And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
This weekend is one of my favorite weekends of the year. I only have two – the first is the AllWriters’ Annual Retreat, when I bring in 20-some writers from around the country for a four-day retreat where we live, breathe, sleep and eat writing. But the second is the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, where I’m a part of bringing in over 60 writers to appear on panels and solo presentations…and bring in readers as well. I’ve been a part of the festival since its beginning 15 years ago, and I’ve been the program chair for the last three.
Why is it my favorite? Because there are WRITERS! And there are READERS! And it’s a lovefest to end all lovefests.
I know a lot of writers say they were a reader before they were a writer. I can’t really say that because I don’t know when I began writing. I was writing in my head and telling stories before I could read. And as soon as I could read, I latched on to it the way a baby latches on to a bottle – for sustenance. I’m of a generation where you learned to read in the first grade. I started with Dick and Jane like everyone else. But by the middle of first grade, my teacher was taking me to the library herself to get more challenging books, and a little after that, she was driving me to the junior high and high school during recesses so we could find books there for me to read.
But in my own head, what I was writing wasn’t the same as what I was reading. I just didn’t make the connection that I was doing what those amazing authors were doing, until the fifth grade when my teacher, Mrs. Fatticci, after hearing me read a story in front of the class, said from the back of the room, “Oh my god, Kathie. You’re a writer!”
And everything that went on in my head suddenly came together like the final piece of the puzzle. I BECAME a writer. It was ME. An identity.
But reading. So many books have meant so much to me. I fell in love with The Island Of The Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell when I was seven years old, even naming a special stuffed dog I received for Christmas Rantu, after the wild dog in the book. My dog was a dalmatian with a huge nose and bells in his ears, bought with S&H Green Stamps, but he and I were as close as Karana, the main character of the book, and the wild dog, Rontu. My Rontu sits on the top shelf of my closet and I see him every day. I scritch his nose. His ears still jingle.
I checked out A Candle In Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur from the Cloquet, Minnesota, public library so many times that the librarian finally just gave it to me and ordered a new copy for the library. Like my teachers, she took a special interest in me, wanting to provide me with books that challenged me, but didn’t let me know about certain things before I was ready to know about them. I took great pride in hunting through the shelves with her.
My third grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, used to read a book to us every day after recess, and when the book was done, we could raise our hands if we wanted to take the book home ourselves to read. I had to wait through two other students before I got to bring home Daddles by Ruth Sawyer. It was the first time I realized that books could have a sad ending, and I wept over that book repeatedly and did again when I read this book to my granddaughter. I kept forgetting to return this book to my third grade classroom, and when my mother marched me in to a PTA meeting with the book, demanding that I give it back to my teacher, Mrs. Campbell hugged me and told me to keep it as my very own.
Both of these books sit on a shelf behind me, right near my writing desk. They aren’t the originals, unfortunately. On one of my moves, I gave them away, thinking that as an adult, I shouldn’t have these books for younger readers. When I grew older and wiser, I sought them out and bought them again. These are friends that will stay with me forever.
Reading John Irving for the first time, with The World According To Garp, popped my eyes wide open to realistic writing with a quirky character, but it wasn’t until I read The Hotel New Hampshire that I started creating my own quirky characters. Irving made me realize that writers can write characters that are unlike anyone we’ve ever known, but are still so familiar, we know we’ve passed them on the street. Suzy The Bear in that book changed me forever – a woman who went through life dressed as a bear. Several reviewers have compared me to Irving, and I shiver with pleasure every time. The Hotel New Hampshire would be my one book that I could have on a desert island, though I hope to never find myself there.
And then Ellen Gilchrist. When I started reading her short stories, I learned that women, yes, women, can write openly and bluntly about sex and other “unmentionables”. I read her and wanted to be as brave, as forthright, as down-to-earth honest as she is. Like Gilchrist, I can write on the dark side – and bring light to it.
And I could go on to so many others. Ray Bradbury, with Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, which taught me how you can write reality, but bend it a little. And J.D. Salinger, with Seymour; An Introduction, where the main character tells his writer brother what he won’t be asked when he dies, but that he will be asked, “Were all of your stars out? Were you writing your heart out?” Lately, I’ve been reading that scene pretty much every day.
There is just nothing like words for squeezing my heart. Nothing like reading them. Nothing like writing them.
On Saturday, I will be fully surrounded by crowds of writers and crowds of readers and I will have a foot firmly in each group. There is just no greater joy than meeting readers who love you, and meeting writers who you love. Despite the fact that I will be running here, there and everywhere to make sure this festival goes off without a hitch, I will be running with wings on my feet.
I participated in an event at Barnes & Noble this week, and one of the writers said to me, “Oh, I saw you at that book festival once. You were EVERYWHERE!”
Oh, yes. And loving every minute of it.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.
(You can see the details of this year’s Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books at www.sewibookfest.com)