I grew up the fourth daughter born in our family within seven years; in a household crowded with emotions and voices, books were a safe harbor. I remember going on vacations, my three older sisters sitting in the middle seat of our station wagon. I always claimed the spot carved out in the back, in between the suitcases, where I could curl up with a book and feel the miles go by.
I loved all kinds of books when I was growing up, but when I got to college and read Tillie Olsen‘s “I Stand Here Ironing” I realized what I wanted to write. Sprawled across one of the big leather chairs in the library reading room, I fell into the words of a mother, standing at her ironing board, thinking about her life with her daughter. No explosions. No murders. Just one writer training her brilliant eye upon the small things that truly make up life.
Some people are wise enough at the age of twenty to write a book like that. I most certainly was not. In the thirty years between that realization and when The School of Essential Ingredients* was published I did what I would recommend every writer do – I read. And read. And read.
When my children were small, I made it my profession. With the help of a small army of women, we wrote 500 Great Books by Women, a task which required that we read thousands of books. It was a job I could pick up while a child was napping; I could write a review after they went to bed. It was a huge job, but when your world is made of Legos and diapers and applesauce, being able to open a book and find your brain engaged, your mind in Spain or Russia or New Orleans, seemed like the closest thing to sanity I could imagine.
And because we read everything we could get our hands on, trying to find the unknown as well as the famous authors, I got the chance to read incredible, as well as not-so-incredible books. And the interesting thing was that I learned just as much about writing from reading books that faltered in the home stretch, or whose sentences lumbered across the page. So that by the time I was almost fifty and my heart and soul had grown up enough to write The School of Essential Ingredients, my brain and imagination were there, too, filled with the thoughts and music of all those books I had read in the meantime.
So, here’s to reading – to the entertainment it gives us as the words come off the page, and to all that stays with us after we have returned to the world outside.
Erica Bauermeister is the author of the novel The School of Essential Ingredients.* Before she was kidnapped by fiction, she co-authored 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide and Let’s Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. She lives in Seattle with her family and is working on novel #2. To learn more, go to www.ericabauermeister.com.
* Read Jennifer’s review of The School of Essential Ingredients.