It Started With a Clown
Or more specifically, a harlequin. Ms. Hagy, my seventh-grade English teacher, played a record of author Harlan Ellison reading his short story, Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktock Man. 13-year-old-me was blown away. The language, the flow, the way the words just tumbled together like nothing I’d ever heard before. (And a few colorful words we weren’t allowed to say that made it all the more titillating.) I wanted more. A lot more.
I’d always loved to write, but this was the moment when I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write like Ellison, make people feel about my stories the way he made me feel about his.
It starts with a quote from Thoreau, but the real beginning is this:
That’s the heart of it. Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself.It’s fiction, but this also represents some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard.
Repent, Harlequin also has one of the longest and best sentences ever.
Jelly beans! Millions and billions of purples and yellows and greens and licorice and grape and raspberry and mint and round and smooth and crunchy outside and soft-mealy inside and sugary and bouncing jouncing tumbling clittering clattering skittering fell on the heads and shoulders and hardhats and carapaces of the Timkin workers, tinkling on the slidewalk and bouncing away and rolling about underfoot and filing the sky on their way down with all the colors of joy and childhood and holidays, coming down in a steady rain, a solid wash, a torrent of color and sweetness out of the sky from above, and entering a universe of sanity and metronomic order with quite-mad coocoo newness. Jelly beans!There’s just something about the sound and the rhythm of this. It reads as though all those jelly beans are raining down on you.
My love for stories started long before this eye-opening experience, though. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading, but one moment sticks out just as clearly as hearing Ellison read his story.
My very first Nancy Drew Mystery.
For my eleventh birthday, I got two Nancy Drews, The Secret of Shadow Ranch (because I loved horses) and The Message in the Hollow Oak. I didn’t know anything about these books, but I loved to read so I curled up with one and devoured it. Then I eagerly dove into the other. When I was done I begged for more. I come from a family of readers, so more were provided as fast as I read them. Eventually I had them all.
I wanted to be Nancy Drew. I wanted friends like Bess and George, sidekicks to solve puzzles and mysteries with. I loved the adventure, the excitement. It was the first time I thought of books as my friends, and not just something I read.
Up until then, the books I read usually came from the Weekly Reader Book Club. Once a month I’d get a package in the mail with a novel, a poster, and an activity book. Sometimes the novels were great, others not, but it never occurred to me before then to ask for specific books. Nancy changed all that, and she started a trend.
After that, birthday and Christmas gifts included books. My sister gave me my first The Black Stallion and I was hooked on Alec Ramsey and The Black. Later I discovered Lois Duncan and her creepy novels like Summer of Fear and Killing Mr. Griffin. My love of science fiction was launched by Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. And my yearning to discover another world within my own was quenched with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Books became about authors who told stories I loved, and finding a cool new author was a joy every time.
And every book I loved made me want to write all the more.
Reading and writing goes hand in hand, and to be a good writer you really do need to be a good reader. Not only do those stories show us how to tell a great tale, they inspire us to want to tell a great tale that takes our readers to the same places our favorite books take us.
So what’s your story? How did you fall in love with reading?
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