Growing up, I read everything I could get my hands on. My mother was a voracious reader and I devoured whatever she had lying around the house. I fell in love with Emily Bronte and Charlotte Bronte. As a shy eleven-year-old, I lost myself in the dark romance of Wuthering Heights and Jayne Eyre. I was captivated by Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, The Outsiders, Little Women and the Lord of the Flies. I remember one time, I realized I had read every fiction book in the house, so I started going through the dusty anthology collections I found on a forgotten shelf and discovered a complete collection of Greek Mythology. I read all of it, entranced by the forbidden world of sex, revenge, and monsters I found there.
My dad kept all my report cards and gave them to me recently. Miss Schaeffer, from third grade, wrote: “Heidi often is caught reading fiction books instead of reading the lesson.” That was me: books at the dinner table, books hidden in my lap at school, books on the bus ride home, books under the covers with a flashlight until 1 in the morning. I lived for my English Lit classes in junior high and high school, where I learned there were hidden symbols and themes, puzzles inside the stories just waiting for me to figure them out. Nothing else held my attention like the well-told story. I suffered from undiagnosed ADD as a kid and would have probably been a terrible speller if it hadn’t been for the fact that I read so much high-quality literature. Not by choice, it was the only thing around to read and I craved the escape.
As I got older and went to college to pursue a degree in English lit, I still read widely and deeply. After college, I got married and still read entire books in the bathtub until 2 a.m. I had shelves filled with books bloated with water damage. Reading is what spawned my desire to write. I wrote, then read, then wrote some more. Those dead ancient authors were my mentors and teachers.
Then, smartphones and Facebook happened, social media exploded and I stopped reading fiction. I read, but it was mostly articles and blogs, quick snippets of nothing that I forgot almost as soon as I read them. Granted, having little children put a damper on reading time, it’s hard to concentrate when you get interrupted every 15 seconds, but instead of reading after they went to bed, I found myself on my phone, scrolling through meaningless bullshit. I was too tired and social media sated my short attention span.
I had high hopes for my kids. My daughter had a 50-word repertoire by 8-months-old. She has a natural gift for language. My son taught himself to read very early because he wanted to be able to read the whole Goosebumps collection—which he did by 5-years-old. But then came the world of video games, Roblox and YouTube. Now, for them, reading has become a cure for insomnia, a chore, an assignment from an old-fashioned mother, something to kill time until they can return to role-playing in Roblox. The online world is their first love, like reading was for me, and that saddens me.
I would have done the same at that age, but none of that had been invented yet. My imaginary world was between pages, their’s is on a screen. But can I blame them, when the lure of the screen is as irresistible to me as it is to them?
I recently got back into writing after a long hiatus. I gave the first draft of Vessels of Wrath to a friend back in 2007. He was also a writer and I respected his opinion. He loved the first part but said the second part was too melodramatic (he was right). I got discouraged and didn’t write another thing for ten years. Then, last year, I started writing again, sporadic poems and essays on WordPress. But, again, I got discouraged and quit, because nobody had the attention span to read the longer stories I started writing, even people that liked it. They were just like me, no time to read anything longer than a short article here and there. How could I blame them? I had piles of unread books gathering dust on my bedside table.
But again, I missed writing. I went back and re-wrote Vessels of Wrath. I edited and polished another story, Objects of Pleasure and then sent them out to literary magazines. I had some nice replies, but both were too long for that format. I had a few months of discouragement, but then said screw it and put them on Amazon.
Amazon has taught me this—Literary fiction is a dying art. It’s being killed off by genre writing that didn’t exist when I was growing up. Vampires and Zombies. Fifty Shades of Romance and Erotica. YA, Self Help, and Sci-Fi.
The process of getting your writing read is tedious. You realize your friends and family are just like you, no time, too distracted. You wonder why you write, what the point is, wish you didn’t want to.
I keep writing, although discouragement is always watching over my shoulder. I have to. It is a part of me, born from my love of reading at a young age.
One thing writing has taught me is how important reading is—that I defeat my own desire to become a writer, that I silence future literary writers when instead of picking up a book, I pick up my phone instead.
Janet Fitch is one of my favorite authors. She inspired me to write. She just wrote a new book, The Revolution of Marina M. I’ve heard it’s an important work that needs to be heard. It’s time for me to put away the phone and finally sit down and read it.