The gavel beat the sounding block. Guilty as charged. The sentence? A lifetime. The guards barged forward to drag me to my cell.
Creative writing. The very reverberations of those two words filled me with disgust...and terror. Mom had just received an email containing intelligence that a man from our church had the audacity to teach a creative writing class at the local library. It was just after Christmas and we were all still dreamy with warmth, laughter, and the aroma of evergreens. But Mom’s suggestion that I take the creative writing course that spring semester was like a bucket of cold water from the frozen spicket outside thrust over the top of my happy head. She was inundated with excuses (pleas, rather)—the piano competitions, the cello practice, the math tests—anything that would rescue me from such a fate. There was no escape: I organized my binder for the perilous trek that awaited me.
I was never a book worm, and I had never wanted to be an author. Words were incapable of enclosing me in the wonder of a story. I preferred to live the stories: my doll recovered from leukemia overnight just in time to go to the grand ball, or I was an Indian girl gathering red seeds from magnolia tree cones and building imaginary fires as I eluded British soldiers. To live stories were to make them real.
I was not entirely opposed to reading—some books were amusing, and I would read them occasionally. But whenever a writing assignment was assigned in school, an ugly, nauseating feeling would seize my stomach. There was a myriad of foundations for this feeling: self-consciousness, embarrassment, uncertainty. Even in private journals I couldn’t escape an imaginary audience of spectators who jeered and laughed at my thoughts. Each scribble of a story or idea was composed in the presence of this audience, and I could never escape its mockery. Thus, insecurity permeated every moment of composition. Insecurity led to humiliation, which I responded to with arrogance. If I wasn’t “good” at writing, then I wouldn’t do it. I abandoned books and journaling, and privately entertained a jealous disgust toward anyone who could find enjoyment in either.
Monday rolled around, and I packed my books and left for my new class. The gigantic, white columns in front of the library threatened to crush me. I opened the heavy door, and let the smell of books and mildew daze me. So, this is what a library is like, I concluded. I saved face, concealing the shame of my inexperience, and found my way down the stairs, through the children’s section, and into the backroom. It was as I expected: the room was filled with homeschooled, early-teen-aged kids who had probably engulfed two hundred books in the last month, and who couldn’t find enough room in their closet to store all their poems and short stories from the last week. I took a seat and furtively glared at these book worms. I scrounged up what I thought was justification for the lack of pleasure reading I had engaged in over the last year: excessive reading was just as bad as excessive television-watching (excess pleasure in general was just unrighteous), and they should follow my example and engage in more profitable activities (like six hours of cello practice a day, for example).
What’s the point of this? I scoffed when we did the character exercises. I rolled my eyes at the poetry, and whispered jokes about it to the boy sitting next to me, playing with its symbolism so that it led to macabre conclusions—Longfellow’s arrow was found in his song’s final position after my toying. Yet, despite my “confident” disapproval for the substance of the class, my own attempts at poetry and short stories quavered.
Unsatisfied with my attempts to justify myself in the sparse amount of pleasure reading I participated in, I decided to challenge myself. My fellow classmates read teenage dramas featuring wily girls and slick guys in ripped jeans; I would benefit myself by reading true literature of superior substance.
I scanned the bookshelves in my living room that encased the most precious books found in the house. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens captured my attention. I was familiar with the title, and the author was appropriately formidable. I slogged through the first page. Plan B. I reread the first page, this time with dictionary in hand. Still confused. It’s about time for me to practice my hand-writing, I thought. I shuffled through a few note books until I found one that was small and unused. Taking my favorite pen (it has an especially fine tip), I printed each word I didn’t know along with its definition. This could take a while.
I struggled as the guards dragged me to my cell. We passed cell after cell, and I conceived fear after fear. Each cell was dark. Imaginary dangers of every sort reached for me from the murk. Who knew what was waiting for me in my cell, wanting to torment me for the duration of my life?
I read A Tale of Two Cities off and on for a few days, but eventually stopped because of frustrated boredom.
At the end of the semester, I passed the final exam with an easy A. The email from my teacher congratulating me on my final grade shed rain on my already-saturated heart. The class was finished, but the jeering of my imaginary audience remained, accusing me of a wasted semester showcasing nauseatingly melodramatic ideas.
During the early summer, I remembered my reading project. Resuming where I left off, my calloused mind didn’t understand half of what Dickens was trying to tell me. Yet I was consistent in writing down every definition. But the only reason I continued to read was to be able to say that I finished a difficult book.
We arrived at my prison. One of the guards opened up the iron door, and led me inside. The door clanged shut. A relieving hush swept through the room: the crowd’s voices were gone.
Off and on I read, sometimes going two or three months at a time without reading the whereabouts of Dr. Manette, Lucie, and Charles Darnay. The inconsistency of my attention to the story didn’t allow me to know the characters, thus their tragedies were distant and foreign to me.
However, my conscience wouldn’t allow me to be so inconsistent with my project. I decided to finish. After a considerable amount of consistent reading, I reached the final chapters. For the first time, Dickens’s language began to come alive, and I understood it. (“[S]he heard him say, ‘A life you love.’”) Each word pierced my arrogant, calloused heart. The lines became iron clasps that enclosed my attention. I couldn’t stop reading. (“‘Keep your eyes upon me, dear child, and mind no other object.’”) A lump formed in my throat. I bit my lip. (“[A]ll flashes away. Twenty-Three.”) My saturated heart was squeezed like a sponge. Tears emerged. (“‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.’”) It was sweet captivity.
Finally, the tragedy had captured me—my attention, my feelings—and shut me into a haven where iron doors protected me from the selfish distractions which I was guilty of harboring. I found myself locked in a room full of hidden treasures of pleasure that shut out everything that had tortured me in self-consciousness—including myself. It was the first book that had ever made me cry.
Sometimes the mockery of my imaginary audience manages to seep through my iron prison door. But the final chapters of Dickens’s novel were the final chapters of that audience’s authority over me. I write with a new goal in mind, which Dickens had accomplished in me: to lock a real audience in a room full of hidden treasures. It may take a full, life-time sentence to learn the art of influence, but until I master it, I will remain happily imprisoned in the bliss effected by beautiful words.