On Reading, On Writing, On Words
[originally published in Poetix. 11/08 http://poetix.net/greathouse_essay.htm]
I wrote my first book when I was six years old. It was published in a
limited edition of 1 on a small press run out of my playroom, between
Barbie’s motor home and my padded orange toy box. Today, my great authorial debut, Jean Likes Green, lives buried somewhere in my father’s house. Quietly resting in a cardboard casket that probably reads U-haul on the side, crammed between yearbooks containing photos of close friends I no longer remember and awards for perfect attendance.
The power of words and their order held my rapt attention from childhood. Something about the way they ring, long after sound has fallen silent or pages turned. I loved to read and did so with a voracity that led my confused parents to pay me to play outside. They were not above bribery, nor was I. If all I had to do was go run around with a silly red wagon and collect frogs for a few hours after the rain in order to ensure the next day could be spent reading Beverly Cleary stories cover to cover, one after the other…well, frogs it was! I don’t know that anyone understood why I seemed to prefer to company of books to toys so much of the time, the company of Ramona and Beezus, the children of Mr. Henshaw’s class to that of my own friends. I don’t know that I understood. I wanted a sister as fun as Ramona, I wanted an author to write me letters like Mr. Henshaw did with little Leigh Botts.
Leigh Botts and I went through divorce together. His parents were just as confusing as mine and as Mr. Henshaw helped Lee, he helped me too. When my parents divorced, I lived with my mother and my father moved to an area of Orange County where, every Saturday, Santa would come. I don’t mean some fat old man jumping down the chimney somehow managing not to scare the bejeezus out of everyone. No, this was much, much better than a fat man with presents. This was the stuff dreams are made of. On Saturdays at noon, it would roll up to the park, looking like a run-down converted ice cream truck and I would be waiting. Ever impatient, I would be jumping and dancing by the time the man opened the doors to the eighth wonder of the world, The Bookmobile.
I would take the maximum number of books allowed. Always the maximum number! After all, if I am allowed to take 5, why would I only take 4? Why would Anyone only take 4? I would select my books and be on my way, a young girl finally free to her paperback utopia that existed within four pink walls and one very wild imagination.
The only thing I loved as much as reading stories, was telling them. When I didn’t have anyone to tell stories to, I wrote them down. When I didn’t want to be in my world, I went to someone else’s and when I didn’t want yours, I created my own.
My romance with writing began with “books” comprised solely of words I could spell, each page dutifully rhyming with the one that preceded it. It was certainly no accident that Jean so favored the color Green. This was also my first attempt at fiction because my name has never been Jean and, as a matter of fact, my favorite color was red. I found myself lost for a name that rhymed with Red and Fred was not an option. The story might not have been autobiographical but I wasn’t yet ready, to write about a boy. They still had cooties and, when you’re six, Fred is just too, I don’t know, “Flintsone” for the literary set.
Over the years, I began to favor bookstores to the Bookmobile, Beverly Cleary became Anais Nin, I wanted Henry Miller to be my Mr. Henshaw and Marguerite Duras changed my world. Stories comprised only of words I could spell became poetry composed from young girls emotions in overdrive. Boys went from being carriers of cooties to inspiring and want never came without want for more. Over years I have moved and hauled my books, my writing and myself from one side of the country to the other and back again. I am still in love with love and moments are now my muse. I still adore tales of all types, the ones I read and the ones we share. After all, inside I’m still that mystified, awkward little girl; my skin just fits better now. I still can’t wait to get caught up in stories and daydreams and I write because it’s what I’m for.