Some books I’ve read have stayed with me forever, one of those being Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. I checked it out from my elementary school library when I was in fifth grade. It’s about a boy and his two dogs. I couldn't tell you the entire story, but being prone to deep feelings, I recall bawling my eyes out. I don't mean that I cried only while reading it; I was sobbing for days after finishing it. I needed a grief recovery group, but those didn’t exist yet. Eventually, I recovered. But I never read it again; I couldn't take it.
Junior high and high school were all about my social world; I didn’t read for enjoyment. Also, I was busy with band, and was obsessed with making straight A’s. The only books I read were those assigned by my English teachers. Thankfully, Shakespeare’s writings were required; I fell in love with Bill. Conversely, I’ve tried to erase Geoffrey Chaucer’s perverted Canterbury Tales from my psyche. Even at the time, I was surprised they were mandatory high school reading. But my favorite novel at the time was Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. It chilled me to the bone, scaring me terribly. But I couldn’t put it down. I relished every minute of writing a research paper about it, and can still picture Heathcliff looking out the window onto the moors, searching for his dearly departed Catherine.
During college, my social life was on steroids; when I wasn’t studying, I was with friends. I still didn’t have time for reading outside of schoolwork.
“You partied your way through college,” Mom once said, referring to the many nights I went out dancing.
“I always showed up to class on time the next morning,” I explained, “and my GPA never suffered.”
She didn’t seem impressed at all. But looking back, I’m impressed. I could stay out until 2 a.m., and still make it to an 8:30 a.m. class a few hours later. Now if I stay up that late, it takes me three days to fully recover.
When I took British Literature in college, I was stunned at the required reading list; in one semester I read more books than in my previous 10 years. The list included a wide variety of writings, and I enjoyed most of them. But, throughout eternity, I’ll never forget the novel that tops my never-read-again list. My apologies to Sir Walter Scott, RIP, but Waverley was torturous. Written in Irish brogue, it hurt my brain. Perhaps it was assigned to weed out students, causing them to drop the class so the professor would have a lighter workload. I never understood what the book was about, and I can't glance at it to review the plot with you, dear reader; I took great pleasure in tearing it into thousands of pieces after the class was over. It was cathartic.
After I broke up with Sir Walter, I decided it was time to read a little bit of Ernest Hemingway. Although nobody ever reads a "little bit" of Hemingway. Being a master of description, he can use 25 adjectives in one sentence to describe a sunset. He paints a detailed picture with his words. On a trip to Key West in 1991, I toured his home. With that atmosphere, no wonder he wrote some of his best known works there. A beautiful house with a veranda, a courtyard with fountains and floral rainbows, and cats still walking the grounds. It’s a perfect place for a bestseller to be born. I wonder if they rent it out for those suffering from writer’s block. If so, I’m booking a flight tonight.
Halfway through college, I returned to attending church full-time, and took my spiritual growth more seriously. My book selections at the time reflected those changes. Three years later, I joined a 12-step program, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and read numerous books to help me learn about myself, work through my past, and forgive my dad for his shortcomings. Self-awareness was my hobby. There was no time for imaginary worlds and warm tales. I read whatever would help me become a better me. Then, when I married Flash and became a stepmom, the most I read was an occasional magazine article. After Cowboy was born, I had non-stop action every day. When he was diagnosed with autism, I read books on the subject, the most valuable ones being written by those on the spectrum or their parents. But mostly, I researched treatments and interventions.
And so, most of my reading selections for 20 years were non-fiction, for the purpose of bettering my life and my relationships. It was beneficial, necessary, and life-changing. But I’d forgotten the magic of fiction and the wonder of reading purely for enjoyment.
Except when it came to reading to Cowboy. His books were the only fiction I read during that time. The classics had been replaced: To Kill a Mockingbird gave way to Chicken Little, and Of Mice and Men collected dust while I learned, by heart, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. And my favorites, Dr. Seuss’s writings, never got old.
One day, after I was grown, I told Mom, “I didn’t realize so many of Dr. Seuss’s books have deeper meanings. Like The Sneetches.”
“Yes, it’s about prejudice. You never realized that?”
“I knew it was about one group of people not being superior to another, but I didn’t think about it in deeper terms.” I thought about how Sylvester McMonkey McBean made money through the insecurities of the sneetches, pitting them against each other for his own gain. The ramifications of that symbolism are quite serious. Green Eggs and Ham. The Zax. Horton Hears a Who! They have strong messages. Recently, I researched the backgrounds of some of Seuss’s writings, to see what was going on in the world when he wrote them. It was fascinating, and I plan to read them again in a new light.
Finally, when Cowboy started Kindergarten, I returned to fiction books that didn't include accompanying illustrations. I needed escape. And suspense. And relaxation. Which, of course, meant I needed murder. Not the gory, shocking kind. No, I needed murder that left much to the imagination. The answer to my quandary was Mary Higgins Clark. It was love at first read, and I’ve been hooked ever since. She took my mind off of autism and to-do lists and grocery lists and health insurance trials and helping other parents and our budget and so on. For a few hours every night, I thought of nothing but solving crimes. It brought relief to my weary mind.
One night in particular, I thought it would be fun for Flash and I to try something new at bedtime.
“Let’s go to bed early,” I told him, with excitement in my voice.
“Sounds good to me,” he replied, an eager look in his eyes.
As he was brushing his teeth and splashing on cologne, I bounced into bed. Lover boy looked a little shocked to walk in and find my nose in a book.
“What are you doing?” he asked, looking bewildered. “Did I take too long, and you got bored?”
“No, silly. Go get your book! I thought it would be cool to lie in bed and read together.”
“My book? What book? We’re going to read?”
“Any book. Don’t you ever want to read?”
“Umm, no. I don’t read books.”
“You read the Bible,” I replied.
“That’s different. I don’t read other books; it’s too hard to focus. When I get home, I want to relax, not read. But can you read my mind?” he asked, raising his eyebrows up and down as he flirted.
“Seriously, Flash? I had a long day, and I have this new Mary Higgins Clark book to start.”
He sulked, then shuffled off to the living room to watch his relaxing TV shows. I pouted because we couldn’t share reading time. We both went to sleep disappointed that night. Now, I try to plan my book time better, and Flash is used to my frequent affairs with literature.
“What are you reading?” Flash used to ask in the early days of my Mary Higgins Clark bingeing.
“Shhh. I think I know who did it,” I replied without looking up from the pages.
If it was an especially haunting selection, such as Remember Me, my response was quite different. I’d answer, “I’m reading Mary’s new book. Don’t you want to come to bed now?”
“No, I’m watching TV in the living room.”
“But aren’t you tired? You have to go into work early tomorrow, don’t you?”
“Oh yeah. I forgot about that,” he’d answer.
Within 15 minutes he’d be beside me in bed, snoring away. My devious plot had been successful; I wasn’t in the room alone, in case I got spooked.
As a kid, I wrote a couple of murder mysteries. You haven’t seen them at Barnes and Noble because they are in limited circulation; they are both in my personal file. The first is titled Me? A Murderer? It was an eighth-grade creative writing assignment. We had to write a short story, so I wrote a thriller in which I, the narrator, had been accused of murdering a coworker. In hindsight, I’m not sure how much thrill can be built up in a 20- to 30-page writing assignment, but I was proud of my first mystery. I won’t ruin the ending for you, in case I decide to publish it after 43 years of keeping it to myself.
My other mystery is unfinished and untitled. My friend Gypsy and I co-authored it when we were in junior high. To get the feel for the plot, we acted it out in my front yard as we wrote it down in a spiral notebook. A few months ago I reread it. By page three, six people had been murdered. Each page brought quick theories on who did it and even more deaths. It was the fastest paced piece of writing I’ve read to date. Had we finished it, it would have had the highest body count of any murder mystery in history.
Several years ago, I was discussing books with my friend Mikelle, a fellow writer who co-authored and recently published her first Christian novel, Sinderella's True Love Story.
“If you like suspense, you need to read Ted Dekker,” she told me.
“I’ve never heard of him,” I replied.
“He’s a Christian author who writes thrillers.”
“Hmm. That sounds interesting,” I said, thinking they'd be pretty tame compared to other thrillers.
“But don’t start one of his books late in the day,” she added. “You’ll be up all night because they’re hard to put down.”
The next week, I went to the church library and checked out Skin. And, because I don’t follow directions well, I started it around 8 p.m.
“What are you reading now?” Flash asked, when I hadn't noticed he'd come home from work two hours earlier.
I jumped when he spoke, his voice startling me.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
With eyes as big as saucers, I answered, “Yeah. This is making me nervous. It’s great.” I knew I wore the same expression as when I watch a Bette Davis movie with my hands over my face.
“Are you going to sleep soon?” Flash asked around 11 p.m.
“In just a few minutes,” I lied.
The next thing I knew, it was 2:30 a.m. Flash had been sleeping for three hours. I’d gnawed off all my fingernails. My heart rate was rapid, and I winced as I turned another page, not sure I could handle the growing tension. Because we still had a waterbed at the time, I knew what had to be done. I bounced as hard as I could on my side of the bed. Which of course sent a tidal wave to Flash’s side. As the wave peaked, and Flash’s body rose toward the heavens, I heard him murmur, “What? Hmm? What’s wrong?”
“Oh good, you’re awake,” I calmly and sweetly responded. “I was hoping you’d keep me company.”
He looked at me, his brow furrowed, trying to understand what I was saying.
“Can you just stay awake for a while, so I can finish this book?”
To say he’d lost that loving feeling would be an understatement. After glaring at me for a few seconds, he turned his back to me and was sawing logs within five minutes.
With white knuckles, I pressed on in my attempt to get to the last page. Every time our old refrigerator made its little popping noise, I jumped out of my skin. Finally, I couldn’t take the not-so-silent night any longer. I put the book away. I finished it the next day when the sun was shining. Sunlight always makes the house quieter.
I’ve read several of Dekker’s thrillers. They all affect me the same way. I hope to read more, but I’ve had to catch up on my sleep before starting a new one.
But my taste in books extends beyond suspense. Several years ago, I remembered one of the most significant books I’d read in the 90s, Carol Burnett’s One More Time. Her memoirs made me want to write my own memoirs. After reading it a third time, I decided to read others’ stories, frequenting my local library every few days and keeping a stack of memoirs on my bedside table at all times. I couldn’t devour them fast enough. They were easy to read, personable, and quickly became my other favorite genre. I began buying memoirs of famous people, and now have a collection that includes works of not-so-famous authors also. One such book was given to me by my friend Grace; Twelve Clean Pages by Nika Maples. It helped me regarding my struggles with God's not answering prayers the way I'd wanted Him to, especially regarding Cowboy.
Every book I’ve read has taught me something, even if the lesson was to never read a particular book again or what genres I don’t enjoy. But most of the lessons have been positive ones. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken deeply influenced my view of death. All Things Are Possible Through Prayer by Charles L. Allen, which Dad gave me when I was in my teens, changed the way I pray. And The Search for Significance by Robert McGee changed my life more than any other Christian non-fiction book I’ve read.
My list of great literature would be endless. And I fear there will never be enough time to read everything on my list. At times, I get too busy with real life and go through months of not indulging in a book. Then I hear the voice of my developmental editor, Max, in my head, To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader.
Indeed. Reading is a huge part of honing my skills, a remedy to fatigue, and an antidote for that nasty writer’s block. And so, I strive to read something every day, learning from authors who address familiar topics as well as subjects new to me. My teachers take many forms, including bloggers, mystery novelists, Biblical authors, humorists, columnists, and memoirists. They encourage me to keep writing. Their lessons are eternal. And, most importantly, they make me feel less alone in this journey called writing. As do you, my dear readers.