Saturday, January 22, 2005

Writing on Writing - Part 1

Originally published on February 25, 2004:

I cannot remember a time when I could not read. I’m sure that there was such a time when I would look at signs, books, or words on a page and they meant nothing, but I don’t remember it. I’m not sure when I first became aware of letters forming words that formed sentences that expressed thoughts. All I know is that when it happened, it was like it was always there.

So words and language have always been a part of my life. Our house was filled with books of all sorts, from fiction to biographies to art and even pictures. Sometimes I would pull a book down just to read the dust jacket. I remember lying in bed as a child sometimes reading the same book over and over until I knew the characters and plot by heart. I would write stories in my head to fill the time – usually in school, daydreaming and staring out the window, which caused my parents no end of anxiety when the report cards came home. Like all children, I needed an escape; a place where life was more to my shaping. And the characters that populated those stories were my friends – not the real ones that I went to school with, but the ones from the books.

When I was twelve, I received two gifts that changed my life. The first was a small blue Sears portable typewriter. I never took a typing class, but within a few weeks I taught myself how to get by, and thanks to the remarkable invention of erasable typing paper, I became a fairly neat and proficient typist. The second came in the form of a series of books that belong to my father; the Swallows & Amazons stories by Arthur Ransome. Written in the 1920’s and 30’s, they are twelve tales of six children (and more friends added in as the series progressed) sailing small boats in the Lake District in England and having all sorts of fun adventures that only children in children’s stories can have. I loved the books – I too learned to sail at a young age on a lake – and Ransome wrote in such a way that he was never condescending to his characters or his readers. Oh, how I wanted to be one of those kids. One of the first things I remember writing was my own attempt at a Swallows & Amazons adventure of my own. I also loved the fact that I was able to share something that had entertained my father as a child; I remember him reading the first of the stories aloud to me, and how he would often stop in the middle of a sentence to tell me something about his own childhood memories of sailing on Lake Minnetonka. It brought me closer to him, and it was something I could do that did not require the athletic prowess that my other brothers came by naturally. I didn’t play football or hockey very well, but in the summers Dad and I could sail. (By the way, my father still has the books, all first editions. In 1975 I found the entire collection published in paperback in a small bookstore in Stratford, Ontario. I splurged and bought the whole lot.)

Reading and writing became a refuge for me. This is no small thing when you’re not a great student or athlete and you’re beginning to figure out that you’re not straight, either. Talk about your triple threat. So the typewriter and English class became the escape route; often at the detriment of other studies (for which I spent a number of years in summer school to make up for mathematics grades). I was content to read, to write, to just get by. And then two things came along that awakened in me the true realization of what language and its forms really meant. They were theatre and boarding school. To this day those two elements have combined to shape my life and how I see it and deal with it.



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