Time eludes me — forgive my silence.
I was asked to write a selection entitled “My Literary Self (for now)” before the first day of my first semester of doctoral classes. Today, on the last day of classes, I revisited it and found that it still rings true:
I doubt the phrase “I love to read” has ever left my volatile lips. Sure, reading can be fun. It can even stir up passion and overwhelming emotional responses within me, but it’s not something I’ve ever confessed to “loving.” In fact, I would always grumble and express my hatred of it each time a teacher placed a text in my hands — after all, my fingers were made to hold a pen, not a novel.
As the years progressed, my distaste for reading became a point of pride. Even when I switched my major from Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to English, I would still claim I had better things to do with my time, such as filling up Moleskine journals while sipping tea at what used to be Hot Corner. I was a writer, and for some reason I felt compelled to separate myself from “reader.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t read. I remember my first great experience with a book. My first grade teacher read The Boxcar Children aloud to the class. I was so intrigued that I finished the first four books on my own that same year (and many more after). This opened the door to more reading, and I continued my interest in mysteries through an experience with Harriet the Spy in third grade.
My fourth grade teacher was awesome. He looked like Indiana Jones, and even had the hat and personality to go with it. He loved fantasy novels and introduced A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to me. Obviously I could not merely read the first book in a series, so, I finished them on my own as well. By this time, I liked books, but these were different: they made me think. They made me want to write.
I recently found a few diaries from my elementary school age. They are hilarious, sure — I was in love with Justin Marshall — but they also revealed how early I considered myself a writer. I wrote about my day, my teachers, books I was reading, boys. I even wrote poetry. I cherish these printed memories because they reiterate who I am today — it’s who I’ve always been.
My middle school years are defined by Harry Potter and the Left Behind series. While these novels juxtapose the state of my early teen life, they also say a lot about me and who I was. I loved Jesus, but I also loved a world where magic could solve problems — one where I could save the day and one where someone else saved me.
I think high school was the height of my book snobbery. I found it impressive that I could go an entire Language Arts class without reading one novel, but still make an “A” on all my tests (thank you, Sparknotes!). I found myself bored in my classes, so I began a portfolio — a yellow folder full of personal snippets, poems, letters, stories — a piece of high school me. I thought I was so cool.
In college, I found Sparknotes didn’t cut it. So, I forced myself to read Faulkner, made myself endure Austen and sacrificed precious time to be with Greene. After trying to convince myself I was going to be a doctor, I finally saw the truth. There was a reason I was taking every English elective that would fit my schedule, and a reason why I barely made it through Chemistry.
As the truth began to unravel, I found myself sneaking peeks at Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I caught myself memorizing Keats and Cummings. Instead of laying out by the pool, I began making pallets on the calm, green grass of North Campus, shielding my eyes with Grapes of Wrath or The Crying of Lot 49.
I would pass the hours in between classes by people-watching and writing about it. I submitted my first poems for publication. I started to fit into a niche, though I wasn’t sure which one. I listened to Sunny Day Real Estate and discussed the meaning of its lyrics with my now husband. I found more pleasure in writing essays than performing lab experiments. I joined a writing workshop.
I published my first story after graduation, started a chapbook printing press with my husband and a very talented friend, and began writing for a local newspaper. I guess my English teachers made an impression on me, as I became one myself. I love to tell my students that I don’t love to read and see the looks on their faces — one of quizzical disbelief. The thing is: I’ve been telling myself that lie for twenty-seven years now, and I guess I’ve gotten so used to it that I let it be.
Books have directly or inadvertently defined who I am for as long as I can remember. I have lived vicariously through characters since the boxcar children solved their first mystery. I forget how much I enjoy reading because I completely lose myself each time I read a book. When I read, I am no longer Jennifer Whitley, but the protagonist. I eat, sleep, dream when s/he does. I go through the same trials, the same tribulations. After I finish a novel, I go through a period of withdrawal until I forget the process ever existed.
So, to answer your question: if I had to define my “literary self,” I would say that I am a fickle reader who expresses herself best through writing, as what goes on in my head cannot eloquently be expressed otherwise. I consider myself first a writer, but I know the only reason I feel led to write is because I’ve read books and poetry that left a lasting impression on me, inspiring me to do so.
As I sit here, reflecting on my first semester of my final degree, I understand that I’m embarking on a journey that will forever involve reading and writing. And, I’m more than okay with that.