Isolation & Rescue

Stephen King said in On Writing that he believed most writers spent some part of their childhood physically isolated in a way that books became their whole world for a time. I don’t know if that’s true about everyone, but it’s true about me.

I was a TV kid at first. I have terrible ADD and was a slow reader with bad eyesight from the very beginning. I was also a story addict who got hooked on the exciting adventures read to me at bedtime before I could read them myself. The two I remember most clearly, both by Robert Louis Stevenson, were Kidnapped! and Treasure Island.

I learned to read early and could chew through weekly readers because they were comprised of very few short sentences on a page with pictures. Once I got my full library card and started trying to read grownup books, my ADD kicked in and I learned to read in a sort of haphazard way, skipping around the page and then back again to pick up what I’d missed, my bad eye squinted shut and a headache brewing behind my good one.

So I fell in love with movies on TV at an early age. They were pretty bad movies, most of them went on to be pilloried on MST3K (and rightly so), but I just saw robots and cowboys and fighter planes and flying saucers. And one time, evil, sentient crystals destroyed by flooding a model town with seawater.

But then, in 5th grade, we moved to New Jersey where my father bought a house in the country that was close to only a few families with kids. Which turned out to be okay because, once I met the locals, I didn’t like them very much. I spent a lot of time alone for the next two and a half years and I filled the emptiness with books.

I started from sheer boredom by thumbing through the wall of paperback science fiction books in my father’s office. Even if you were loathe to crack a book because you had trouble reading, those garish book covers couldn’t help but real you in. A lot of them were above my pay grade, but I read them anyway, getting out of them what I could. It turned out it was only a small percentage of what was there, as I would discover in later years when I returned to them as an adult. Especially Dune, which I have read many times and as four completely different people.

Then I discovered what were called “Juveniles” back before the term Young Adult became popular. Heinlein had a bunch, so did Asimov and Bradbury. If had been hooked before, I was now downright obsessed. I started checking hardcover books out of the school library and covering them to look like textbooks so I could read them in class. This got me in no end of trouble, but I refused to stop. I wanted the story the way a cocaine addict needs just one more bump before he quits.

Although I had stated my intention to become a writer before this time, I had been thinking mainly of the movies. Once we left New Jersey, I never stopped reading, not even when girls entered my life, and I never thought of being anything else when I grew up. I even resisted going to college because I felt like the best way to become a writer was to go gather adventures on the road.

The funny thing about plans is the unforeseen is so much more powerful than we imagine. I got a computer because I wanted a word processor. And then I read a book on Z80 assembly language and my obsession became programming. I never really quit writing, but then again, I never really started either. It was like watching TV with one eye while you do something else. I was never really into it enough to invest that part of myself that was required. Until one day in my 40s when the obsession with programming receded and I was back to words again.

Only then did I realize how long and difficult the road was going to be. That’s why you’re supposed to start when you’re young instead of in middle age. So I keep going, coming up with new ideas, writing every day, letting the rejections roll off my back, tucking perfectly good books into the trunk from which they will never be retrieved, because it’s what I know and, unlike everything else in my life, I can’t let this go unfinished.

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