Books. Writing. Reading.
By Barbara O’Neal
I remember the exact minute I decided to be a writer.
I was in the fifth grade. I was reading, because—let’s be honest here--I never did m uch of anything else. My bedroomwas at the back of the house and had two windows, giving it great light for lounging on the bed with a pack or two or Smarties or Sixlets to nibble on while I read. That day, I was propped up on pillows. It was a winter afternoon, the light just softening into a purple gloaming. My mother cooked supper, sending the smell of hamburger and onions into the air.
I was reading, though I can’t remember what. Out of nowhere, as if an angel dropped a note on the bed, it suddenly occurred to me that somebody wrote this book.
And I thought, quite clearly, “If writing is a job, why would anyone ever do anything else?”
At the time, I had no idea what was involved, but it wasn’t long before I started writing stories myself. All kinds of stories, because when you’re a kid no one cares if you write a literary sort of short short about a gruff grandfather one day and a magical novella about witches the next. My sisters and friends read them all.
I didn’t know it, but I had uncovered the single Great Truth about writing: Writers Write.
Yesterday, as I was stressing out over all my first world problems like whether the carpet in our basement will be here in time for Christmas, the UPS man delivered ARCs for my April book, The Garden of Happy Endings. I don’t mind telling you this book kicked my ass. I thought I was writing about a long-lost love, but it was really about women of faith and the church and where they fit and how people lose faith or keep it when really bad things happen. You know, little stuff like that.
But yesterday, I opened the box, and there was my book. There were the words I put down on the pages and the people I spent that year with. It has beautiful end papers and chapter headers. I read the dedication and got teary eyed all over again.
The book is born, right now. She lives. Wow.
Writers face a lot of pressure these days to be social and public and sell lots of copies and make lists and make friends and send a newsletter, and all kinds of things I forget about because honestly I'm not that good at any of them, but whenever I hold a new book I've written, I think, Holy shit. I’m a writer. I DID this. THIS.
It was so unlikely, and yet, it was also, always, the work I was meant to do. That's a humble and honorable thing, to pick a path and stick with it, year after year, doing it as best you can. I attend to it, writing as truly as I can, writing stories that I'd really like to read myself so that maybe others will want to come along.
Mainly, though, I do it for me. For that kid in her little bedroom who wanted to read more than she wanted to do anything. In a way, writing a novel is just like reading a novel, except that it lasts longer. I check out of this world and head into the one I’m making up and I love it.
How freakin’ lucky is that?
Here’s something else. I have been on a reading jag. I’m tired (see above—projects coming out my ears, pressures on writers, flooded basement, etc), and what I do when I’m tired is read and read and read. I check out of this world and check into somebody else’s.
I’m reading a couple of books every week. Everything you can think of—science fiction and memoirs and foodie novels and letters from literati, and essays and romances and women’s fiction and sagas. I’ve been saving the second book in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, Clash of Kings, for the Christmas holiday and can open it tomorrow, so I went back and refreshed my memory by reading the end of the first book, Game of Thrones.
And ---NO SPOILERS!---I fell to pieces all over again reading the final scenes with Daenerys, the brave and plucky young woman sold in marriage to a barbarian king—and proved herself over and over and over again until we see what a fine powerful queen she is. It’s heartbreaking and triumphant and intensely emotional and I love Martin for creating this character so that I can read about her.
I’m not a big fantasy reader. I like it in small doses, but mostly, it comes in 12-packs, which seems like a big commitment when I don’t even know you. But my eldest son kept telling me, “Mom, I think you’d like it. Just try.”
I still resisted, until I called him one Sunday and he said he’d fallen asleep reading one of the books in the series, and when he woke up, he lifted the book off his chest and kept reading….and forgot to eat.
So. I read the first book. It's that good. Now I’m telling you that it’s amazing, and worth reading. If you’re intimidated by keeping all the names and places straight, start with an episode or two of the HBO series.
Books matter. They really, really matter. They matter to us as readers and they matter to us as writers. They can change the world, but more than that, they can change a day, a life, an hour, a year.
Which brings me to the last point. Us. You and me. Books and writing brought us all together here. We have so many ways now to find our tribes, our fellow readers and writers, people who share this passion. The internet has offered us almost immediate connection to the writers we love, to the stories they create, and given us glimpses of their lives in ways that were impossible twenty years ago. It has created communities like this one, readers and writers talking every day, and I feel lucky to have been here even for a short time. I'll miss it, just as you will.
But I know we’ll meet again, wandering around the book communities we all love. Because we’re book freaks. We love reading and writing and talking about books. We’ll run into each other elsewhere.
Until then, I’ll miss you….and thanks for letting me be here.