I’m taking an Adolescent Literature course at UNO this Fall and our professor asked us to write a Reading and Writing Autobiography, describing our relationship to reading and writing from grades 6-12. It turned out to be a fun exercise so I thought I’d post it here:
I was raised to be a reader. I have vivid memories of my father reading to me as a child and my mother bringing me and my little brother to the library every week to check out books. I looked forward to summer reading challenges and buying books when the Scholastic book orders came through our classrooms. I could sit around the house reading for hours, perfectly content.
In the years around fifth through seventh grade, fantasy became my preferred genre. I disappeared into Lewis’s Narnia, got folded into L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, followed the The Hobbit there and back again, and came of age with Arthur in T.H. White’s Once and Future King. I also enjoyed realistic and historical fiction. Books that stood out to me as I read for pleasure in junior high: Hinton’s The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now; Lord of the Flies; anything by Stephen King; Go Ask Alice; Exodus; Clan of the Cave Bear; Animal Farm.
I read three books around ninth grade that changed me forever: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Night by Elie Wiesel and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of suffering or injustice in the world, but reading these books made me feel it in a way that I never could have by hearing a teacher discuss Civil Rights, the Holocaust or America’s westward expansion. I learned that there were stories out there that revealed truths that people kept hidden. That books could open up your world, give voice to those who have been silenced and help you question your place in history and modern society. Reading gave me a social justice filter early on – still in development – and I was grateful for it.
As for writing, my junior high self loved writing poetry, monologues and short plays. If I had any musical talent I would have written song lyrics. My best friend Ami and I would share our poetry over the phone and these exchanges felt sacred. We didn’t realize how terrible the poetry was at the time but it was fun and it helped us find our voice and try on grown-up ideas. In ninth grade I had Mr. Kohlmeier for English class and he probably had the greatest impact on me as a writer than any other teacher ever has. He was a little hammy at times, but he challenged all of us to take risks, to write like the whole world was reading, to analyze and respond to texts thoughtfully. He shared great writing with us and got us reading each other’s writing, which was inspiring because there were some really good writers in that class. It made you want to up your game – to hold your own amongst your peers. Also of note, it was around this time that I realized how all of the reading I had done had helped me to become a better writer.
My relationship to reading and writing changed once I got into high school. There wasn’t any time left for pleasure reading. It was hard enough to balance required reading for English class with other coursework and extracurricular activities. There were some required books I enjoyed reading (The Scarlett Letter; East of Eden; The Nick Adams Stories; Their Eyes Were Watching God; Hiroshima; Brave New World; anything by Thoreau or Emerson) and some I suffered through (David Copperfield; The Canterbury Tales; Hamlet; The Odyssey). Gone were the days when I would comb library shelves or book stores looking for something that I wanted to read for fun. I never visited the high school library unless there was an assigned research project, and only then to access obscure journals and literary critiques. So my pleasure reading was eclipsed by my required close reading. I try to remember this when I see students using the library to work and study, but not to check out books. We put a lot of demands on high school students’ time.
Even though I read less in high school, I had excellent teachers who had high expectations for academic writing and took the time to model and provide feedback along with opportunities for revision. I became a much stronger writer in high school. My creative writing fell away, but I was well prepared for all writing assignments when I arrived for my freshman year of college.
Though I read some fantastic books in college, it wasn’t until I graduated that I rediscovered my love of reading for pleasure. Once again, I found myself spending hours at a time with wonderful books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; Beloved; Guns, Germs and Steel; The Blind Assassin; The Known World; The God of Small Things; To Kill a Mockingbird (after all these years, still a favorite). Both teaching and working with a great school librarian brought me to the joys of adolescent literature, and recently, I’ve started playing around again with writing poetry.
It’s amazing to look back on a life spent reading, and to look forward to many years more. It reminds me how grateful I am to be a reader, how much joy and satisfaction it has brought me, and how lucky I am to have my life’s work related to one of my life’s passions.
Thanks for reading. Let me know if you write a Reading and Writing Autobiography.