I’m thankful I grew up in a household where reading took place. My mom didn’t read bedtime stories to Larry and me though. We didn’t grow up with a house filled with children’s picture books or visit the library together or anything like that. Any picture book we acquired was from my grandma who gave us bible stories in comic book-like formats. My mom’s mastery of the English language is functional but not fluent, so she couldn’t even help us with our homework. In fact I was pissed whenever a teacher said, “Ask your parents for help.” Yeah, right after Peter Pan flies through my window, I’ll be sure to do that.
But despite the fact that my mom only went to school until the 5th grade because her family was too poor to send her, she read for information and enjoyment. And my younger brother and I saw this. I would come home to see her sitting on the floor with a Thai newspaper spread out before her. I can still hear her turning the page. The room would be silent. Sometimes I would ask her what was going on in Thailand and sometimes she would volunteer the news.
She read a lot of magazines too. I could not read Thai but I flipped through these magazines and looked at the pictures. I would point to the cover and ask her who the woman or man was. “A movie star,” She would explain or “a soap opera star.” I’d study the clothing of the models and celebrities. Occasionally I would see a picture of an American celebrity inside. Sometimes based on the drawing I could understand a comic strip, and other times I’d simply not understand, and continue to flip through the newsprint pages.
In the back of every kind of these magazines were a series of lifelike drawings with a beautiful woman looking off at the distance, perhaps another smaller drawing of her kissing a man, or holding a shift over her bare breasts, or looking half asleep. At first I had no idea what I was looking at, I didn’t understand what the writing was about. Then I realized these were on-going romance stories. I thought it was clever idea to have them continue every issue. And it made me slightly uncomfortable to think my mom was reading these racy vignettes.
During one of my many “quest for carbs while reading sessions” (see part one), I reached for a bucket of Dryers Neapolitan ice cream. The lid made a slight sucking noise as I popped it off. When I peered into it, I wondered why my mom insisted on buying this flavor. Neapolitan combines vanilla, strawberry and chocolate but not in a Ben and Jerry’s kind of way but in an Italian or Irish flag kind of way. I would scoop from the vanilla and chocolate sides leaving an untouched tower of strawberry in the middle.
As I ate, I’d continue reading one of my books, and then I started to think the unthinkable. “I can totally do this. I should write a book.”
Conveniently, a manual typewriter appeared in our home. It was very heavy and lived in a hard-shelled home of a greenish hue. I think my mom’s boyfriend had designs to write. I asked if I could use it. He said yes. I didn’t know how to type yet, so I used the two finger method. Tak. Tak. Tak. I loved the sound of the typewriter keys. After a while I began to hit the keys with the eraser end of a pencil. It was easier on my 14-year-old hands.
I started writing two books almost simultaneously, which I find interesting because it is a style or preference that I have carried with me. What I mean is, when I get bored or stuck or marooned or lost I have something else to work on. It is a holy rolly miracle that I am in a monogamist relationship.
The first story was a Sweet Valley High copycat. I dreamed up a fictional high school called Highland High School. I threw it all away because I am not a sentimental person (and because I am an idiot). The best part of creating the story was thinking of character names and descriptions. Plots seemed simple enough – there needed to be an antagonist, some sort of conflict and then resolution. But I got stuck and I didn’t know how to get unstuck.
My second attempt at fiction was a mystery. I enjoyed the Nancy Drew series and then hungrily searched for another mystery writer. Naturally I found Agatha Christie. I created a story about a young woman who was unknowingly invited into a haunted house. Soon she discovers she was trapped, along with other creepy guests. The title was going to be “Trapped!” And I had higher hopes for this one. But I couldn’t figure out how to get her out of the dang house or what the big mystery was all about. My character was trapped and so was I.
In high school, I attempted to write other stories along the Sweet Valley High genre. But plot escaped me like a balloon I could never fill up with enough helium. I had ideas and those took various shapes, but my balloon continued to be deflated. Then I gave up on fiction. I decided this was a mystery that I could not solve. Instead, like most art, I kept it at arm’s length, a safe and enviable distance.