The Two Rs
By LE Orison
I remember being unable to read. I remember the boxes of words lined up neatly at the bottom of the page, and the letters within shifting: unknown, tantalizing, a puzzle just beyond my comprehension. That book happened to be a mystery, adding to the wonder when my older brother finally sounded out the text, revealing the story’s secret to my ears, if not my eyes.
Once I knew how, I read gluttonously. I read until my eyes stopped focusing and my head pounded, and our doctor confirmed that I must be separated from the printed word to recover. (I am stubborn; this happened several times before I learned moderation.) I spent many afternoons walking to our library, through the cool shadows and deadly blind curves and hills of our neighborhood to the heat, dust, and exhaust of downtown sidewalks; on these trips, I tried to choose only those books I wished to carry the miles home. I always chose more than was comfortable.
As the motto for his coat of arms in high school, my brother chose an oft-repeated phrase in our house: “When in doubt, look it up.” For mine, I chose Sir Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man.”
College—an amazing wealth of unfamiliar titles, fresh libraries, new thoughts, bound by never-enough time. Basic military training, when only religious works and the official soldier’s guide were tolerated—drought, starvation. Every snatch of news or fiction, secreted to me in letters by friends, burst in my mind with the intensity of the sugar we were also forbidden and in the heady joy of graduation, I went to the bookstore with my family and bought five or six books at full price, only to have them confiscated at the start of my next training.
Access to books, and time to read, have come in waves through my life, not often synchronized. Limitation of choices has pushed me to devour work I might not otherwise have bypassed—fumbling through a pile of battered paperbacks in a plywood library the size of a bathroom—or to wait weeks in anticipation of a book I ordered from overseas, hoping it contains the information I craved.
Even now, my wallet contains three library cards. My shelves are perpetually in flux. There is never any question in my husband’s mind about what I might like for Christmas or my birthday, and the list of books I want to read never grows any shorter.
But beside the pure pleasure of vicarious experience, the quest for understanding, there is the conjoined twin of reading in my life: writing.
I cannot be sure when I began, only that the first story I recall fit within a half sheet of lined paper, abandoned from the frustration of scribing it rather than a dearth of ideas. I wrote about stories. I wrote down my dreams. I wrote page after page of stereotypical or preachy fantasy, and the older I grew, the more I wrote. Siblings and friends received questionable gifts of short stories, teen crushes inspired poetry, and through college and military service, a series of blogs chronicled the deep thoughts of my life and experience. (Despite my tongue-in-cheek cynicism, then, as now, the occasional flash of truth comes through. Void? Do you hear it?)
I never finished a novel draft until the waiting days following that first deployment—hours spent alone in my new apartment, without school or work to distract me. My husband remained with his unit, still overseas for another four months. In his absence, I found a book: No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. I read it. I believed. And within a month and a half, I completed my first full draft.
I write because I want to read. I write because the visions in my head are unclear without structure, because I wake up from a dream and want to know what happens next. I write because I am a reader.
The last eleven years have seen fourteen novels begun, seven fully drafted. In no small part this is due to National Novel Writing Month, but the truth is that I write year-round. At present, I have four novels in my head. Three follow the same story; the first I am editing, the second I began drafting in November but did not complete, and the third exists as a disjointed collection of scenes, clamoring for a clear plot. The fourth novel is entirely different—dystopian science fiction rather than fantasy, multiple viewpoints instead of one; it is my experiment, my sabbatical, my quandary.
I read, because I want to write.
My shelves are stocked with books on plot, punctuation, conflict and suspense, revision, characterization, and thesauri of setting, trait, emotion. But they also contain a book on violence. A manual for body guards. Books on strategy, history, politics, war, religions. I have definitive works on both Japanese and European sword fighting. Overviews of monarchy throughout the world. Dictionaries in Welsh, Russian, Slovak, Icelandic, and Italian. Most recently, I am reading The Art of Intrusion. The Art of Deception. Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. 100 Deadly Skills, Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, How Do It Know?, C++ in 10 Minutes, and Beginner’s Programming—All-in-One Desk Reference.
I begin reading these things because the story in my mind requires greater understanding of my subject. As I read, the story grew; as the story grows, more knowledge is needed. Over and over, the edges of my world flex and twist, revealing new lands beyond. One book leads me to another, chasing rabbit trails of fact, but always to this central point: to improve my own writing, the reigning story, in turn. I still love reading fiction, old favorites and new finds, yet the story in my head takes precedence over them all until it is complete.
The best reading has become when I forget the words I have written, when the story captures me past criticism and moves me. When the book lives on its own. When I am audience, not scribe.
Yet after three decades, history repeats.
For the language base in The Queens’ Defense series, I picked Korean because I liked how it sounded. I stole words and romanized names without care when I began. Now, nearly two years later, that language has stolen my heart. As I study it, words march across the page in tidy squares and rectangles, imbued with mystery, black on the white page. I cannot look away. Already I long to answer.
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. . . . Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” –Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies
Someday, when I have learned to think in 한국어, writing will follow. For what else are books but a slow conversation through time?
To read more of LE Orison’s work, check out her blog at https://writerintransience.wordpress.com/.
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