When I was a young man, I was a pretty useless piece of crap. I was a classic taker, not looking to learn or love or even really live. I was sarcastic and skeptical and didn’t really see the point in much of anything. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still pretty sarcastic, and really quite skeptical, but now I get the point. It made all the difference in the world when I did. I had a strange experience in my early twenties; later I would discover that people called them ‘spiritual awakenings’ or ‘mystical experiences’. At the time only one thing mattered: I came away from it feeling as though I was living this life for a reason, and that it was my responsibility to discover what that was and how to make it happen.
I was a little embarrassed to discover that life only has purpose for those who decide to put it there themselves. I’d been on the outside looking in for so long, poking fun at life for not bringing everything to the table that I thought it should; when I realized that it was up to me to bring something to the table as well, I did the one thing I knew how to do: I hit the books.
As a kid, I loved books. They told stories that were more like the ones in my head than the television or teachers did. They made me obsess over their tales for days or weeks, or fall in love with the characters as I got to know them. There was nothing fictional about the stories in books for me, when I was a kid; those were the real places I went when I could turn my back on the rest of the world. Somewhere along the line I had realized that books were something more than bridges to worlds that were fun to visit. Some books were written just to entertain, and others just for learning; when I first found that books could do both, I was hooked in a whole new way.
I sloughed through so many books, from age twenty-one to twenty-three, it was a little ridiculous. Kindle Unlimited was called ‘the library’ back then, and those were the only people that saw me on a regular basis. I was the guy new librarians would laugh at; “You can’t read all those books in two weeks!” A senior staffer would come over, and let her know that I would be back in a week. I didn’t read them all; if a book was a piece of crap, I would put it through a test: is it too hard, or is it really a piece of crap? If it was too hard, I would try harder; if it was a piece of crap, I put it aside.
This period taught me a lot. I already knew that I spotted misspelled words in every fiction book I had read; I was surprised to find just as many in non-fiction. I was also surprised at how many clearly bad books there were out there. It’s one thing to have a weak story, or an unsatisfactory ending; it’s quite another to write a whole book about some idea you have. There’s nowhere to hide in non-fiction, unless it’s behind anecdotes. Your idea is either clear, and good…or not.
That’s not to say that I like all books that are written clearly; it’s just a hurdle that a non-fiction author needs to show that they can clear early on. The content itself has to interest me, and there has to be some actionable ideas to tickle my fancy in a five-star kind of way. I loved to see that there was another world in non-fiction books too…but my old love always dragged me back.
I almost didn’t read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I told the person that had suggested it to me that I didn’t read fiction. I even put my nose up in the air a little when I said it. He insisted, and even gave me his copy; and that’s when I remembered. In my opinion, good books tell a good story, or teach me something I want to know. Great books, for me, are the ones that do both. I had almost forgotten in all my reading to learn that nearly every book has something to teach. The ones written by broad-minded folks who know how to layer and pace can teach and entertain at the same time. They’re a little harder to find, but they are a lot more fun to read for me.
Many of the books I read about getting my life together had writing exercises in them. My own writing exercise was to fill at least two pages a day in my journal, on top of whatever my books were suggesting. It was all designed to help me find my place in life, and discover/decide what I was born to do. The last thing I ever thought I would decide on was writing; not because I never thought of it, but because it seemed so hard. I entrusted greater minds than mine to fill the pages of humanity’s library; the fact that there were author hacks didn’t surprise me any more than the fact that there are hack teachers and doctors and lawyers and burger flippers. It didn’t mean I wanted to be one, knowing that they existed. Being a good author meant baring too much of your soul, and sharing too many of your own thoughts, and I knew it. There had to be something more private calling my name, something less demanding…
So I kept writing, praying to find my purpose somewhere in the pages that were filling up over time. I filled a notebook, bought another and filled it too. Hundreds of pages piled up, and I couldn’t figure out where on Earth it could all be leading.
Yeah, I finally took a step back and let my own book metaphorically fall off a shelf to thunk me on the head. It was a book I still haven’t written, but it showed me the one I had to write first. It knocked a little sense into me, but not much; I still did a lot more whining and laying about than I should have; but that’s the next part of the story. I’ll tell you about it next week.
Thanks for reading!