Recently I was asked about my reading life. That made me pause.
When asked to describe my “reading life,” one might as well ask me to describe my life. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to read, and I wouldn’t know my life without a stack of books on my nightstand informing my dreams and challenging my thoughts. Eudora Welty describes exactly how I’ve always felt about books: “It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them” (5). For me, at least, that love has always extended to writing books of my own as well. My first book, Freedom, the Spirit of Horses, won my school’s young writers’ contest and I spent one entire fifth-grade day at the Pacific Lutheran University Young Writer’s conference. I walked away from that day with the childish certainty that this was the first day of the rest of my author’s life. Even after I attempted to major in engineering because I was an undergraduate at the U.S. Air Force Academy, one class lesson in differential equations sent me upstairs to switch my major to English. Words with their sexy rhythms, irresistible shapes, and sultry sounds, will always be the pivot point of my life.
I read everything: the backs of cereal boxes, the labels on pill bottles, the small print in advertisements, New York Times notable fiction, war literature, and the in-between books that family and friends give me. I frantically shovel in the book before a movie, add the suggested reading from memoirist Donald Anderson to my stack, and follow rabbit trails down links while waiting for medical appointments. I listen to books in my car. I’ve been known to bring my iPod with me to finish the book while cleaning my house. In fact, I hold only two times sacred from the stimulation of stories: when I muck horse stalls every morning and when I go for runs. Even then, I find myself narrating my own life. I notice stegosaurus clouds stomping on sunrises as I scoop manure, and, on an early morning run, the women cupping their mouths to call ancient gods out of the South Korean Han river. I’m always sorting through word choices, seeking out rhythms, and contemplating the malleable nature of memory as I form a record of my own past.
A dear friend shares a joke with me that I’m a strict rule follower, except for when I’m not. My mother insists that I am the only person who could become a military officer, then figure out how to have the bureaucracy pay for advanced degrees in English literature and hire me to be a professor. I’m enamored with the idea that I’m a rogue, and I take that identity to heart in my reading and writing. Yet, somehow, I followed the rules when it came to my unusual military career path. Why didn’t I pursue a writing career in 2002? I was afraid I would never teach again if I asked the bureaucracy to fund me in studying my greatest passion: creative writing. Instead, I took the only path I thought I had available to me: academic literary study. To serve in the military and live in the world of words and ideas was the perfect dissonance. And while I’ve successfully published critical work for the last 10 years, my heart isn’t in criticism. I’m much more interested in the craft that produces the big ideas than in analyzing those ideas in the context of literary theories. Instead, I appreciate the way the writing stands on its own. In the end, I’ve always read as a writer.
Yet, as a writer, I don’t regret following “the rules” into the world of literary criticism. Admiring Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Mary Hunter Austin, and Ellen Glasgow enough to write about them in my dissertation has only improved my own imaginative literary world. I studied the pliable boundary between fiction and autobiography in my doctoral work, learning the value of memory as a fictional tool and the value of creativity as a memoirist’s right in nonfiction. Joan Didion’s grief-stricken, abrupt sentences in “After Life,” and JoAnn Beard’s gear-shift collie under the plasma of the night sky in “The Fourth State of Matter,” are the ultimate examples of the type of writing I would like to achieve. Teaching war literature from Sophocles to Diane Ackerman to Brian Turner gave me context and a lexicon for my own military experiences. Discovering the genre “food literature,” and teaching several iterations of a topics course, shaped my positioning within our larger social, cultural, and economic world. I have grown to appreciate a greater breadth of nonfiction writing, including research-based books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. I’m still charmed by stories, though, and I prefer Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle over the more politically charged books, and I prefer M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me over Kingsolver.
My favorite authors interpret the world around them, not only in the context of their own lives, but also in an effort to wrestle with the human condition. Well-written nonfiction lets us slip into someone else’s skin and Jill Ker Conway insists that this experience enlarges and instructs our lives. If we humans supposedly suffer from an existential loneliness sourced from the subjectivity of our own experience, then at least memoir is an attempt to inhabit other perspectives, realize the shared points in our human existence, and perhaps, in the end, feel less lonely.
M.F.K. Fisher has a famous passage from The Gastronomical Me that begins with people asking why she doesn’t write about “power and security and about love.” She explains, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one (353). Fisher’s approach to writing about food as a metaphor for life, the subject that holds her greatest passion, is the same as my approach to writing about my own life, even if I find that this writing, in the end, is always a hunger that cannot be satisfied. Let others slip under my skin; I’m eager to have them recognize their own world in my words: both familiar and yet fresh.
In the end, it comes back to words, whether we are writing them or reading them. They sashay before us on the page, inviting us into their secret chambers, and enchanting us into a better world than our own.