Language: My Lost-and-Found Love
Fifteen or so years ago, I probably read more than most kids my age. I didn’t have a lot of friends or very involved parents, so I kept myself busy with books. To this day, I still own the entire first series of Goosebumps by R.L. Stine and Animorphs by K.A. Applegate. As with most books written for kids twelve and up, they lacked depth. I found that they also lacked a certain sense of empathy, which good writers can achieve; the book should make me feel as though I’m reading about real people. Needless to say, I ran through these books and others like them in droves, getting almost comfortable with my shallow short stories. My writing in school closely mirrored the books I read, lacking in depth and thought and carelessly organized.
On my thirteenth birthday, I received a gift that changed my life. My aunt had found for me a book containing three Edgar Allan Poe stories. It was compiled for children, so the stories were watered down, dumbed down, and accompanied by not-so-melancholy illustrations. Nevertheless, that evening when I cracked the book open and laid down to read the first story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I had no idea what to expect. I read that story as well as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I managed to read the whole book three times, only falling asleep when the sun peeked over the horizon. The depth of the stories and the believable characters, not to mention the language, opened up in me a wonder I had never felt before, an unexplainable awe. That night, Poe redefined language for me, like a master showing an apprentice the proper use of a tool and even letting him explore the toolbox a little.
After that fateful night, I got my hands on as much Poe as I could find. I had never needed a library card before, but very quickly came into one. I didn’t think it could get better that those first stories, but once I read the actual unabridged version of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” my mind expanded. Some say it grew three sizes that day. That same day, I learned how to use a thesaurus, and I used a dictionary more times than ever before in my life.
When I look back at the writing my parents kept from my school days, I definitely see the shift around that same time. Before my thirteenth birthday, I took no pleasure in writing. I only wrote the bare minimum, exactly what I had to, and nothing more. It all sat stagnant on the page in one big block of text; middle schoolers don’t generally have a problem with light research, but I couldn’t even make that effort. Then I found another paper from the middle of the same semester — after my birthday – that changed everything. I turned out a well-formatted, clearly organized paper on how I wanted to go to college to learn to program computers. I had even cited books from the school library in my paper!
My writing, and love for the same, developed more every day. Unfortunately, few teachers emphasized writing to that point in my academic life, so when I dropped out of high school, I only possessed a larger vocabulary than most, which didn’t get me as far as I thought it would. I stopped writing for a while, deciding instead to ponder the worst decisions for my future and then making them. There isn’t a lot of call for high-level reading or writing as a drug addict, or as a dishwasher, or even as a shift leader for a pizza joint. Most of us know how these occupations don’t even allow for a lot of time to read.
Having cycled through about a thousand meaningless jobs, I found myself learning to set tile. To keep a long story short, I threw out my knee and couldn’t move around for a while. During this time, I read Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, a popular British fantasy satirist. I read it fairly quickly, and it reminded me of Poe’s works. I began to think about the previous eight or so years, regretting not having read more in that time. Soon after, I had a baby (well, not me personally — my wife did), and the first book I got for her was The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. My daughter Abigael was born almost two months early, after spending a month in the hospital with my wife because of the complications. We spent nearly two months at the hospital, every day of which I read Poe to both of them.
The last job I had was as a janitor. I made the mistake of listing my janitorial experience on a job-fair resume. Every night I would listen to Terry Pratchett or Stephen King books on tape through most of my shift. I worked there until I could enroll for college, at which point I set my quit date as the first day of school. Maybe it was Night Watch while I couldn’t work, or maybe it was Poe all along, but one or both of those things made me decide to change my life. When my daughter finally came home from the hospital, I’d been drug free for a year, and that much time working to actually try to support my wife and myself instead of my habit probably had something to do with the decision to go back to school.
I honestly think that excellent literature saved my life. If I had continued in the same direction for much longer, I would have destroyed myself. I could have done it in many ways, but I know it would have happened. Once I felt that rush again, different from any drug and only attainable through mental stimulation, I knew where I needed to go. In just two short years of college, and with the help of a couple really great English professors, I’ve developed my writing into something better than I expected. I’m certainly no Poe or Pratchett, but maybe someday, someone like me will say, “I’m pretty good, but I’m certainly no Bedford.”