Updated: May 21, 2020
I remember learning to read. I remember having read all the books in my classroom at Camboon Primary School in Perth - I must have been Year 1 - and being allowed to choose books from the class above me. I chose Cinderella. It was a big, glamorous, glossy hard back book, with chapters. It was gorgeous, and I couldn’t wait to devour it.
I opened it confidently, and stared. What were all these squiggles? These meaningless shapes on the page? I struggled through the new big words and clearly remember the feeling of frustration, trying to decipher the meaning and joy I knew lay just beyond those squiggles, but which were barred to me. For now.
That was the last time I remember the frustration - the PAIN - of not being able to read. After that, I flew and never came down again. Those wings were mine for keeps. Never again the flat, blank stare of a page I couldn’t decipher - not until I started to learn a foreign language, anyway. Each page I opened was the first step into a world that might be strange, or instantly familiar, or sad, or full of delight and wonder. But a world where I could wander far from my own and yet always seeing echoes of the human I was.
I was a bookworm, a nerd, a shy little introvert who couldn’t even speak to her (perfectly nice) first teacher in primary school for SIX MONTHS. Back then being an introvert was definitely not something you discussed, let alone embraced. More of an embarrassing secret that you did your best to hide in social situations. Like flatulence, or halitosis. You had to just pretend to be that bubbly, fun girl with the great personality, who was the only reasonable social aspiration as I recall.
I wanted SO MUCH to be bubbly. I remember my mum’s most admiring comment about someone would be, “she’s just such a bubbly personality!’. (My mum is bubbly and to this day loves to talk). But I froze when people looked at me. My gut clenched when each head in the classroom turned my way, expecting a public response. It was excruciating. So books were my friend.
(It might surprise you to know I didn’t grow up to be one of the cool kids. Please enjoy the picture of me, snapped in an early uncool moment with my little sister.)
I grew out of my terrible shyness, though I’m still along the introvert spectrum. I discovered that pretending to be - or not to be (hey!) - something was powerful. It got your body and voice box into habits that became part of you. So I learned how to walk tall, look people in the eye, and I eventually stopped being so scared. I realised that every crowd was just a collection of individual people with worries and fears and insecurities, just like me. I even started to enjoy the buzz of being in front of people; the live connection of engagement.
Getting older helps, too. After a while you just can’t be bothered worrying about what people think, and that’s a huge relief.
This has got a bit off track, but the point of it is that I''ve always been obsessed with writing and writers. I idolised books, almost fetishised them, to the extent that it seemed sacrilegious to think that little ol' me could be a writer, with my name on the spine of a Real Book on a shelf. Even in a library!! (I still secretly think of that as the crowning achievement for a writer. Forget awards or glowing reviews. My book in a library, with one of those handwritten reference numbers on it, to be taken out and returned on pain of a small fine. Dog-eared, shared, loved, or not, but read again and again. Libraries are HOLY.)
It was a loooonng time before I let myself seriously consider being a writer of actual story books. The magical ones, that take you both far out of and far into your own self. I still find it bamboozling when I describe someone as a writer, and pause (to allow for the appropriate awe and wonder) and there is no genuflection. No sharp intake of breath. Because surely that’s the only correct response?
For me, authors are not so much on a pedestal as on a tower of gleaming gold with a choir of angels in full harmony all around them. They MAKE WORLDS.
And now I’m one of them.
I need to go and lie down.
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