Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Tanya Dubnow
English 201
Essay 1
October 2001

Making Sense of Me

You may not believe it, but here’s how it happened:
One fine summer morning, a little bug sneezed . . . KA-CHOO!!

Everything we experience affects us. Our teachers and family guide us in paths they believe we should take. And somehow, these paths become ours. They become us. We make choices along the way. We decide which influences we will take in and allow to become us. But I feel I’ve taken in all of my influences, and have failed to filter some out. This causes me to feel out of place, like I don’t belong in any one category of person. When asked, "What’s your favorite . . . [fill in the blank]?" I always respond, "Can I have more than one?" I especially do this with the genres of literature that I read. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe, by starting at the beginning, I can understand how I came to be this way.

Because of that sneeze, a little seed dropped.
Because that seed dropped, a worm got hit.
Because he got hit, that worm got mad!

I was three years old when I learned to read. My interests at the time were simple. I liked to dress up and put on shows. I liked to make towers with my colorful blocks. I liked to watch TV. Though my mom didn’t want me watch too much television, some shows did aid my learning. My favorite shows were Sesame Street and The Incredible Hulk. I learned how to count, how to say the alphabet, and how to say simple Spanish phrases from Sesame Street ("Hola, Maria!"). I’m not sure exactly what I learned from Hulk--most likely my fear of heights and alleys (people were always being pushed off bridges or attacked in dark streets).

Because he got mad, he kicked a tree.
Because of that kick, a coconut dropped.

I loved reading and being read to. My favorite book was Because A Bug Went Ka-choo. I couldn’t do much actual reading, even if I did recognize a similarity between the letters on the page and the letters on the television. What I did is learn by repetition. Kachoo was the first book I learned to read by this method. The tale follows a familiar pattern, but not everything rhymes. It’s easy to remember, though, because each event logically follows another. After a while, I was able to pick up Kachoo, and know what phrases belonged to what pages. Taking the book from my mom, I would very seriously "read" this wonderful and very difficult story to her, showing how very clever I was.

Because that nut dropped, a turtle got bopped.
Because he got bopped, that turtle named Jake,
Fell on his back with a splash in the lake!

My dad used to take me to his office, mainly to show me off to his coworkers. If he had some business to attend to, he would put me in a conference room, and turn the television on. They only had one movie in the office, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. I watched it over and over again. So I was delighted when, at the age of 8, I found a book with the same title! Who knew? And who knew that I would actually enjoy reading a chapter book with very few pictures at such a young age? These books may have bored Alice, but I devoured them! I read Alice and Through the Looking Glass three times that year. These books introduced me to two things--first, longer stories, and more broadly, British literature.

Because of that splash, a hen got wet.
Because she got wet, that hen got mad.

When I was 9, I found myself drawn to another type of literature--the mystery novel. My grandfather had given me a huge box, containing 55 books of a series. They were about a girl detective named Nancy Drew. He thought I might like them. I was skeptical. After all, there are only 12 chapters in Alice, and each Nancy Drew had 20! That’s quite a jump. I finally decided to try the first book, The Secret of the Old Clock. I couldn’t put it down. I found myself being drawn into darker alleys and attics than I’d ever thought I’d enter. Intrigue, clues, and who-done-its. Narrow escapes and car chases. I couldn’t wait to turn 18 and have my own convertible!

Because she got mad, that hen kicked a bucket.
Because of that kick, the bucket went up.

Once my fear of chapter books had been overcome, the door was open for far more wonderful things. One day, my mom decided to start reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to my sisters and me. Every night she would read another chapter. I never would have thought that I would be able to sit and listen for as long as I did. But Louisa had a beautiful voice that I responded well to. I went from wishing to be the next Girl Detective Wonder to being a young girl named Jo, a struggling writer who wins the love of an older man.

Because it went up, the bucket came down.
Because it came down, it hit Farmer Brown
And that bucket got stuck on his head!

The classic western novel was a genre I had yet to encounter. I hadn’t wanted to. They were too "boyish" for my tastes. But while enveloped in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, my mom bought a book for me at a yard sale. It was a western. I looked at her carefully, making sure she hadn’t grown another head. The author was someone named Louis L’Amour. My grandfather recognized the name and said he was a wonderful writer. Not a promising recommendation. The worst, though, was not that it was a western, but that it was a 500-page western! At that point I was proud if any book I read was over 150 pages. But there wasn’t anything to do about it - my mom had tried, after all. From the first sentence, I was hooked. Jubal Sackett was written in first-person narrative, using the dialect of the old west. It tells the story of a frontiersman surviving the elements and his enemies, and experiencing cross-cultural romance along the way. So my world opened up a little bit more.

Because it was stuck, Farmer Brown phoned for help.
Because of his phone call policemen came speeding.

Fifth grade was scary for me. We had just moved and I didn’t know anyone. My teacher, Mr. Skeel, was very friendly, but a little too loud for my tastes. He soon won my heart and confidence, though, when he picked up a book at the end of each day. Some of the kids fell asleep, some drew, some stared at the playground outside our window. But I was lost in the story. They opened up yet another world--the world of historical fiction. He read several that year. The one I remember most was the autobiographical story of a boy named JD and his older brother Tom, known to everyone in town as "The Great Brain". The Brain would come up with clever schemes, swindling his peers and elders and always coming out on top. I only wished that if I couldn’t be as clever, I’d had an older brother who could.

Because they were speeding, they hit a big stone,
And so one policeman flew up all alone.
Because he went up, he had to come down.

Another branch of historical writing, stories about the Holocaust, has always held me in horrible fascination. When I was in the sixth grade, I read an autobiography called The Hiding Place. It’s the story of a family, the ten Booms, who hid Jews in a secret room behind a bedroom wall. Though the family was found out and sent to a concentration camp, the people they protected escaped. It was a moving, powerful story about faith in the face of opposition. I’ve read it several times since, and always wonder if I would have the courage to risk my life for others given the same situation. That’s a test I’d rather not take.

Because he came down, on the boat Mary Lou . . .
And because he hit hard, he went right on thru.
He made a big hole in the boat Mary Lou.

In spite of the varying degrees of drama I’d encountered thus far, I never considered myself a romantic. Sure, it was romantic how Jo won the professor, and how Nancy met Ned Nickerson. But I’m still not "romantic" like my peers. I don’t like movies that are too sappy or too cute. I don’t read Harlequins or Danielle Steele. And the more real something is, the less likely I am to believe it. I appreciate romance that is far removed from where I am and who I am, and situations that couldn’t possibly occur in my everyday life. I was therefore more willing to accept when, at the age of 13, my grandmother gave me some romance novels from her childhood. I thought, if they’re old, they’re probably all right. The plain, brown canvas covers were well loved and worn. The pages were yellowing and cracked, and needed careful handling. I read those books over and over again. My favorite was The Thousandth Man. The main character was a dreamy girl who held a secret crush on her father’s best friend. I’ve always had a thing for May to December romances!

Because of that hole, the boat started to sink.
And because it was sinking . . . well what do you think?
Everyone, EVERYONE, started to yelp!
And Mrs. Brown called on the phone for more help.

While reading my grandmother’s books, my dad bought a boxed set of the famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. He knew I’d already read The Hobbit twice, and he’d read the trilogy numerous times, so he wanted to encourage me. I tried twice to read the trilogy, but both times found myself stuck in the middle of the second book. As a true product of my generation, short, quick, and concise were the ways to reach me. But I persevered, determined not to let these books beat me down. On my third try, the dam broke. I sailed through the first book, was entranced by the second, and by the third could not be torn away. Fantasy epics had entered into my imagination. After which, there was, of course, a logical progression to follow: science fiction.

Because of her phone call, MORE help came . . . fast!
They tied a strong rope to the Mary Lou’s mast.

For the longest time, sci-fi struck me as a genre written for a certain elite. The skinny boy with glasses, the mousy-haired girl with braces and no makeup--these were the audience of Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, and Margaret Weiss. Though morbidly, I enjoyed horror novels. Whether children‘s stories or short stories that my dad read to me after midnight, I always liked the thrill of fear they instilled. So through the guise of horror, I was introduced to Ray Bradbury. Ray showed me an evil carnival owner who preyed on the regrets of others. Ray took me to China, where a man had invented a flying machine before such things were heard of. The man took to the skies, and in Ray’s words, was "laughing so high you could hardly hear him". I loved these stories. Then Ray slipped in a story about Mars and a group of astronauts who believe they’d found Heaven. And science fiction was suddenly a world I could relate to. One with possibilities and beautiful language. So I believe that it is Ray Bradbury’s fault.

And because of that rope, the boat didn’t go down.
But it had to be fixed, so they started for town.

The classics had been a long time coming. The high school I went to didn’t require us to read the same books that most have to read. To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies--none of the staples of high school lit diet. So I had to take the initiative and read these on my own. One of the books I picked up was Adam Bede by George Eliot. It’s the story of a simple carpenter, his brother, and a Methodist preacheress, and takes place in rural England in the 18th century. As I’d experienced with L’Amour’s works, local and time-conscious dialect brought the characters to life. I was drawn to George Eliot when I learned the author was really a woman. She used a man’s name because female authors weren’t as widely accepted in her day. Her stories are fraught with the political, social, and religious influences of her world. And the way she interprets the actions and thoughts of her characters always has a way of ringing true for me. Even if I can’t relate to them, I can understand them, and thereby somehow relate to them. She is, I believe, one of the most gifted writers ever . . . just for that reason.

And because they went THERE--it’s true, I’m afraid--
They ran right into a circus parade.

So all of this is leading somewhere, right? Yes, in fact, it is. It leads to my own attempts (if feeble) at writing. Creating words and people and situations that capture imagination. All of these influences in my life--I want to be like each of them. If I write science fiction, I want to write it like Ray Bradbury. He uses words to evoke the emotion of a thing, not the appearance of it. If I write a western, I want to make the characters live by their speech, as Louis L’Amour could. If I write a story of Victorian England, I want to make it real to readers by helping them understand people. If I write a fantasy, I want to draw my audience into worlds that only I could imagine and guide them through. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from all of these writers, it’s this: one must write about what one knows. All of these authors that I admire are writing from imaginations that have been formed by what they know and experience. Though I have many interests and can cover a wide range of genres, whatever I write must reflect me. That is what I’ve learned through all my attempts at imitation. That is the lesson I will always be learning.

And THAT started something they’ll never forget,
And as far as I know, it is going on yet.

I’ve always resisted being put in a box. I am the culmination of the stories and people I have come across. Somewhere, a seed was dropped. The effects of that seed are still being felt and worked out in my life. Sometimes it’s frustrating covering such a wide range. I’m part of everyone’s club and member of no one’s. I am me. Maybe I’ll discover how all of these pieces fit together, and how I sound. I can have more than one voice, though. I don’t have to have just one idea, one thought, one love. I can be all of them at once, and still be true to myself. It’s not the neatest conclusion to this long-winded tale, but it’s the best I can come up with. . . .

And that’s how it happened.
Believe me. It’s true.
Because, just because, a small bug went . . .

ka-choo.

 

Copyright 2001
Tanya Dubnow

 

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
1999-2015