I don’t know why people decide to write. Sometimes, when I sit in front of my computer, trying to force words onto the screen’s blank stare, I wonder how storytelling became an obsession. I suspect, like many obsessions, mine started as a love affair, my current affliction the result of a lifelong romance between stories and me.
The first story I loved was a book my mother used to read aloud to me, Rabbit’s New Rug. As one might guess, the story’s inciting action is Rabbit’s purchase of a beautiful new rug. He wants to show off his rug to his woodland friends, Fox, Raccoon, and Owl, but grows neurotic when his pals arrive, forcing them to stand against a wall lest they sully his pristine rug. His friends are miffed, and leave.
Rabbit spends many lonely days nibbling carrots until he arrives at an epiphany. “A rug isn’t much company,” he opines. “I miss my friends.”
The last pages of the book show a wild woodland party, replete with streamers, cake, and pin the tail on the donkey. Rabbit has evolved from that persnickety friend who makes you shed your shoes before entering his apartment, to one who is unmoved when cake tumbles from Fox’s plate onto the purple snapdragons on his rug.
I don’t know why I asked my mother to read that book to me again and again as we sat on our family room floor, or next to her stacks of novels in my parents’ bedroom. For whatever reason, Rabbit’s New Rug is the first story I remember falling in love with.
My relationship with stories evolved, and my first true love affair with “literature” came in the third grade thanks to Choose Your Own Adventure books. These books—quests really—prompt the reader to enter the Amazon, haunted castles, or the vast Sahara Desert. The books instruct readers to make choices and turn to different pages based on these decisions. Death lingers around every turned page. I can still remember executing the perfect Choose Your Own Adventure, sitting alone in my cubby, flipping the pages of The Race Forever, escaping death on my journey across a the desert.
This love led to my first attempts at stories of my own. My friend Sam and I penned rambling tales where a pair of friends faces insurmountable odds in the style of the Choose Your Own Adventure stories I had become obsessed with. In these stories, our heroes “kept a strenuous pace,” or our heroes “marched vigorously,” or our heroes “persevered.” This new vocabulary acquired from the Choose Your Own Adventures was part of a trial and error approach to language: insert big word first, ask questions later.
I’m grateful that our teacher, Mrs. Totman, was a patient reader.
I can pick out a number of these patient audiences—teachers in elementary school who let me explore my young and confusing love for words. In fifth grade, Mr. Sahlin humored my attempts at epic when I wrote what were, essentially, Odyssey and Iliad fan fiction. Brevity was not then (nor is it now) one of my strengths, but when he returned stories featuring my favorite character, the Trojan hero, Hector, Mr. Sahlin made it clear that he had read every page. He made sure my love for words never felt unrequited.
In 9th grade I was lucky to have an English teacher who saved space in her curriculum for creative assignments. Now, I’m not sure how she stomached the cliché-laden work I submitted to her. When I was fourteen, I had some sense that my love of writing was getting serious. To show that I was serious about this relationship, I moved my stories from the realm of fantasy to subject matter I felt was real.
I still remember what shape this writing took as I tried to write a serious story for Mrs. Feinberg.
The protagonist of this first serious story was a boy whose mother dies. The story is set in a massive Maine state park where the boy lives with his park ranger father. The kid in my story is distraught and forlorn, and the reader can tell because he does things like climb trees and stare into lakes. His father, the brusque mountain man type, is not a great emotional support because he also does things like climb mountains and stare into lakes.
When the kid starts failing the 9th grade, his father gets a note home from his teacher. In a moment of strength, the normally taciturn father sits the kid down and, in his grizzled mountain man way, tells him to make peace with his mother’s death by going on a hike to “find her.” The kid processes his father’s manly advice while a single tear forms on his father’s eyelid.
The next morning, the kid sets off toward the base of a mountain. My protagonist chooses the most perilous trail, The Knife’s Edge, for his climb, but it’s okay because he is adept at all outdoorsy things. I used phrases like, “he effortlessly clambered up the rock face,” and, “he effortlessly vaulted the gap in rocks,” and, “he effortlessly propelled himself up the trail” to show the just how rugged and self-reliant this kid is. The reader is supposed to juxtapose the kid’s physical competence with his emotional turmoil.
The kid completes the climb and finds himself alone on the mountain’s summit. Just as he finds a rocky perch to think deep thoughts from, the sun hits him and he gets this warm feeling. He has a subtle, entirely unexpected epiphany; his mother has always been with him, in the sun, sky, starts, grass, trees, and lakes.
I titled the story “Mother Earth.”
Now, I cringe thinking of Mrs. Feinberg reading what I had, at fourteen, considered a serious story. Somehow, she wrote comments throughout my work, sometimes in praise, sometimes with questions, but she convinced me that what I had written mattered, that this love of writing might be real even though I was only a naïve fourteen-year-old.
Without these opportunities, venues where teachers allowed me to audition my words, I might never have believed that I could try to tell the stories that I grew to love. If I hadn’t first fallen in love with stories, with Rabbit’s New Rug, with my Choose Your Own Adventure epics, with the winding fantasies I penned as a child, storytelling would never have become an my obsession.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.