes to how differently we all learn.

This course has been an excellent introduction for me into the world of studying literature. I’ve learned to read everything with more concentration for better understanding. My confidence as a writer has blossomed now that I know I can digest and comprehend an entire novel in a week’s time.

I’ve always felt that I should try to learn something new every day. Thanks to Coursera anyone can expand their knowledge on topics that interest them. I’m looking forward to participating in many more courses.

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Deanna Zachrich is happily married, enjoys being the educational coach to her e-schooled daughter, and absolutely loves to write. She writes to express her passions for keeping this planet healthy and has contributed to online magazines and blogs. Deanna reads a lot, likes to dig in the dirt among her various gardens, and believes that teaching our children about green-responsibility should begin in kindergarten, if not sooner.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Wonderlane