Escapes: A Literary Autobiography

When I was ten, my father began bringing me and my brother to the public library on Tuesday nights. I’d run my fingers along each of the chapter books’ rainbow spines, struggling to decide which books to bring home that week. I filled my arms with a dozen options based on looks alone. I’d re-shelve some only to rescue them from the stacks shortly thereafter. I never could choose just one series, so—after almost an hour’s deliberation—I’d make off with two or three of the Magic Tree House series and The New Adventures of Mary Kate & Ashley and some Roald Dahl for good measure, maxing out the library’s six-at-a-time rule.

When we got home, I’d storm up to my room, yank the chain on my desk lamp, and crack open their covers, their pages inexplicably exhaling coffee, cinnamon, old ink. Again, unable to choose which to begin with, I’d read three chapters of the first book, shove it beneath the pile, and read three chapters of the next, doing so until I’d made my way through the entire pile and figured out which window into new worlds and experiences was most deserving.

One Magic Tree House book particularly grabbed me. It featured a handful of children who’d found a magical rainbow rock, which transported them wherever they wanted to go. I was so fascinated by the prospect of going wherever you wanted to at a moment’s notice that I picked up a pencil and wrote the first couple of chapters of my first story about a similar rainbow rock that took a similar group of children wherever they wanted to go. One of my aunts read it and proceeded to bring it up at nearly every family gathering for the next year. I’ll admit I was looking for some praise, but I hadn’t expected such persistent encouragement to come from what had been a nervous attempt at recreating the euphoria I felt when reading.

I brought my notebook everywhere, fearing inspiration would strike in the middle of the supermarket or at the beach, and I’d have nowhere to record it. I almost failed eighth-grade social studies because I spent more time dreaming up fictional worlds than paying attention in class. My stories weren’t remarkable—half-hearted attempts at horror, Gilmore Girls screenplays, and other fan-fictional pursuits. I never saw a single one through to its conclusion. But something compelled me to keep writing. I was still searching for that rainbow rock.

One of my high school teachers volunteered me for a book club, a gesture which I fumed about at the time. I’d entered the stage of my life where whatever I wrote was far more fascinating than anything I found in books, but I didn’t want to look like the delinquent in the group. So I forced myself to read the first selection, a memoir about a poor little Irish boy with a dozen dead and dying siblings, which I expected to bore me to tears. But it didn’t. Angela’s Ashes was the first book to prove to me that a story didn’t have to transport you to Hogwarts or Narnia to help cope with reality’s cutting truths—that you could do it by facing that reality, speaking your truth, speaking that pain.

But I wasn’t yet ready to write about my harrowing experiences. They were too complicated, and, in 2007, still too taboo for me to speak aloud to my friends and family. So, while I squirreled back to my fantasy lands in my writing, I sought out books that spoke to my soul—The Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Revolutionary Road . . .

This was also the time that my required reading started speaking to me—I’d nearly fallen off my chair when, at sixteen, I’d read The Awakening and discovered not only homoeroticism between Edna Pontellier and Adèle Ratignolle but a female protagonist who’d shirked social expectations. I marveled at the complexity and the tragic beauty of The Sound and the Fury. While reading and writing continued to quell the loneliness, I’d begun reading to find myself.

Having been an avid reader and writer for the last twenty-three years of my life, I find that I’m still looking for myself. Although I’ve found solace in reading about others’ pain, nobody’s written my story yet. Perhaps that’s why I’ve begun to take my writing more seriously in the last couple of years. It took thousands of pages of reading before I found Edna and Adèle—and even their story is a stretch. In 2020, it shouldn’t take thousands of pages of (un)inspired reading to find yourself, to realize you belong in the world. So, I write now for me then, for the people who still awaiting Hogwarts letters because the real world hasn’t offered them a place, a path, a model for healthy, happy existence.