One of my most vivid childhood memories is among my most painful. It was the first day of first grade, and our task was a handwriting assignment. We were asked to copy a paragraph written on the board, just a simple exercise, my teacher said. And I remember how the white chalk cut across the blackboard, and the sick feeling in my stomach as I forced my hand to move, to draw what seemed nothing more that shapes, to copy those squiggles and lines as I might a painting. All in order to conceal my terrible truth: that I couldn’t read.
I’m not sure why I struggled so with reading as a child. Perhaps it was because I’d switched school districts so many times in the span of a few short years – when I was in kindergarten in Michigan they learned to read in first grade, when I was in first grade in Kansas City, they had learned to read in kindergarten, and I started behind.
Yet I couldn’t wholly pin my inability to read on school. I’d grown up with parents who’d wanted to instill a love of books in me. They’d read to me every night, and worked tirelessly to teach me to sound out words and identify letters long before I began any formal education. And their overall plan had worked: I loved books, and I was desperate to be able to read them myself.
Photo Credit: Debka Colson
But I still couldn’t do it, and hours of my parents’ encouragement, my teachers’ time, and my own efforts to read didn’t seem to have any impact. Words on a page held magic for me, but it was a magic that I could only access when someone else read them. On my own, I felt like an interloper, always a visitor and outsider in the fairy tale kingdoms, Narnias, and Wonderlands which I so loved, and which others seemed to access so easily. At night, I would take my books and desperately try to decipher them, to will the stories I knew existed there to show themselves to me. It wouldn’t work, and in frustration, I’d hurl my book across the room.
When I couldn’t read, the world was a web of impenetrable signs and mysterious codes and symbols. In the car, I’d watch the road signs pass, knowing that those signs held knowledge beyond stories, and knowing that if I could only decipher them, I too would have the magic of orientation- of knowing where we were, where we were going, where we stood in the world.
And when I couldn’t read, words themselves felt like a danger, too. When I sat at my desk in first grade, tracing those lines, aware that they were simple shapes to me where they should have been full of meaning, every mark on the page felt like a risk. Was I copying a line or a stray scratch? Was I correctly guessing where one word ended and another began? And even worse, was this mark going to be the one which finally gave me away- which, if a classmate looked over my shoulder, would proclaim my inability to the classroom (which at that time, of course, felt like the world)?
I’ve been thinking a lot about my reading, lately, as I think about my writing. It’s often funny to me that a child who’s relationship with writing was so charged- so full of frustration, impossibility, and sometimes anger- would have grown up to pursue writing as a career.
And yet, as I recount my early relationship with words and books in this post, I see a profound resonance between my younger and older selves. It strikes me that my early relationship with reading is, in fact, a dynamic I haven’t wholly left behind: my childhood experiences with reading aren’t all that different from my adult relationship with writing, one which volleys continually between love and frustration.
One of my college English professors and mentors once called writing a perpetual journey between elation and self loathing. In part, this has always been true for me. The words that leave me energized in the morning disappoint on a second read; the words that I extract one painful syllable at a time at night, convinced they’re awful, in the morning hit me as exactly what I’d been trying to say all along. The act of bridging the gap between what exists in my head as abstract perfection, and what has to exist in the world as concrete words, has always been messy for me, wrought with feelings of frustration, fear, and imminent failure. It’s the old feeling of being outside, barred from a certain understanding, unable to get through to that magic combination of words which I “know” exist, to express an unarticulated idea that I’m sure, somehow, is there.
And yet, I know from personal experience that this particular set of extremes isn’t where I’ll find my way forward. Ultimately, it wasn’t my punishing frustration, fear, and anger that taught me how to read. I didn’t find the secret as I wept over my books at night, and I certainly didn’t find the secret in my classroom, where shame and up humiliation seemed to lurk around every corner. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I can’t remember exactly how I learned to read. Because, one day, when I wasn’t crying, punishing, grasping, it just happened. I think perhaps it was developmental. One day, I woke up and read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Just like that. And I came down, told my stunned mother, and went right back upstairs to read some more. No tears, no fear, it just was.
Photo Credit: Debka Colson
It’s this moment that I’ve been finding myself coming back to, again and again, as I think about my writing. In that moment, I was victorious- I’d mastered the thing that had eluded me. I had my magic worlds and the independence I’d made into a magic act itself- the ability to open a book, all by myself, and by myself, to make that book live. And as I did, all the noise; the frustration; the vision of reading as a zero sum game, complete with winners and loser, insiders and outsiders, fell away. I could read, and in that moment I knew the truth of what I wanted: to read, and read more.
Sometimes, my writing all seems a code, a map, a series of squiggles and lines, which are again impenetrable to me. Sometimes, I see my writing as a journey between elation and self loathing, a shift between total success and total failure – a vision which continually leaves me an outsider and an interloper, not to mention emotionally exhausted. Sometimes, I want to throw my book across the room.
So as much as I can, I try to bring myself back to the truth of the moments where I’ve found my greatest success. Not the moments where the words click into place, though those are great too, but the moments when my mind accepts the process that any sustained creative and imaginative activity demands. It’s in these moments that something clicks, that my past self leaves her frustrations and self hatreds behind, and that I remember that this is how my relationship with reading, all those years ago, has truly prepared me for my writing today. Because it’s in these moments where I don’t care about keeping any kind of score, or about tomorrow’s line edits, or about my worth as a writer, wordsmith, artist. It’s in those moments that I write. And then I go upstairs, to write some more.
-Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers