Why writers should continue to challenge what literature can be.
I have a confession to make, now that the statute of limitations has passed: I’ve committed academic fraud. In the second grade, I was awarded a Pizza Hut gift certificate for reading more books than any other student, when in fact my mother had read them to me. Mired in guilt, I ate my ill gotten deep dish pizza on her behalf.
My reports were, in fact, dumbed down summaries of the blurbs on the back of the books I’d claimed to have read. In instances where I couldn’t infer the endings based on the illustrations, I had my parents rent the film adaptations.
While my classmates read, I ran my finger down the text waiting for the kid next to me to turn the page. I could read, but my imagination never made room for the soft family-centric melodramas assigned to me. The time for fairy tales had past. As far as I knew, this was what literature was from here on out.
When I read the text I recalled basic narrative beats, but I never retained enough information to answer my teacher’s laser focused questions. I never remembered the names of streets or the color of the wallpaper.
My mother took me to the library, armed with a list of books appropriate for my age. She picked the one with the most awards on the cover and sentenced me to my room to labor on it.
Full disclosure: I shift the bookmark whenever she came in to check. When she asked what it was about, I made up my own story and slapped the assigned reading’s title on. When the door shut, I resumed work on the Ninja Turtle sketches stashed beneath my mattress.
I assumed there was something wrong with my attention span. I didn’t understand how kids could spend all recess sitting in the shade reading. Books had an appeal, but I was too dumb to get it.
My reading comprehension scores revealed me for a fraud. I was placed in the remedial reading class. If I’d thought the previous assignments were boring these were mind-numbing. They were stripped-down, plotless, conflict free, non-events. I spaced out completely, astral projecting my consciousness far from my peers stuttering lips.
It wasn’t until they forced me to read aloud that they realized I was in the wrong place. Even at a young age, I could read like a newscaster off a teleprompter. I didn’t need to sound things out, I didn’t require visual reminders. It wasn’t until I worked with a tutor that the school realized what my problem was: I didn’t find the assigned readings very compelling.
The next class I was placed in met in the library, where the readings were more advanced and far more interesting. The stories featured curses, amputations, and murder. The stakes were higher than the sub sitcom offerings my classmates were reading. There was conflict, a sense of urgency, and mystery. I comprehended what I’d read, because I cared about what happened in it. The stories were eventful. They weren’t softened to shelter my young mind.
My first genuine book report was on Avi’s Wolf Rider. The story opens with a boy getting a phone call from an anonymous stranger who confesses to murdering a girl just for fun. This wasn’t The Baby Sitter’s Club, this was dangerous. It was forbidden text with a name that was ambiguous enough to let me get away with reading it. Now, when my mother asked what my book was about, I lied because I was actually reading it.
I ignored whatever was on offer at the PTA book fair. I wanted to read the books they were banning. It was the paperbacks with the red and black cover art that were worth exploring.
Ever since I discovered horror fiction, I’ve been chasing the feeling of revelation that came from finding something different. I sought out risky works, not just taboo ones, but pieces that challenged my preconceptions of their mediums.
I found song writers who articulated the thoughts that were on the tip of my teenage tongue. They over shared, valuing honesty over likability. They challenged the stigmas of mental illness, openly questioning their own logic. They wrote songs with internal conflict.
I sought out authors who could evoke the same emotions.
Jonathan Swift taught me that words could be dangerous, that sometimes the best way to protest an unjust position is to write a story that takes it to its next logical conclusion.
Allen Ginsberg taught me that poems could be more than ethereal collections of abstract emotions, they could be howling declarations of personal freedom, bold enough for the establishment to find obscene.
Philip K. Dick taught me that I could be tricked into devouring a memoir on the perils of drug addiction, so long as there were holograms and identity scrambling cloaks thrown in.
These authors broadened my understanding of their mediums enough to invite me in. inspiring me to transition from observer to participant. They planted seeds in my imagination that sprouted from my fingertips.
The risks they took gave me permission to take some of my own.
A Pep Talk for Originality
My favorite art captures sides of life I’ve experienced, but never seen documented. It contains truths that have yet to be proven universal. It sets out to nail something new. When authors put their own personal oddities on the page, I can’t help but nod while I’m reading, I see myself between their lines.
Maybe every story has been told before, but these authors took the maps drawn by their predecessors and discovered new terrain. Maybe they weren’t smuggling their confessions through the mouths of their characters, but they weren’t afraid to have those characters say and do things that had readers examining the author.
Writing has the power to put allusive emotions into words, to clarify the abstractions of the mind. It can give us metaphors to put form to feelings, to identify our ailments so we don’t have to suffer in silence. Of all the feelings we should aspire to raise in readers, this is one of the most important.
Early writers have a habit of putting stock phrases in their character’s mouths, of borrowing setups, of wedging their original concept into a familiar template.
I did this. I took the books I was reading, the TV shows I was watching, and video games I was playing and mixed them into a stew, hoping the combination would make me seem inventive. I was a DJ, sampling obscure singles in the hopes of making a hit.
I wrote fast, but I was drawing from tropes I’d seen so many times they’d burrowed their way into my subconscious. When I was faced with options, I always went with the safest one. I never went with the mystery box, where the truth was hiding.
My critics told me that those stories never delivered on the promise of their setups.
You don’t want your readers to feel like you’re wasting their time, retreading the same well trodden ground. You want them to feel like they’re discovering something new about the world and their place in it. This means you have to be willing to explore stories that venture off the beaten path.