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Reading and Writing are an Escape From – and an Acceptance of – the Self, says author Lauren Wolk

“My heroes, in the end, were people as scared and lonely as I was”

  • Reading and Writing are an Escape From – and an Acceptance of – the Self, says author Lauren Wolk

Consider this a confession. When I was a kid, books let me escape from myself.

Not from my life. I’ve always had a good, safe, nest-like life with a wonderful family, friends, teachers, adventures, enough to eat, a roof overhead, shoes… the works. I’m talking about escape from myself.

Not from the best parts of me, which I can say, with both pride and humility, include generosity, kindness, and intelligence. I’m talking about escape from my own sulfurous darkness. From fear, obsession, fury, and doubt.

Those wily, thorny monsters not under the bed but right in the bed with me.

I was – and still, despite all efforts, am – a person who worries about everything, agonises that I’m not doing enough to deserve this good life of mine, berates myself for standing in judgement, for uncharitable thoughts, for every lack and misstep.

I, as an adult, have found ways to deal with all that. But I look back on my childhood through tears.

Picture a girl who sees, in school, a film about what to do during and after a nuclear attack. Memorising how to hide under my desk, then (afterward) throw that desk through the window to escape my ruined classroom.

How to flip a loaf of bread upside down and cut open the plastic sleeve through the radiation-free bottom so I can eat the radiation-free bread inside. What a sweet and silly girl I must have been to believe such lessons. But I did. And I took the threat to heart.

When I was a child, I lay in bed at night, sweating with fear, and imagined nuclear warheads arcing over the North Pole and straight toward my home, my family, all the things I loved. But I also feared more garden-variety threats, even if they were figments and phantoms.

Picture a girl creeping through the house at midnight, looking for dangers – fire, intruders, a whole raft of bogey-men – because the alternative, to lie in bed and ignore those possibilities, was unthinkable.

Picture a girl who had never heard of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and never considered telling anyone about the fears that pinned her down and roared in her face.

Now picture a girl who read her way out of that cacophony. Who opened a book the way she might have opened the door to a doctor’s office or a church.

I never thought about books that way. I didn’t see them as a prescription or a refuge. But they were both. Books made me well and whole.

Books such as Island of the Blue Dolphins and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn showed me what ‘strong’ looked like. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler gave me friends as real as any flesh-and-blood companions. More real, in fact.

Books gave me time to grow up, and they showed me how to do that. How to be who I was without so much confusion and regret.

My heroes, in the end, were people as scared and lonely as I was. People who taught me that bravery isn’t possible without fear. So I became brave. And I became strong. And I began to write books of my own.

Oh, I had always written as a way to speak my own truths, make language into art, and relieve the pressure that made my heart and brain bulge and ache. But most of what I wrote in my childhood ended up in a locked drawer.

Poems and books for people to read came later. And they brought with them the key to unlock all of me: good, bad, everything.

Now, when I write, I am not selective. I give myself to the process with a whole heart. I trust myself with my self. I know that honesty can be risky, but it is also at the heart of being well.

For me, writing a novel is an act of faith, confession, homage, and gratitude. As I wrote Wolf Hollow and Beyond the Bright Sea, I was fully alive, in every possible sense.

Brain, heart, body, soul: invigorated, mighty, and whole.

I keep coming back to that word: whole.

Back to ‘all.’ Back to ‘well.’ If I am a matter of pieces and parts, I cannot make sense out of myself. And if I can’t make sense out of myself, I can’t make sense. Period. I can’t write anything worth the ink.

So. I don’t have to love everything about myself. I don’t even have to accept everything about myself. But I do have to admit it. All of it.

I no longer try to escape from the sulfurous darkness. Instead, I kindle a light by working hard to be a whole person in a constant state of evolution.

Reading helps.

Writing helps.

Always have. Always will.

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk, was the KS2 winner in the 2017 Teach Primary New Children’s Fiction Awards. It is published by Penguin, as is her latest children’s novel, Beyond the Bright Sea.


Main Illustrations: Tang Yay Hoong