5 Ways My Mom Helped Me Become a Writer {Friday’s Five}

Find out more about Guest Contributor author Mike Perry at his website Sneezing Cow. Stay tuned for Jennifer’s review and giveaway on Monday.

the scavengersIf you turn to the very last printed page of my latest book, The Scavengers, you will find the following one-line acknowledgment:

Mom, for teaching me to read and filling my world with books.

Now then: Of course we thank our moms. I would thank Mom even if she had raised me on gas station beef sticks and poker. There are a million ways to be a good mom. But in my case, Mom’s attention to books and reading altered the course of my life to the very moment of my typing these words.

I grew up baling hay and cleaning calf pens on a rural Wisconsin dairy farm. I worked for five summers as a ranch hand in Wyoming. I have a nursing degree. When I talk out loud, I’m not very good at grammar. And yet the first thing I did this morning (after greeting my wife and daughters and feeding our chickens) was climb the stairs to my little room above the garage and commence writing, because for over two decades now, that’s how I’ve paid the rent (or—these days—the mortgage and the orthodontist). No one saw this coming. Not even Mom. But working backwards, it’s clear she’s the one who set the tumblers in motion.

  2. In Coop: A Family, A Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg (linked to Carrie’s 5-Star Review), I described my Mom’s reading habits:

    Mom is a compulsive reader. She reads for pleasure, she reads to edify herself, but more often than not, she reads because she can’t help it. I understand. The minute I find myself sitting still, I start rummaging around for printed material. Pretty much anything will do—a book or magazine, sure. But also cereal boxes, the weekly shopper, the underside of the Kleenex box, or the back of the toothpaste tube. (I can recite by heart: “Crest has been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice that can be of significant value when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care.”

    The compulsion to read may have been passed down genetically, but my love for the act of reading was passed on by example:

    As a toddler, whenever I saw Mom reading, I bugged her to read to me. And she did. Every day. One day as I pestered her with my copy of Winnie-the-Pooh while she was settled with a book of her own, Mom set down a rule: She would read one chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh aloud, but then I had to sit there quietly holding my book while Mom read a chapter of her book to herself. It worked, and became standard procedure. It took me years to recognize the power of this gift: Mom taught me to love the idea of sitting quietly with a book long before I could make out the words on the page.

  4. When I began to reach across the page and use my grubby little finger to point out certain letters of the alphabet, Mom decided that although school was still a few years away, I was ready to learn to read. She sent away (some of the elders among us remember a time when we used to “send away” for things) for a phonics book sold through a Chicago newspaper. She then took me through it, page by page, day after day, until at the age of four, I could read on my own. (I was not infallible. My father would want me to tell you of the day I pointed at the tailgate of a farm truck and, puffing out my proud little over-achieving chest, said, “F-O-R-D…TRUCK!”)

  6. Ours was a large family on a remote farm. There was no money for a lot of extra doo-dads. Our religion precluded us from owning television or listening to the radio. But every week Mom loaded us up and hauled us nine miles to the nearest small-town library, where we exchanged our expired armloads for fresh armloads. Back on the farm, there were book stacks everywhere. Even when we were all outside doing our farm chores, or gone to Sunday morning meeting, the air in the silent farmhouse was alive with the energy of words awaiting readers.

  8. We were expected to pitch in on the farm. Every day we had chores and responsibilities. And yet, when Mom peeked out on the porch and saw me deep into my third book of the day, she weighed what I might be learning (even if it was Tarzan of the Apes #352) against what would get done eventually, and let me be. As a result, by the time I was a teenager I had traveled all around the world without leaving that porch, each book held in my hands like a steering wheel.

  10. I didn’t really get serious about writing until I was out of college and working as a nurse. But when I did fall in love with word-herding to the point of obsession, it was the flowering of a seed planted by Mom way back in those farmhouse days. She planted in me a hunger to read stories, but also to tell stories. She didn’t manage to teach me perfect grammar, but she taught me to write what I heard. She taught me that if you can’t find the right word, keep looking. It’s out there somewhere. In a book.

    Now I’ve been writing for nearly 25 years. The Scavengers is my ninth or fourteenth book—depending on who’s counting or how. And none of it happens without Mom. So I wanted to thank her in The Scavengers acknowledgments, but I also wanted to thank her in the story. When Maggie’s mother teaches her the alphabet by pointing out Vs and Ws in tree branches or pressing an acorn cap into the mud to create an O, that is my Mom, patiently pointing out letters to little me in that phonics book all those years ago. When Maggie revels in a moment spent sitting beside her mother and sharing a book, the quiet joy she feels is a direct memory of my own. When Maggie’s mother shares her memories of bookcases filled with books and all the time in the world to read them, that is me recalling the world my mother gave me.

In the end, perhaps no one can thank my Mom more appropriately than Maggie herself:

One day when I asked Ma to read Little House on the Prairie to me for probably the forty-seventh time, she reached deep into her pack and drew out a rectangular object wrapped in cloth, which she carefully unwrapped until I saw it was another book. On the cover was the silhouette of a lady’s head. Ma ran her finger along the spine, where I read the title: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ma sat down, pulled me close, and murmured, “Now you’re going to learn why I love to read.”

It sounded like she meant it more as a wish and a hope than a command.

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  1. says

    Mike: You and I may be strangers, but I wonder if our mothers are long lost sisters. My mother reads and reads and reads some more. And my four brothers and I all learned from the earliest possible age that reading was not just something she insisted that we do, it is something that she truly wanted to share. The joy of advancing through a well-told story. The peace of leaning back and spending a summer afternoon deep in a different place and time. When our family of seven would pack up for camping vacations in Canada, the highest priority was getting our fishing poles packed, but books ran a very, very close second. It was on these vacations that I was introduced to Garp, to Hamilton Sandwich, to the Old Man and the Red Pony. It’s where I learned to enjoy my Dad’s spy thrillers and share Mom’s fondness for everyone from Anne Tyler to the subject of her master’s thesis, Kurt Vonnegut. I spend 30 years as a newspaper editor/columnist/sportswriter/photographer. In recent years I have struggled to sell my first novel, completed a number of short stories and paid a few bills with freelance assignments from a trade journal publisher located well north of you in beautiful Wisconsin. I have enjoyed just about every word I’ve laid down and every story I’ve edited … and all thanks to a wonderful woman who continues to read at a frenetic pace even as macular degeneration forces her into the realm of large print.

  2. Robin says

    On behalf of all your readers I’d like to send a “thank you” and a great big hug to your mom for her role in making you the writer you’ve become. As a teacher for 35 years I love her too.

  3. anne says

    I am an avid reader and I always loved reading. My parents were instrumental in valuing this wonderful and special interest. I continue to read and my sons loved reading since I read to them and now my grandsons read. Your post was emotional, heartwarming and wonderful.

  4. Bob Webster says

    I would also like to thank my Mom, Adelaide Webster who taught in a one room school house near marengo, WI. She would read to us 3 children. I credit her for learning to read at an early age. Thank You Mom !!! Bob Webster

  5. says

    Just wanted to say that I love all your books, Mike Perry and although surprised to see a “tween” option as your next book, I’ve got a 10 and 16 year old girls that will get into it! We love you in Seattle!

  6. Sindy Murray says

    It sounds like a nice life growing up. My kids love living in the farm and running around.You mom sound like an amazing women…

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