An Essay by Nell Freudenberger
Until I was about fifteen, I thought I was the only person in the world with a particular, curious habit: “the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind.” Then an English teacher assigned George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” in the margin of which I put an exclamation mark next to this passage:
I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents … I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The “story” must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.
I thought: this is what writers do, and got a secret thrill from including myself in that fellowship. It seemed like proof. If I overstated its significance, I would say that Orwell understates it, putting in that modest sentence about a “common habit,” as if to insist that this practice of his was nothing unusual, nothing very wonderful at all.
Now, spending more time around children, my own and others, it seems obvious to me that this is not a habit common to all of them, nor is it strictly the provenance of writers-to-be. This is something that readers do: the kind of readers who remember waiting for the school day to be finished, daydreaming about some private patch of carpet, a child-sized space behind a chair, a closet, a porch, a fire escape—any place where reading could go on uninterrupted. I can remember lying on the floor of my bedroom in Los Angeles as the room got darker and colder, that hint of desert night you get as the sun drops below the horizon, squinting to make out the page with the creeping consciousness that someone would soon call my name. Soon I would have to put the book face down—a plastic-covered hardback from the library, gray clots of glue in its corners, or the curled V of a paperback, a child’s sketch of bird—and reenter ordinary life.
I don’t think this kind of escapist reader is the best kind: we are certainly not the kind who most successfully remember and talk about what we read. But I do think we are the most passionate, the most hopelessly addicted. If we go on to become writers, this is the way we learned, a kind of virtual university with the most august faculty imaginable. Here we can try out their words and rhythms while keeping our eyes trained on the ridiculously unliterary furniture of the only lives we have to use. The fact that this is how writers learn to write is beside the point. The main thing is that it is a gift readers get, lasting our whole lives: a second family, more brilliant, more generous and less vulnerable than the first, who travel with us forever in our heads.