I sat in Mrs. Vanderlugt’s room after English ended, putting books away and working up the nerve to ask her for another book recommendation. Part of me fears she’ll judge me for asking for a second book in one week. “Mrs. Vanderlugt?” I approached her desk hesitantly and hoped that she wouldn’t make another joke about the new personal record I set today for asking questions in class: seven. In my defense, we were reading Romeo and Juliet and I, along with my classmates, wasn’t sure what “onward, lusty gentlemen” meant or why Romeo said that he’d “sleep in the bosom of Abraham” when I knew that men weren't supposed to have bosoms.
“Hey, Sam. What’s up?”
“I’ve been in a book rut. Do you have any recommendations?”
She spun around in her chair and hesitantly reached for a book from her personal “please don’t touch, not for 8th graders” section of her library.
“Have you heard of The Perks of Being a Wallflower?”
I shook my head and raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a really good read, but I don’t want to give it to you unless you’re sure you’re okay with it and that you won’t get in trouble with your parents if you read it.”
I couldn’t remember the last time my mother oversaw or monitored my reading habits. If she had decided to, she would have had to dedicate at least three hours a week to researching since I was six years old.
“It’s fine. What’s so scandalous about it?”
Her voice dropped lower. “It’s about high school kids, and there’s sexual scenes and political type things they struggle with. And a lot of smoking. But it’s a great read, I swear. You just didn’t get the recommendation from me.” She winked.
I took the book, thanked her, and was a quarter of the way through the book before I went to bed that night.
I walk into the store, three floors filled with books. The smell of coffee and paper greets me cordially. I’ve traveled over 150 miles to see this place with my own eyes, and I fear my five-foot-frame will combust with the contained energy. I run my fingers over the spines, trying to hear the whispers of all their stories, enchanted to be here and gloomy to realize that one meager lifetime isn’t enough to have all the adventures that I crave.
I’ve kept the receipt in the book that I bought: physical proof that my pilgrimage was finally complete.
September 30, 2017
Barnes and Noble
1 E Jackson Blvd.
Chicago, IL, 60604
Barnes and Noble.com
The 100 Year Old Man Who…
Amt Tendered: $20.00
In pen, at the bottom: Thanks for stopping in! :)
I wrote my first personal essay for Mrs. Vanderlugt’s class. I wrote about my older brother, Hunter, who has Down syndrome. I spent over a month doing the research necessary to present the condition not only as a scientist, but as someone with firsthand information and the emotional connection required for things to make sense. I had a hard time sleeping at night while writing this, and I didn’t tell anyone in my family what I was working on. When we had to present an excerpt to the class, I cried while reading it. I had to admit before an audience that I thought it wasn’t fair that I wouldn’t ever have an older brother who’d go to college, or drive a car, or buy me booze, or playfully wrestle with. But I wanted to tell them that he proved everyone wrong. That he accomplishes things every single day that the doctors said would never happen. That he was recognized at his graduation from Hudsonville High School by the Superintendent. That he’s the happiest person I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
I assume my mom always had an inkling that I’d follow down the beaten road after the poets. The charismatic wordsmiths. The hermits. She saw the way I looked at Edgar Allan Poe, E.E. Cummings. I’m not sure when the first indications that I wanted to write came up, or if it just naturally follows that after more than a decade of consuming words one has to do something with them, express them somewhere. Nonetheless, when I finally spoke the words “Mom, I think I could be a writer” out loud and in her presence, (the first time) I received a 25-minute lecture about the dangers of pursuing only what you want and how she won’t let me go to college if I don’t have a “backup plan” or “something that’s actually marketable.”
I’m riding passenger when the radio was turned to country music. I stifle a groan.
I hear the words of Luke Bryan come through the speakers, images clear and specific. My ears buzz.
“Get up on the hood of my daddy’s tractor” and “tangle me up like Grandma’s yarn” and “long fine legs, ponytail and a pretty smile.”
This was what they meant in Poetry class.
I care about this random girl who always wears her hair in a ponytail and is known to jump on tractor hoods and dance. I want Luke Bryan to take care of her. I can smell that damn “Georgia mud.”
This is the brilliance of the pop music industry. I’ve fallen prey to their schemes: the rather catchy tune and the recognizable words. They’ve ensnared me, demanded my attention, and toyed with my emotions.
I want this power.
I must utilize their methods.
It wasn’t what he was saying, but rather how he was saying it.
I watched Sweeney Todd three times in the course of a weekend. I couldn’t get enough of the story; I needed to understand the delicate workings of what turned a reasonable father into a psychotic madman. I wrote poems about the downward mental spiral of the protagonist, and I copied the lyrics in the margins of every homework assignment or quiz I turned in. My math teacher was a little concerned when he found “We all deserve to die / Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why” on the back of my test. I stood in front of the mirror and repeated his monologue about straight razors by myself until I mastered his subtle-yet-pained smile, the raspy breathing, the delicate flicking of my fingers. I wanted to know how this story was told and how it managed to pluck a chord within me that I was unaware existed.
I’m having a conversation with my friend, and the topic turns into books. I, naturally, turn it into a friendly debate about who Hermione was supposed to marry: Ron or Harry (Ron forever, by the way). He cuts me off. “You have such a brilliant mind, but you squander it on things like this. Why? Magic isn’t real.”
I entered a scholarship competition my senior year of high school at the college I wanted to attend. I was to talk about myself and present my writing before three department representatives.
I can’t wait.
The money at stake was enough to motivate me to practice. I asked three teachers I trusted for advice and an ear to listen.
My AP Literature class offered to listen and critique.
I stood before my classmates. I grew so lightheaded and clammy I thought for sure I’dpassout or vomit, surely.
They applauded when I was finished reading and a few asked for copies of the poem.
The poem won 6,000 dollars.
I had something to say that people wanted to listen to. I had words that were important and true.
People seemed to enjoy my writing.
Underneath the cheap wrapping paper, on the inside cover of a brand-new copy of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, in cartoonishly thin penmanship: Hey sweetie. I know you couldn’t wait for this to come to paperback. Enjoy the nightmares ;) love you, Kaleb
Something my mother told me, after I told her I wanted to be a writer (the ninth time): You know what I’m gonna say, so I won’t say it. All I’ll say is: if you’re gonna do it, do it all the way. Be the best damn writer this generation has seen. Do you think you can do that? Because I think you can.
A question(s) I ask myself: What made Charles Dodgson, Eoin Colfer, Oscar Wilde...what made them feel the need to tell stories? Was this duty thrust upon them? Can I craft what they’ve crafted if I don’t come from a privileged upbringing like them? Did they scar themselves while pulling words from their souls, if that’s even a fair assessment? If I pick up their words and paint my body with them, decorate the fabric of my being with their ink, am I morally obligated to continue their tasks? If I take up the helm and acquire no readers, have I thus failed the lineage? Am I supposed to pass on the work when my body expires? Maybe it’s more like drunkenly giving a best man’s speech at a wedding where you know no one, or playing a tuba solo in public having never touched the instrument in your life.
Every time I work up the courage to go over to the Registrar’s office and declare a major, I’m reminded by the little voices in my head that I’m just another white girl at a liberal arts college who thinks she has all the answers that will change the world. Why does this feel like a curse? “The book market is flooded,” they say. “Everyone has heard your story, you’ve nothing original to contribute,” they’ll say.
But then I look over at the silly little black squirrel staring at me, and I notice the way he flicks his tail back and forth. The way his eyes don’t blink. The way his hands grasp the thick tree trunk. The way he disappears up the tree at the precise moment I look away. And I have to sit down and get out my notebook.
Perhaps we read to know that we aren’t alone.
But then what do we write for?
I was 14 when I discovered a man with the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckleburg permanently stained upon his bicep. A stranger on my computer screen, but the still image provoked further searching. I found a woman who had tattooed the disembodied face of the cover on her thigh. Humans who put the ink of this book on their bodies for the rest of their lives.
I broke down in somber tears the first time I finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because I knew I’d never have an adventure to the same degree that Alice tumbles through. I asked my mom for permission to tattoo the March Hare on my arm to remind me to keep pursuing whimsy, because life is simply too short to give up your “muchiness.” She thought I was joking.
I carried Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian around for nearly three weeks after I finished it; not to read it again, but simply hold it close to my arrogantly beating heart.
While searching for ways to numb the pain of the death of Artemis Fowl, 15-year-old me decided to try something new: writing fanfiction. It never got lengthy or explicit, just simple one-shot adventures of our two favorite heroes escaping death more times than should be allowed in popular fiction. I found that there was a community of people on the internet who, if they loved the same books you did, they’d read your work and review it in exchange for a reading of their work.
I read some horrendous pieces.
Elementary level spelling errors, comma splices peppered over the page, little to no plot,
images so racy they’d make a harlot blush.
They loved my work.
“You sound just like Eoin! Are you Irish? How’d you get his little quirks and verbal tendencies? Please extend this into a full length book!”
I began to read more from the authors that I wanted to emulate.
Every room of this thrift shop is filled with quirky items, but I come here for their measly 2 rows of books. My fingers brush across the spine of ‘Salem’s Lot, and I pull it from their shelf in the way one receives an outstretched baby. The cover fits in my hands comfortably, but the spine is cracked in four places. When I set it down the entire vessel curls up, like it had spent hours rolled up in a back pocket. There’s a coffee stain in the bottom right corner of the pages. When it falls open at my touch, a heady aroma of vanilla greets me. Page fifty-six has been dog-eared. There’s a note in the margin here that simply says Dark Tower. I brought it to the counter and paid one dollar for it, emptying my pockets of every piece of change I had.
While reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: the conversation that Oskar has with his therapist that made me swear an oath to myself to keep writing, even if I didn’t major in it or find a career in it: “I’m constantly emotional...I’m extremely emotional right now… [I’m feeling] All of them...I’m feeling sadness, happiness, anger, love, joy, guilt, shame, and a little bit of humor...I’m feeling everything…” Those of us who were dealt emotional reactivity to this degree must have a duty to spread affirmation and peace and laughter and a love for the ridiculousness that life contains, because my private panic fits certainly aren’t being utilized elsewhere.
I’m hugging Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows tightly to my chest, breathing in its pages. Wearing this book like a mask over my pink cheeks. Gloves over my twitching fingers.
What am I doing?
Why is my asylum made of paper?
Why do I dream of hippogriffs?
Page 721: Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.
Toni Morrison, in an interview: “The job of the writer is to make it brand new, one more time. Everyone’s heard something about the moon. Everyone’s read something about love. If she can make her reader stop in her tracks and reconsider everything she’s known to be true, just for a second, she’s done her job well. She’s offered her readers a piece of her magic.”