Friday, March 19, 2010

Up All Night

by Elizabeth

The second-to-last house my grandmother lived in was a tiny box of a building perched on the edge of a two-lane highway in the middle of the California desert. The property included her house, plus a long pink building which had once been a flea-bitten motel, a garage where my grandfather tinkered with cars until he died, and the remnants of an old pool filled with scrubby sand and dessicated plants.

Tucked into the pull-out couch in the parlor, the end almost touching the bench of the organ that occupied most of the room (one of two organs crammed into that maybe eight hundred square feet), with covers pulled over my shoulders and the occasional squall of a train whistle punctuating the night, at thirteen years old I stayed up all night reading for the first time. A House of Many Rooms, by Rodello Hunter. Not even the real book, but the Reader's Digest condensed version, a copy of which I'd later spend close to twenty years hunting down, my grandmother's tome long lost or given away.

I'd come to her house to spend a weekend, not a common occurrence, but not unheard-of, either. If it weren't for the book and that night, I don't know if I'd even remember the event. But I do: we made a chocolate cake, inventing our own peanut butter frosting; I flirted with the fourteen-year-boy across the highway, a kid my sister later mocked me about with a bad poem; we ate fried potatoes with dinner, my grandfather's favorite. And that book.

I own two copies of that out-of-print book, and my decades-long search finally proved fruitful a couple of years ago. Though it galled me to pay ten bucks for the text at an overpriced (and now out of business, ha) second-hand shop, I ponied up. For years I'd thumbed the spines every time I spied the familiar covers, usually in model homes or thrift shops, never once seeing the title I'd fallen in love with. Even though the going-rate should have been a dollar, two at most, no way could I walk away from that find.

This was hardly the night I fell in love with reading, mind you. I'd been a dedicated bookworm for years by then. From fourth grade on I was in the "high" reading group at school. At home I was famous for disappearing on rainy Saturdays only to be found hours later with a stack of books by my side. But this was the first time I simply could not put a book down, could not cease reading until every word was finished, my face finally streaked with tears at the saga of the family I'd grown to love as the moon slid its way across the night sky and the trains chugged past and the sun finally peeped over the Eastern horizon.

I think this is what we all strive for, to write something that will rob another of a night's sleep, leaving them glad of it. When my pen hits the paper and the words flow along at the pace of my heartbeat, I know I'm on to something good. Those moments, the ones where the words that land tug at my emotions the way Hunter grabbed them all those years ago, those are the ones that make all the agony of writing and the pursuit of publication seem worthwhile. We all want to make an impact--I think that's human nature. I'd like mine to be through my kids and the written word. That's why I keep at this, even on days when life gets in the way, when words are just a jumble of letters, when I look at how long I've been at this and unsure of how long this stage will persist.

It's because of the hope that one day, a stranger will stay up all night with me, reading and laughing and choking back hot thick tears, unable to put my book down until the last word. And then never forget it.


  1. Elizabeth, you seem to have captured exactly what I strive to do in my writing. Thanks for your post. My belief in my writing abiility was starting to lag - I'm glad you reminded of me of one of the reasons why I need to carry on.

  2. Andrea, I'm glad my post spoke to you. Do keep on, yes! And we'll get to grin when we are both published, and buy each others' books.

  3. Elizabeth, thanks so much for sharing that special night. The vivid picture you painted of the second-to-last house your grandmother lived in brought me right there. It felt like the start of a book I didn't want to put down.


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