My Inconsistent Affair with Literature

By: Parker Gregory Shpak

Parker - blog #1.jpg
(Creative Commons/ Flickr)

My relationship with literature has been inconsistent at best. As much as I would like to pass myself off as the prodigal son of the modern literati, heralding the return of the writer-artist to the public eye, it would be dishonest to posture as anything resembling that figure. When I was young, however, I was initially drawn to reading.

I was blessed to be a fairly intelligent child by most academic standards. When I was in the second grade, I began reading my first larger volumes (I cite here the popular young adult series Harry Potter) and I remember feeling haughty as I watched many of my peers read books that were less than a couple hundred pages long.

When I was in the third grade, I wrote a story about dragons and school-buses (to be clear, I’m not misreporting the premise; I had a distinct fascination at the time with both dragons and school-buses). It wasn’t a bad piece of writing for an eight-year-old, but I know that if I was to submit the same piece now I would receive two major critiques:

1) An excessive use of commas.

2) A commitment to avoid the word “said,” which resulted in characters: mumbling, whispering, replying, reporting, shouting, yelling, screaming, offering, lecturing, releasing, wondering, and even warbling, but never simply saying.

My story won a school-wide competition, and our principal read it in the gym/cafeteria/auditorium to all of my classmates as well as the school’s staff. It took some goading to persuade me to stand after my story had reached its conclusion. I vaguely remember getting a blue ribbon.

Middle school arrived a few years later and by then I had moved to a new town. I was determined to reinvent myself, having already attained a surprising amount of pre-pubescent self-loathing. While I did not yet know what I wanted to be, I at least knew what I did not want to be. I did not want to be labelled a nerd. In the same vein, I also didn’t want to fall victim to the signature insult between teenage boys in 2004: being called gay. Therefore, I immediately stopped reading and writing. Instead, I spent the majority of my time strategically playing Madden NFL and listening to Eminem.

The only book-related memory I was able to create during those years was reading Where the Red Fern Grows in eighth grade. I avoided starting the novel until a day before it was due and, in a panic, read the entire novel within a single Sunday. Towards the book’s conclusion, I cried as both the characters Old Dan and Little Ann died. It should also be noted that I welled up when, while writing this blog post, I Wikipedia’d the names of this book’s dogs and remembered how emotional reading that book was for me at the age of thirteen.

I don’t remember reading very much while I was in high school. I disliked English because I disliked writing persuasive essays, which was the standard homework assignment at the time. I also disliked being asked to extract subjective and interpretive meanings from a book’s narrative. In the tenth grade, I was assigned a two-page paper about Golding’s intention in writing Lord of the Flies. Instead, I wrote a two-page paper analyzing why I thought that the assignment was stupid. It got an A and featured the comment, “I don’t mind you doing this, but in the future please talk to me first.” Mrs. Schaefer was a good teacher.

Coming to college, I originally chose to become a physics major because math had always been my most consistent subject in high school. I took freshman English during the second semester of my first year, which was unable to change my resentment towards the forced interpretation of literature. The professor even told me once that I, “wrote like Nietzsche, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.” I balanced about a 2.0 GPA during those two semesters and, ultimately, decided to dropped out.

Over the next two years, I engaged in a variety of juvenile activities. I also traveled and tried my hand as a custodian, a groundskeeper, a ski/snowboard technician, and a barista. I didn’t read a single novel or (outside of text messaging) type a single word during that time.

When I turned twenty, and began to feel sufficiently separated from the world of academia, I decided to start keeping a daily diary at the suggestion of my then-girlfriend. I was reluctant at first, maintaining that I hated to write. However, she insisted and I eventually relented. At first, putting pen to paper was a struggle. However, after her and I broke up, I decided that I needed an outlet for my emotions. I stared writing in that diary – a lot.

And I kept at it, writing personal anecdotes or simply describing days. Eventually I enjoyed the process so much that even when life would stagnate, I wanted to still be able to find something to write about. As a result, I began penning several poems as well as a few short stories. From these initial attempts at writing, I began to desire literary inspiration. I was motivated to read again.

I struggled in the beginning. At first, I wasn’t able to read even two pages without having my thoughts drift away or feeling the desire to check my phone. I tried to read classics like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I found the writing, however, to be dry and it was difficult to understand the book’s narrative. I would be lying if I said that I was not discouraged by these initial pitfalls. I even told myself that I was just one of those people who didn’t “get” literature. Confessing this to a friend, she assured me, “With any art, the value you receive can’t be wrong. If you like something, then that reaction is inherently valid. Just because something is a classic doesn’t mean you have to like it. In fact, Mark Twain said, ‘Classics are books that everyone wants to have read, but never actually wants to read.’” I laughed at her assessment of my own frustration, and decided to keep trying.

Very slowly my attention span began to increase. I was able to read ten pages in a day. Then a chapter. Eventually I worked my way to reading a hundred pages in one sitting. More importantly, I started to truly enjoy what I was doing. It seemed like the more I was able to read, the more I wanted to keep reading.

After being away for three years, I decided to reapply to college. My application featured a 2.0 GPA and an essay about what I had learned since I had left school. I was shocked when I was re-accepted into the University of Connecticut. During my first week on campus, I decided that it was time to formally change my major from Physics to English.

It’s intimidating to be in classes with students who claim that they have always had an affinity for reading and who can cite dozens of tomes that I can only claim are on my Goodreads “Want to Read” list. I have a lot of peers who tell me that they’ve known they have wanted to be a writer for as long as they can remember. In my creative writing classes, I have been exposed to student work that made me think, “these people are writers. I want to be like them.” After a few years of working at it, however, those thoughts are starting to change. Instead of feeling envious, I’m beginning to feel like I, too, have a place at the table.

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