When I was sixteen I got my first job. I worked at a small independent Christian bookstore, nestled neatly in a strip center of our little town. With the owners, managers, backroom people, part-timers and all, the staff probably numbered twenty.
I loved it there. The movie You’ve Got Mail came out that year, and we would joke about how we were Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner. (As life would have it, several years later, a big chain Christian retailer did end up moving in down the freeway and putting them out of business. Isn’t that how it always goes?!)
Gushing about being a CCM fanatic had gotten me through the door. But now I was encountering a whole new aspect of Christian culture that had nothing to do with Toby McKeehan or Peter Furler. At this time in the late nineties, a VERY popular series was coming out, one book at a time. Every other customer was asking about it and about every six months, we would have midnight release parties for the new book.
I decided to find out about this new series. It was, after all, part of my job. So, I bought every book, and binge-read the entire franchise. As a tool of Christian propaganda, they were wonderful. But, as art…well, they were quite lacking. By this time, I already knew I was destined to be a writer, so didn’t I need to know about the market?
Then, one day, I sat down in my eleventh grade English class to write an essay. I felt like that scene in Austin Powers when he realizes he’s lost his mojo. I read over the first few paragraphs in shock. The same bland cliché-ridden style I had been reading, was now coming out of my fingers. I crumpled the page, and shoved it deep into my backpack and started over. Page after page, I couldn’t write. It was all…awful. And I knew who was to blame.
I went home, gathered all of those books, and promptly threw them in the trash. I would only read classic for about a decade after that. Which, turned out to be just as harmful.
As much as they are excellent art, classics are sophisticated, multi-faceted pieces designed to comment on life, philosophy and the human condition. Most of us are encumbered with the munitae of daily life, and not inclined to think at that intense level at all times.
So, rather than enjoying reading, I began to see it as a chore in style and artistic study. While I would want to read that pink, flowery chick-lit novel with the stilettos on the cover, I couldn’t. I must joylessly wade through The Iliad. Obviously, as with most chores, reading was done infrequently or not at all. In my snobbery, I missed out on some really great lighter reading.
Further, reading influences your style, but does not define it. So, when I would sit down to write, if my fingers didn’t produce the layered wit and cynicism of Oscar Wilde or the wispy, poetic meanderings of Jane Austen, I would get discouraged and overwhelmed. I’d decide the piece wasn’t good enough, and I needed to work more on the concept more before I moved on it. Or I would edit the first few pages for weeks until I got bored of the whole piece.
I missed out on some really great practice because I was too scared to write less than perfect pieces. Not only that, the resulting lack of productivity, was a blow to my confidence as a writer. And when I did write, my writing sounded like an average college girl trying to sound like Hemingway.
I did however, find pleasure in haunting bookstores, sort of like a ghost of literary future. I wouldn’t read anything, heaven’s no! But, being around the shiny covers, made me think writerly thoughts. Or so I told myself. One day, I decided to pick up a book that caught my eye. Anna Karenina could wait. I think it was Stephen Colbert or something. It was funny. Enjoyable.And, light aired, with a bit of bite.
I began to make it my Sunday afternoon ritual. I would go down to the bookstore, and sit in the comfy chairs, find anything interesting, and just read. Slowly, my rules about classics started to fade. As they did, I found that the style coming out of today’s writers, was relaxed, conversational and….attainable.
I didn’t have to be Charles Dickens to be a good writer. All the professional standards in the modern world, had nominated these people as “good writers,” and I was perfectly capable of writing at that level. I just needed to do it. And so, began a new phase of my life. “Just shut up and do it,” became my writer’s motto.
After all, Oscar Wilde started out writing product reviews for a local newspaper. And, Stephen King was working as a school janitor when he came up with the idea for his first bestseller, Carrie. Why shouldn’t I just write for the joy of writing, and then let success follow where it may?
I just needed to stop talking and start doing. And that is what Tim LaHaye and Oscar Wilde, centuries about, taught me about life.