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I wonder sometimes if any author’s story is quite like mine. I’m not talking about the stories they write with their pens, or tap out on typewriters or keyboards. I’m talking about the stories they craft with their very lives, their every breath, their every movement.
When some people talk about writing, they give the impression (to me, at least) that it’s something they enjoy, something to do, an engaging and enjoyable exercise. When necessary, other things in their lives take the place of their writing. After all, they say, one can’t be writing all the time!
I may as well be from Mars.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t adore stories. Even before I could read, I would pore over books, gazing at the pictures and imagining the stories they depicted. I had a series of about four cassette tapes that were recorded by two people who said their names were Jennifer and Jason (though whether those were their real names, I’ll never know). These two voices told about twenty-four fairy tales in all, changing them from the usually gruesome original form to a humorous, more child-friendly version. I listened to these tapes over and over, till I could recite them in my sleep. To this day, I can still quote word-for-word many scenes from my favorite ones (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Aladdin, etc.). But it wasn’t the jokes or the funny voices that attracted me the most to these stories. It was the passionate undercurrent in each and every one.
I taught myself to read. I was four years old, sitting on the couch in the living room, with Dr. Suess’ Go, Dog, Go open on my lap. My dad came by and asked me if I was reading it. I said yes. He asked me if I wasn’t just reciting it from memory. I said I wasn’t. So he sat down next to me, opened to a random page, and asked me what it said. I told him. Then he had me turn to the beginning and read the whole book to him. I did, and he recorded the whole thing. I stumbled several times, but I read it. I don’t even know how I learned how to read; I guess it gradually just made sense to me that this letter says that, this word is dog, and so on.
Looking back now, I realize that I began making up stories long before I started writing them down. For several years, I narrated my own life to myself, had an imaginary pet dog named Peter, and imagined myself going through any multitude of heroic circumstances I read about in my books. All these things I kept a close secret; it was a long time before I dared to tell my best friend that I had an imaginary pet. Thankfully, she thought that was fun and joined in my pretend.
It’s funny to me to remember a time when I hated writing and spelling, which are now my two strongest points. I’m not sure why I hated them. I think it had something to do with frustration at being unable to write letters the way they were printed. I got especially frustrated with the lowercase ‘a’ and the number 2, so frustrated I cried and refused to write those at first. In first grade, I had to spell words orally, and this was another frustration. I could see the words in my head, but it took so much effort to transfer them to my lips. I didn’t like my English that year, so to make it bearable I told a story to myself with the words I had to write. All I can remember now was that it had something to do with a man and his two sons.
In second grade, my workbook had pictures of coaches that gave the instructions, so I told myself a story about a basketball team (that year, I watched the movie Air Bud quite a bit). In the years that followed, my imagination wandered as usual, and I almost felt as though I was reaching for something. But I didn’t know then what it was I was searching for.
Reading was my life, my soul, for the majority of my life. I never stopped reading, even if I’d read the book a dozen times before. Pippi Longstocking became one of my favorites. When grownups asked me what my favorite subject in school was, I would say, “Reading.” I think I annoyed my brother a bit; many times he would ask me to come play with him, but I would say, “Not now. I’m reading.”
Looking back now, I think I was unconsciously trying to use books to fill some empty place in my heart. As long as I was reading, as long as I could keep my nose in a book and my mind in another world, I was safe. Safe from what, I’m not sure. Safe from the knowledge that I have always been different, perhaps – safe from myself.
There was always something missing in me, and when something is missing you can become a monster. Could I sense this, perhaps, even as a child? Was I afraid of the void in my own heart? Was that what brought about the nightmares where everything started out right, but slowly I realized it was all wrong?
When I was in fourth grade, I had an epiphany. I was reading a book for school, called something like Flames Across the Susquehana. It was a story about two drummer boys in the Civil War, and all I remember of that book was that sometime in the climax, the main character’s friend (whose name, I remember clearly, was Jonathan) was killed in battle. Something snapped inside me when I read that. Suddenly, everything clicked into place. I understood. I understood why my mom would cry so often when reading books to me. I understood the emotions that went on inside of her, because those same emotions were unfolding in my own heart. For the first time in my life, I cried because of a book.
I don’t think it’s anything that can be explained. One simply has to experience it for oneself. That connection the reader has to the characters in the story – once I tasted that, I never forgot.
They say that the only reason you are different is because of the people you meet and the stories you read. A perfect example of this would be the year I was in fifth grade. That year, my teacher had us write a story for every theme we were studying at the time. First, it was ancient Egypt, then adventure stories, pioneers, myths and legends, and so forth. The first couple times, I was completely at a loss. How on earth could I write a story? I scraped stuff together each time, looking to the books I had read for inspiration. It was my third story, an adventure story, that gave me the epiphany. I was typing up my second draft, when suddenly I realized it.
I liked writing.
Not just liked; I loved it.
I was excited. I don’t think I quite realized it then, but every time I was given the next story assignment, every time I sat down to figure out what I would write next, every time I worked my way through the writing process and multiple drafts, the hole in myself was filled. None of the stories I wrote that year were very good or coherent at all, but that didn’t really matter. As long as I was writing, I was fulfilled.
That year was also the year I discovered that I loved fantasy. When I was six years old, my dad read The Hobbit to my brother and me, and even though I could barely understand it, I loved it to bits. I had virtually no brushes with fantasy in the years that followed, except for fairy tales and The Chronicles of Narnia, until my fateful fifth grade. That was the year the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies came out, and with all the fervor surrounding them, I read both series. I fell in love with both of them, and that has never changed.
Picture this: A girl of eleven with long dark hair and glasses, hunched up in the loud school bus filled with kids of all ages chattering, laughing, finishing up their lunches…. But this girl can’t even hear them, because she is engrossed in The Silmarillion. She reads words she can barely understand, because there is something about them that transports her away from this world, and she is safe.
That was me.
I wonder sometimes what I would be now if I had never met the teacher who unwittingly forced me to discover what makes me whole, or if I had somehow not heard of The Fellowship of the Ring or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. How could I ever have a purpose beyond writing and futilely trying to emulate the stories I love most? When I was younger, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life. For a while, I wanted to be a nurse like my mom, but that was never meant to be my life. It hurts my gut to see blood, and I would never be able to do the many things nurses must do. For a couple years, I wanted to work with animals, though I wasn’t sure how. I sometimes entertained the idea of being a librarian, since I loved reading so much.
But when I encountered writing, the entire world paled in comparison to it. I have known for about six years that I am nothing without writing, without stories of my own creation. I have no real talents outside writing, nor do I have the patience or perseverance to obtain any. I gave up my piano lessons, arithmetic makes me cry, and I have never liked physically strenuous activities. Writing is what I was always meant to do. It’s as though my entire life had been preparing me for that night at my dad’s computer, so when the time came, I embraced writing with open arms.
It’s not so much a matter of wanting to write as needing to write.
Writing is my passion. Writing is my soul. Writing is me.
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