Why I Read

“THE MAN WHO DOES NOT READ HAS NO ADVANTAGE OVER THE MAN WHO CANNOT READ.”

–Mark Twain

There are 26 letters in our alphabet and with them we are able to create worlds! Lives! Experiences! If that doesn’t strike awe in a person, I don’t know what can. Move a letter change the meaning. Rearrange a word and you have made something completely new.

READING AND WRITING

Writers have always been my heroes, my ideal. To be able to do what a writer does is the one thing that inspires me. Really, nothing can compare to creating the perfect phrase, except to string together many amazing sentences in order to tell a story beautifully. I will worship anyone who does that well and I will be happy if I can emulate the same.

CHILDHOOD READING

The written word has held meaning to me since I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading Alice in Wonderland to me at bedtime. My grandmother had a small alcove just off her living room. One wall was windows with bookshelves beneath, one wall held my great-grandmother’s organ and the opposite wall was floor to ceiling bookshelves. Those shelves overflowed and grew and changed daily. It was organic. Those books were read, not just by my grandmother, but the entire family. Nothing pleased me more than to have a quiet moment alone to explore that little space. That is where I discovered and took for myself books that had been my mother’s when she was a child: The Water Babies; Pollyanna; Lorna Doone among others.

SHARING THE LOVE

When I became a mother, I read the New York Times aloud to my infant along with Pat the Bunny and Goodnight Moon. Therese, her godmother, sent her every Dr. Suess book and later every Harry Potter as they were published. I read these to her at bedtime and later read with her. My proudest mom accomplishment is having raised a reader. We still talk books and share great reads.

I know that reading is not an integral part of everyone’s life, but if you visit our home you will see that it is the main thing. My husband and I read every day. We read a lot. We discuss what we read. We respect one another’s need to read. It’s what we do. Of course, we have other interests.

AN ACCIDENTAL ROLE MODEL

When I was a school librarian, my students thought that’s all I did. It’s good that they thought that. I wanted them to see that reading was as necessary as breathing because to me it is. I hope that, because I was a role model, that many of my former students grew up to live this way too. Reading, after all, teaches us so much. Storytelling is what makes us human. We understand ourselves and the world around us when we read. And it can be awe-invoking. Our world is filled with wonder and books are one way of capturing those amazing wonders. It was never intentional, being a role model, but that’s the best kind there is because it is genuine.

Reading makes me a stronger writer. It can make us all better humans. Spend time reading and, I promise, you will appreciate life a little more.

Mud in My Blood

I went down to Mississippi to see the place; really, I was just passing through. Vanessa was with me and we stayed with my Uncle Pat and Aunt Terri for the night. I would’ve like to stay longer. This was several years ago. She and I were taking a road trip to Atlanta to visit another friend who we hadn’t seen since high school. We were on a schedule. Sort of.

We went down to the beach. We drove over to Suter Place to see the house where my family lived when I was born; it was the same as ever. The wrap around porch with its Victorian lace stood proud. The only difference was the historical plaque posted next to the front door and the chicken wire fence was replaced by white picket circling the small yard. It was lived in; that was nice to see.

We drove across Howard Avenue and the railroad tracks to see my grandparents’ house on Iroquois Street. That’s where things got strange. This was years after Katrina and Iroquois Street was a mud pit and we couldn’t even drive all the way through. It just dead-ended. I couldn’t even recognize the house. Everything was a sad mess.  Later the house was torn down; nothing to save.

I showed Vanessa where my paternal grandparents had a house on the beach before Camille and where the Episcopal Church used to be next door.

HURRICANES

Growing up, time was defined as “before Camille.” Now it’s “since Katrina.” When you come from a place known for hurricanes you learn to take it all in stride, you make comparisons, you never imagine the next one will be as bad as the last. Hurricanes come and they go. It’s a way of life, I guess. I remember Camille although I was only seven years old. Camille made a hole in the roof of our house when a tree fell. My maternal grandfather’s wharf was destroyed. The house on the beach where my paternal grandparents lived was wiped out. The day after the hurricane, my family piled into the car to check on my grandparents; we didn’t know if they even survived the storm. We found them wandering in a daze amid the debris of their home. We were without water and power for several weeks. You can’t talk about the Mississippi Gulf Coast without talking about hurricanes.

HOME

Personally, the land between New Orleans and Mobile fills an odd but vital space for me. Unlike my cousins who never left, I have no right to claim it as my home and yet I do. I have a very strong sense of place because of Mississippi. So many generations on both sides of my family lived and thrived there. My parents could not get away fast enough, but something pulls me back; I have never been able to let go of my connection to that place. I feel that place stronger than any other place I have ever lived. Mud in my blood.

SUMMERS

My writing always takes me there. And my dreams. When we moved away, I was about eight years old, but I returned every summer to stay with my grandparents on the bayou. That marked me. Those summers made me who I am today. I am privileged to have spent my summers on the bayou picking blackberries, playing in the woods, sailing, riding my bike to Lovelace Pharmacy for a root beer (Barq’s, of course). I felt a strong sense of belonging when I was there. It’s hard not to when strangers approach recognizing who you are the child or grandchild of just by the shape of your smile or your eyes: “You’re not Scotty and Marguerite’s daughter, are you?” or “You must be an Allen (or a Byrd).” Yes mam, I am.

ALL IN MY MIND

I rarely visit. In many ways, it doesn’t even exist anymore. The Biloxi in my memory is so different from what you would find if you went there now. All places change but Biloxi then and Biloxi now, I think, are entirely different worlds. Casinos line the beach now. It’s no longer the seafood capitol of the world. I cannot imagine that it’s safe for children to roam freely about as we did back then. Maybe what I remember never was at all; maybe it’s colored, fogged by the passing of time.

I am glad Vanessa and I passed through the way we did. I got to see just enough. Someday I’ll return and stay awhile, explore old haunts and discover new gems. Until then, I can return to the gulf coast as it is in my mind.

Fiction Vs. Memoir

While I don’t know how common this is among other memoir writers, I have recently begun to question whether what I am writing should be a memoir at all or if I should be writing it as a novel.

FICTION

Perhaps I can be more honest if I write it as fiction. As fiction, I can elaborate certain ideas in a way I could never as memoir. In fiction, I can tell the truth without the facts getting in the way. I can also make up storylines that better illustrate the purpose of the book.

While fiction is not factual, it does tell the truth. Fiction can shed light in ways that nonfiction cannot. Instead of using factual events to reveal common experiences, made-up stories can make the experience more visible. It also brings distance for the writer to view circumstances from afar, thus able to be more objective. As a novel, I do not have to rely on memory; I can invent situations that might better illustrate the story’s theme or purpose. Fiction might be more freeing in that I don’t have to worry about hurting feelings or offending family members or other key personalities. While they may recognize themselves, it’s still fiction. A novel also frees me to write from multiple viewpoints, lending understanding to other perspectives.

In some ways, fiction can be more believable than fact. So much of real-life falls under the column of “you can’t make this shit up.” Many real events would have to be toned down in order for them to be used in a novel.

MEMOIR

On the other hand, through memoir I can connect with and help others; that is a big reason for writing this particular story. Fear of abandonment is all too real and more common than we realize. If we are able to talk, read, write about it, we can overcome it. Nonfiction accentuates the commonplace repetition of abandonment across generations. If I can find and fit the pieces together of family history, the common thread will be clear and obvious. I hope.

Another purpose for writing this particular story, is so that I can explore the things that happened to me and my family and that is the very definition of memoir. Sticking with the facts as I experienced them will reveal the answers I am looking for. Untangling this web of experience, I hope, will prevent another generation from repeating the cycle.

Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir paraphrases Don DeLillo, “a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”  As I start with events, the meaning becomes clearer. Perhaps this act of questioning my story’s format is just one more manifestation of procrastination. Memoir writing consists of hills and valleys. Many answers to the memoirist’s questions are hard pills to swallow. For me, that’s where procrastination or diversion comes in. When it starts to hurt, I will find other squirrels to chase. At least for a while, because I am determined to face my past head on. Karr describes memoir writing as nothing less than “a major-league shit-eating contest. Anytime you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved.”

JUST DO IT

I guess what I am trying to say here is that I have a memoir to write and I better stop chasing other squirrels and get to it, no matter how much it might hurt.

Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir: Harper Collins, 2015.

Lara, Adair. 10 Ways to Tell if Your Story Should be a Memoir or a Novel, Writers Digest: January 23, 2012. https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/10-ways-to-tell-if-your-story-should-be-a-memoir-or-a-novel

Texas Unmasked

Earlier this week I began to write about what I dream of doing when it is once again safe to unmask and go out in public. But yesterday the governor of Texas announced an end to the mask mandate and declared that public spaces can return to 100 % occupancy. We aren’t there yet. I wish we were, but this is not a safe measure based on Science. We have not reached herd immunity. Think about it: unmasked at capacity. Sometimes I wonder if people like Greg Abbott want the pandemic to continue. It makes no sense.

As much as I look forward to enjoying many activities outside my home, I will not be comfortable doing so until we get this thing under control. Because of yesterday’s announcement, I will not be going out in public at all unless absolutely necessary and I will be even more diligent about wearing my mask (if that is possible).

OLD NORMAL

While I am pleased that my husband and my parents have received their first shots of the vaccine, I still don’t qualify. Even with the vaccines we know we need to remain cautious. So many pieces need to come together in order for us to resume as before. If the governor thinks this announcement will bring life back to “normal,” he’s wrong. He is only postponing a return to what we once thought of as “normal.”

POLITICS

This makes me especially angry when I think of loved ones working every day in public. So many of my friends are educators who already lacked the appropriate support for staying safe. Now it will be even worse. My sister-in-law is a grocery store cashier where she will still be required to mask but customers will not be made to wear them. The State of Texas is putting its citizens in harm’s way.

Someday, though, I guess it will be later than sooner now, we will get to enjoy the outside world once again. As much as I actually enjoy being at home, there are some things I miss.

AFTER COVID TIMES

After COVID times, I will go to a concert and dance! I will have a big party in our backyard. I will spend hours browsing a good bookshop. I will go to the beach and travel. I will participate in 5K runs and attend writer’s workshops in person. I will sit at a bar with my husband and strike up conversations with strangers. I will go to the movies and order a giant barrel of buttered popcorn. I will hug everyone I see!

MY PLEA

Please everyone, keep yourselves safe and healthy and do your part to bring this pandemic to an end. Wearing a mask is an act of kindness. I look forward to seeing smiles again, healthy and bright. Mask up now so we can see your big smile later!