Illiterate: Entry #1

What can I say about my brother that hasn’t already been said about a pimple? He’s embarrassing and unsightly. He pops up at the absolute worst times. And when you get home, you just want to squeeze the life out of him. But unlike a zit, my brother won’t go away with time and a topical cream.

His name is Mark, which is fitting for a blemish. He is three-feet-nine-inches of pure frustration. He doesn’t tag along and hound me at every turn like most younger brothers. That, at least, I could tolerate. No, my brother insists that he is destined to embark on some grand adventure. He awaits a divine intervention of fairy tale magic. Signs are all around us, he tells me, though I’m not sure he cares whether those signs are coming from above or below or even from the sides.

In January 2010, I enrolled in Writing and Editing Children’s Literature, a course in DePaul’s Writing and Publishing graduate program. That winter quarter was the penultimate term of my graduate career, and in six short months I would complete my Master of Arts. The class was to be a vacation from my usual coursework, which to that point covered fundamental and occasionally flavorless topics like language, stylistics, and journalism, as well as emotionally taxing meditations on desperate characters and investigations of the bone and gristle of a short story. After a year and a half, I was exhausted by the constant introspection for the sake of my craft.

The class was a writing workshop where the final project would be the humble beginnings of a children’s or young adult fiction story. Writing the start of a much larger project was a strange exercise for me; I was used to developing complete short stories, but conceptualizing only part of a long-form work of fiction struck me as an entirely different skill set. Despite the alien experience, I was able to draft a few brief Dan Brown-length chapters about two brothers—the older one pragmatic and responsible, the younger one a classic individual longing for adventure. The tone was much fresher and more irreverent than the dry misanthrope fodder that I was so used to. For the first time in a while, writing was fun. Or, to be appropriately literary, this class was a tickle fight compared to the psychological chemical peel of my memoir writing.

To supplement our workshop, the course also served as an introduction to contemporary youth fiction, which I found invaluable since I leap-frogged right over the Harry Potter phenomenon and hadn’t read a children’s book since my beloved Goosebumps. I had some significant hang-ups with a few of the novels we read, even if I discounted volume one of the Gossip Girl catalog entirely: some were hampered by genuinely poor writing while others insulted their audiences with subtlety that would make Dane Cook sit quietly and take notes. But the work that left the most indelible impression was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I was completely unaware that Collins’s series was as popular as it was—like, pre-movie Twilight popular—but I really loved the book despite my college snootiness whispering elitist nothings into my ear, “It’s commercially successful. It’s contemporary and hasn’t proven its worth as a timeless work. It’s part of a series that cashes in on the dystopian craze. Don’t like it.” Honestly, I enjoyed the story so much that I considered youth literature as a new career opportunity.

I was reinvigorated by the possibility of a direction, a new open door when, following several discouraging writing workshops, so many doors seemed to barely be ajar. I left the class with the first six chapters of a children’s story and a child-like excitement to read the rest of Collins’s series.

That was 2010. But it wasn’t until this past Christmas, when I flew home to visit my parents in New Hampshire, that I finished Mockingjay, the third and final book in Collins’s trilogy. And my children’s story—tentatively, uncomfortably titled In Search of Captain Crowley’s Gold, following such discarded titles as Delusions of Grand Adventure and Misadventures in Blunderland—has yet to be touched. Truth be told, I hadn’t even thought about the story until I finished Mockingjay. It would seem that my excitement only lasted until the start of the next class.

I’d love to be able to say the reason I never returned to my story was that I thought better of writing children’s literature or that the class served as a fine enough palate cleanser and revived my creative juices for more mature work, but I can’t. My experiences with that book and that story aren’t rare. The harsh reality is that for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a tenuous and often unfulfilling relationship with reading and writing.

During my trip home this past Christmas, when regression and nostalgia got the better of me (as it does every trip home), I asked my mother if I was ever a big reader or writer when I was young. She told me that very early on I loved books that read to me, and then, when I was starting to learn to read on my own, I would try to hold Teddy Ruxpin’s damned mouth shut so I could do it myself. Then came the aforementioned Goosebumps. “Then,” my mom said, “you became a teenager and hated everything.” As for the writing, she continued, “You weren’t much into writing and didn’t always get good grades in penmanship.”

So it turns out I wasn’t much of a reader, and when I reflected further I couldn’t really remember reading much of anything outside of class assignments. I devoured Gary Larson’s The Far Side, which I fully attribute to forming my sense of humor over the years, but there was no self-imposed reading time. Reading for pleasure seemed like a bizarre concept to me, especially when I could be spending my free time playing basketball or riding my bike or constructing world-class English muffin pizzas or being one with nature by peeling the frayed bark off of fragile birch trees. But I constantly told stories—funny retellings of misadventures to my friends as we sat around the lunch table, unexpected allegories in class to approach particularly difficult concepts from a different perspective, vivid accounts of my day to keep my girlfriend up to speed while she was away at college. I often blanked on the page, but the wild cadence and instant audience reaction of verbal storytelling fascinated me to no end. But since there isn’t much of a market for oral histories these days, and because I was never one for standup punchlines, I looked to the written word to tell tales.

Literature never came easy for me, though. Math did. I had a knack for numbers and formulas. Math was easy. It was something you could master. Math was all a matter of repetition and memorization, of working your way toward that correct answer. But that is similar to writing only in the metaphorical sense that writers chase those universal truths. There is no correct, final, language-transcending sentence, paragraph, story. Writing is all a matter of subjectivity and invention, which was always hard for me to pull off. I was, am, inherently left-brained. I absolutely crushed the math section of the SATs, without studying, I bragged, but my score in the reading portion would characterize me as a student who likely wouldn’t have the luxury of a safety school. But even though AutoCAD and other engineering tools seemed second nature to me, I could never see myself in that life.

So instead, I sought the life of a creative. I abandoned something I was a natural at for something I would have to struggle with my entire life. I ask myself why all the time, and I truthfully don’t have an answer. It could be that I’ve always been drawn to the writer persona (specifically: Bukowski, Foster Wallace), or that writing has been the only way that I’ve found of understanding my own terrifying complexities. If I had to give an answer, though, I’d say that it’s ultimately because I welcome a good adventure.

Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.

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2 Comments on “Illiterate: Entry #1”

  1. Mark Thoresen
    January 17 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    Nice and introspective, and for the record, you seem to be doing just fine as a writer given the above evidence.

  2. Melissa Heinemann
    January 17 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Your Bukowski persona is on target in regard to the general misanthropy, but you’re going to have to make the switch from scotch to beer.

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