I Binge Listened to Books, Here’s What I Learned
I feel like I’m grasping, but not at straws. Straws are tangible things, with a use. A tool.
While I’ve always viewed stories as tools, as a device, I can’t equate them to a tool you use with your hands.
I’m grasping for a feeling, the feeling that good books and stories give me. Like an awakening in my gut, a song in my head that I’ve never actually heard but can hum along to without thought.
Now, I can change this into a wistful look at what stories mean to me, and perhaps it will turn into that, I don’t know, as I really don’t know much about what I’m writing or where it will go until it does.
So, here’s a bit of background on me that I feel is necessary for you to understand what I will attempt to communicate in this article.
I was young when I first became infatuated with stories. It may have been in 2nd grade, or maybe earlier. I couldn’t tell you what it was, if there was a particular story that grounded me and lifted me up and beyond into a world I never knew existed but had always hoped did. There were significant stories that I could point to, Julie Andrews Edward’s The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles stands out. (Something I continuously read even in adulthood, and a common gift to friends with children.) But, to pick a moment, pin it with a thumbtack and say, “here, this is the moment I fell in love with stories,” is something I cannot do.
As for writing?
Our entire 4th grade class had spent a week learning about similes and metaphors, things that I have come to know as the tools of communication, but then had only come to know as things that people who wrote stuff did. The culmination of our week-long lesson was to show what we had learned, that we had, in fact, payed attention instead of playing with our silly putty erasers Sanrio had begun selling, of which the amount you had in your backpack dictated your level of cool among the other children, by writing a story. One. Single. Story.
And, so I did.
I wish I could tell you, over 15 years later that I was then discovered to be some kind of writing and narrative genius. But, as you can probably guess, that isn’t true.
But, for a 4th grader it wasn’t bad. In fact, my teacher did find something in me, whether it was my command of a metaphor, as she noted, or perhaps just a moment where she saw a fire in my eyes I couldn’t see because I was yet tall enough to stand in front of a mirror, and see it for myself. She had me work on binding my short story into a book while everyone else did review on the things they didn’t understand from the previous week.
This book sits in a wooden and glass shelf next to the TV in my parent’s house. All these years later, and they still have my first story. My first book, if you’d be so generous as to grant it such a title. Whatever you want to call it, it was the first.
As any of you who are writers and know that the term is the only thing that has indelibly been able to describe you probably understand: it begins with books.
Reading, in particular. All of us storytellers were brought up with books in our hands, whether from the library the max amount checked out and stowed in your plastic bin that Matilda’s red wagon could barely match up to (true story, I broke the handle trying to fit so many books into it), or you got them passed down to you, lovingly aged, but it’s magic transcendent over time, the same effect no matter how many eyes have glanced over every inked letter.
Well, that’s where it started for me, and maybe that’s where it’ll end, but along the way from then to now, it did not remain steadfast.
I went through 2 reading dry spells in my life, and during what was 2 years for the first and almost 4 for the second, I felt darkness in a way that was completely blinding, an oblivion, until I was pulled out of it by stories that captured me in unimaginable ways.
The first dry spell began in 6th grade and ended in 8th grade when I picked up The Hunger Games. I read it in a night, the first time I had ever done that, but not the last. Years later, as I try to sit down and tell you how much that book and that story meant to me in a time when I needed it most, I find that words fail me, and they seldom do. But, perhaps it is not the words that fail me, but I have succumbed to my own inability to find the correct ones. I’m sure they exist somewhere out there, but I cannot reach them.
I couldn’t sleep. I could not sleep. I remember, vividly, lying awake on the couch turned bed in the 30 ft. RV my parents bought when I was a preteen, thinking it could encompass adventure and be our vessel towards it. But, it was not. Not, for me.
I laid there, after having finished the book, reading in my sleeping bag by the light of my iPod, thinking. Just thinking. Suzanne Collins had created a world that felt so distant to the one that I knew as home—a world that was constantly changing and unraveling beneath me as I felt the impending doom of high school and what felt like the first whisper of adulthood. She had created a woman, a young woman, in an age I would soon be, who overcame what everyone else deemed impossible, and she rose and rose and rose and shot straight like the arrow she took down the odds stacked against her with.
She created a world I could run into, a world filled with mystical characters and events I didn’t feel I had the capacity to imagine. And, I never wanted it to end. A year later, when Mockingjay came out, I spent weeks reading the book, terrified at what the end of it would feel like, I sat on my bed turned into a couch, bumping along somewhere in California, when I read the final words of the books that meant more to me than even these words express. And even in the end, even when I closed the book, I felt I had just returned home, even though it was still far past the horizon on that highway, hours away.
So, maybe my parents were right. That RV would take me on an adventure, just not the one they had planned out in their maps from AAA.
There are many reasons The Hunger Games, Suzanne, and Katniss left a mark on me, and being the book to pull me out of what had been my first foray into depression, the first of several that would soon lead to my diagnosis of Panic Disorder, but I will not outline them here.
My second dry spell is a funny one, it began Freshman year of college, when I was suddenly grappling with what it meant to be on my own, have little to no money, and a choice to make that would define my future on a piece of paper 4 years down the line. I had classes on topics I didn’t care about but had to take and immediately forget as soon as the final was over. And, I had books. Books upon books upon books that I was meant to read.
As a Freshman English major, none of the books that were assigned to me mattered. They were stories forced upon me, not ones I chose, and that blocked me off from the lessons my professors had hoped I would find within.
But, I picked up one book for myself. Just one.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I can’t tell you where I bought it, or why I bought it, only that after reading the back cover and the first couple pages, after thumbing the golden cover with its raised letters, that I felt for the first time since 8th grade that I had stumbled upon a book that had the same golden sheen of adventure that The Hunger Games had once had for me.
I bought it. And began.
And, I didn’t stop reading until I had finished it. In the back of classrooms, while walking through the halls, even volunteering to be the “hallway lookout” during a weird hypnosis demonstration my psychology professor was holding. I wasn’t a good watch, because I wasn’t on the third floor of the Psychology building at California State University, Northridge, I was in the sands of Serra, in the halls of Blackcliff, and you would have had to pry me out of there.
When I finished the book, I felt a part of myself end with it, a story had just begun, I was a part of it, and then I had to return to my own, dull life. A life I wasn’t enjoying at the time. A life I would have gladly given up.
I wish I could say I was a “true fan”, someone who waited at bookstores, signed up for newsletters, and read the sequel the second it came out. But, that’s not true.
The sequel came out, I bought it, got it signed, felt so incredible lucky to be in the presence of someone who had a command on words and stories in a way I had not found in myself yet, even after having written 5 novels.
But, I hadn’t written not for quite some time.
I’d stopped writing. And like the stroke of the pen stopping to make its mark, I felt my story cease, even though I clearly continued to exist.
When A Torch Against The Night came out, I was deep into what would turn out to be 5 years of some of the worst pain I had ever felt. I wasn’t writing. If I wasn’t writing, and yet, I was a writer, then why did I exist? Why was I waking up in the morning if not to write?
I didn’t read it when it came out. And, even though I don’t know Sabaa, and had only remotely interacted with her on social media and seen her speak and read, I felt a sort of guilt from deep within me, for not continuing with Elias and Leia and with Sabaa herself. Because her book had meant so much to me, but I couldn’t mention it to anyone, because if they had asked if I had read the second, I’d have to say no. The third came out, and yet, I did not read it.
A fear of loss overcame me, just as it does any moment I go from writing to not. The dull taps of the keys stopping, the scratch of the pen ceasing. The thoughts leaving.
It’s a kind of fear of stopping and never being able to start again. A car whose engine has worn down, oil sputtering, left in a junkyard to rust, no matter how many adventures you’ve had in it, how many green toy soldiers jammed in the air ventilation from too tiny fingers and curious minds.
Even now, if I take too long a break from writing down this article — which admittedly seems more like a mini biography of my woes and hardships when it comes to words — I am overcome with a sense of dread that returning to the keys again will prove futile, and my words will no longer serve me, if they ever did.
In my final semester of college this year, I read exactly one book. Toni Morrison’s Sula. It took me all semester long to read this little thing, and the words in it would grow taller than the sunflowers leaning against the house next to Nel’s in the novel and would continue to grow until they had inspired me to write deeper and harder than I ever had before.
And even then, I only finished this masterpiece of narrative after I had walked in a black gown and received a diploma, and an email that the book was due soon. And, since I knew I wouldn’t be walking past the tall pillars of the library where I had spent so many hours reading text books, I finished Morrison’s novel. I couldn’t bear to leave a book unfinished.
It took me almost 4 years after first reading Sabaa’s gorgeous novel of sand and strength and fire in the night to finish the three available books. And I did it while sitting at my desk at my post-grad internship by listening to the audiobooks.
As someone in her early 20s who is trying to make her wildest dreams a reality, I have little to no time to sit down and read. And, even if I did, I fear I wouldn’t. Because now, as a writer in my own right, I feel sitting down to read a book is a waste of time. I mean that in the kindest sense possible. I mean that I do not have the time to escape to these worlds anymore, to go on these adventures and spend all this time with these fictional characters I’ve grown to love. It pains me, it really does, because every time I look at a spine of a shelf, I don’t see pages or time, but the opportunity of characters and lives I have yet to meet.
So, I listened. I listened to the first novel again, having not been a part of the story for so long, I felt my memory fail me. And, I listened. To every second and every word, rewinding on the words that caught me the most, scribbling down phrases on askew post-its at my desk when I never wanted those words to leave me again.
And, I finished.
4 years later, and I have all the segments, thus far, of Elias and Leia and Sabaa’s story within me.
So, what did I learn from doing this?
Well, you just read it.
Now, I’m on a hunt to find another gilded story, pages lined with inked tales of faraway places that will fill my head with the endless possibilities that only a story can deliver.
The great thing is, I’m finding a quite a few.
And, the world has opened again, and I am once more on that couch-turned-bed, hiding in my sleeping bag, falling with only trust in my heart and a fire in my eyes, because the greatest story ever told is the one that lays ahead.
Originally published on The Medium.