The Rise and “Fall” of a Reader

Do you remember the first books you’ve ever read? I don’t. Not the first few books because I was too small to remember. Those were probably alphabet books. All I know is that books fascinated me even before I could read. Early on, our parents made sure to expose me and my siblings to books and reading.

To a kid such as myself, our home library was full of wonders. I remember bedtime stories based on the Grimm brothers and Andersen’s fairy tales but most especially, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. There was also Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge, a 20-volume encyclopedia just for kids peppered with Mickey Mouse and his friends throughout its pages in all of its books.

I learned to read in Kindergarten and promptly lost no time borrowing books from the school library. We had an excellent one. I couldn’t wait for our weekly Library Day when the late Miss Sorrensen would have us fall in a single line (God bless her soul; besides my mother and sister, I credit her for teaching me how to read and write and to love it at the same time), hands at the back, and troop to the library. Once among the towering shelves and the heavenly smell of books, we were free to roam around and read for forty-five minutes.

I clearly remember my favorites: Amelia Bedelia, Madeline, Harry the Dirty Dog, and The Gruffalo. The one that spurred my reading to greater heights was a classic fairy tale my mom sometimes used to read to me before bed. Only this time, the book I discovered at the school library had illustrations that caught my imagination. It was none other than Beauty and the Beast written by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by Mercer Mayer.

This was the book that cemented my love for reading. I started borrowing two books at a time – the most number allowed. Before long, I started collecting two or three library cards a year. I lived for Miss Mojica’s typewritten message beneath my name on the library card: CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE NOW ON YOUR SECOND CARD! It easily set me apart from my classmates who stuck to the kiddie section even well into the third grade.

By second grade, I discovered Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Vicki Barr, Cherry Ames, and the Dana Girls. I exhausted these mystery series by the time fourth grade was over.

When fifth grade rolled in, I moved on to young adult fiction. I remember them well: Tuck Everlasting, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Namesake, the whole series of The Wizard of Oz, and The Narnia Chronicles among others.

In fifth grade, my mom bought a book entitled Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, the first “adult” book I would ever read. Adult not because of its sexual content – it had none – but it was the first really thick novel I would ever read.

I remember causing a stir among my classmates because it was what I chose for a book report. I was the first in my class to read a book of such magnitude (close to 700 pages) and some thought I only read a synopsis or had my mom write the report. My indignation was such that I demanded my teacher ask me questions about the book in front of the class. I passed it all, of course.

After that, it was on to Gone with the Wind and The Count of Monte Cristo and then the rest of the classics: from War and Peace to Madame Bovary, Huck Finn to Pride and Prejudice to name a few.

Fifth grade was spent devouring the classics. That was a time I desperately wished I could read all day. I read on the school bus, read while I walked, read by the playground, read way past my parents’ curfew, snatching every minute I could get away with. Sometimes in class, especially during Math, I would put my textbook up as if I was studying it but in reality, hidden from the teacher’s view, was a copy of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, for example.

I was an honors student but with every minute spent reading, it was inevitable my grades would suffer. At least, Math did.

Anything I could read was fine, but numbers? I hated numbers. They were something I had to actually study for. There were many times our teacher would give us schoolwork and I hated it so much I would answer my homework, seatwork, and quizzes with phrases such as:

  1. “I do not know.”
  2. “I donut know”
  3. “I dunkin’ donuts know.”

In that order. It got so bad that one day, my dad was summoned to the principal’s office.

It wasn’t the end of my happy-go-lucky reading days because my parents loved that I read so much and was far beyond what my own peers were reading but they did put their foot down when it came to schoolwork. A full quarter after that trip to the principal’s office I had to show them my work every single day. They made sure I took Math seriously. Once I got back on track, I was free to read as much and as often as I wanted provided I did not neglect any of my studies.

Summers were the best time of all. I could read day in and day out but after I blasted through the classics, I was left again with nothing new to read. Our home library has the National Geographic, the Reader’s Digest, and the Harvard Classics but I had long ago finished those, too.

The only thing I hadn’t read was my mom’s romance books and she made clear those were off limits. I was ten at the time. Both my parents were businessmen who left the house at 6 am and returned home late at night. My siblings were all off at college (I came so late into the family I practically grew up like an only child). There I was in the summer of 1990, bored out of my mind and left to my own devices. Inevitably, I reached for my mom’s romances.

Boy, oh, boy, were there aplenty! Harlequin, Silhouette, mostly Mills & Boon. Mama had collected them through the years since the seventies. Her collection wasn’t locked up but were located high up the shelf I needed a chair to get one.

On hindsight, that was quite the fall: from the best of American and English literature to the, shall we say, dregs of the reading spectrum. From a literary snob’s viewpoint, at least. But I was only a kid blissfully unaware of the politics and hierarchy of reading. This was the commercial fiction phase of my life, one that I would never recover from.

I was grateful to be reading but I hated those romances. Gahd, if I had a penny for every romance story that began with an out-of-luck heroine who always fell in love with an arrogant man that always treated her so badly but turned out to always be in love with her in the end, I’d have had several piggy banks full.

These books only had two good things going for them. One, the settings were fantastic. To this day, I remember the Karas island or the private enclave of Moonglow or the sunkissed coastlines of the Caribbean. Two, for all its awful stories, the covers were a visual delight. The heroines were always fashionable, especially those from the seventies.

The romance stories confused me. I grew up on strong heroines created back in the forties like Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and Vicki Barr. In today’s parlance, they could only be described as badass women who plowed through the pages with unmistakeable strength, determination, and independence.

In stark contrast were the heroines of seventies and eighties romances: whimpering, insipid, simpering, helpless, mindless wimps. I can’t tell you how much that put me off. Women were supposed to be strong not damsels in distress. If they were, they were supposed to go through a redemption arc like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

While we’re on the subject of my mom’s forbidden collection, by the way, my first sex education happened courtesy of one of her books. It wasn’t a Mills & Boon (which only contained rough kissing and innuendos in place of graphic sex), but rather a book entitled Cleopatra’s Daughter by Andrea Ashton, a reimagined version of the life of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the Cleopatra, lover of Mark Antony. In it was a rape scene. Even now, I remember going around dazed for days that a woman’s body could be penetrated and in the most violent way, too! Looking back, it’s a wonder it didn’t put me off of sex for life (which it almost did, if I were to be honest).

Boredom saw me finish my mom’s romance novels but it also saw me swearing off the romance genre for life. Salvation came in the form of one of my brothers coming home from college dumping his books in order to clear his dorm room shelf. These were the paperbacks by Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Tom Clancy, and most importantly, James Michener epics that became my favorite during high school. This is the phase of my reading life that has influenced me to this day: commercial fiction, the type of books that have defined me ever since, ones that I would attempt to write.

I did go through a period of my life when I didn’t read as much as I used to. That was in college when I forgot my dream of writing a book, something I had wanted since Kindergarten. The teenager’s life swept me away through changes I never would have imagined in my younger years. Besides gaining a lovelife, the course I took up was one that I adored. In those four years, I half-heartedly read a handful of fiction.

Year 2005 changed all that. My boyfriend (thankfully, not that college chap. See my post Six Ways You Could be an Optimist Prime) introduced me to the world of Robert Jordan. It was the world of the Wheel of Time, fourteen volumes strong by the time it was concluded.

Book One hooked me from the start. The series got me back into reading and became the spark that reignited my childhood dream of writing a book. Problem was I had become rusty. I had to relearn the basics.

Then came 2013 when Fifty Shades was making waves across the globe. A friend suggested an established Filipina romance author who offered an adult romance writing workshop for free. On top of it was the enticing opportunity of being part of an anthology to be published by the Filipina author’s digital publisher.

Romance was something I’d crossed out of my life having been traumatized in my tweens but it did make me stop and think about what a good break it would be for a struggling author such as myself. I figured I wasn’t a real writer if I couldn’t write romance.

Easier said than done. I rebelled at every step of the writing process nor did I believe in what I was writing. I slogged on anyway. In the end, I made it to the anthology and was published online.

Personally, I think it was a horrible piece but an accomplishment, regardless. Save for the fantasy and sci-fi shorts I wrote in my primary years, I have never finished writing a book. I blame those romances. I became hopelessly blocked shortly after reading those. To finally finish writing a book felt like a major accomplishment.

The anthology was successful enough that the Filipina author wanted a second adult romance anthology with us. I created a different story but this time I never made it. I couldn’t finish. I was hopelessly blocked more than ever.

Fast forward to 2018. In the intervening years, I worked to unblock myself with varying results. There were days the elusive Muse appeared running after me with a whip. At other times, she disappeared altogether. She’s been a bitch, that’s for sure.

Then a few weeks back, I discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Things have changed for the better. In fact, this blog is a product of that book. I can safely say that I am finally coming into my own as a writer.

It helps that I intentionally seek books on writing that inspire me to write more like Stephen King’s On Writing.

Muse or not, I am writing continuously and on top of that, finishing my novel. The blank page no longer terrifies me. Words are flowing again like they used to. Fingers crossed, may it be always be so.

Here’s the best surprise of all: I have decided to continue that blasted romance novel I never got to finish. That’s on top of the mystery thriller I have been writing. My days are busy; I am riding high not on the wings of my Muse – she doesn’t really exist – but on my own power. The most prolific writers always say we have that ability within us if we so choose to let it out.

My opinion on the nature of romances has changed, too. I eventually learned to set aside the trauma of my tween years. Not all romances are like the Mills & Boons of the seventies and eighties. There are awesome ones these days just as there are and always have been terrible novels. As a writer, we are free to write as we see fit. It is within our power to create strong heroines, women who are better suited to the 21st century: vulnerable but with a mind of her own, strong, and a positive role model for future readers to come.

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