Finding the Words by Dev Petty
Sometimes I read posts here with a bit of envy. I read about people who went to their school library at recess and curled up with a book at every opportunity. I read about people who knew from birth that words and language and books would define their life, as a writer or a librarian or an editor.
When I was young, I read…sometimes. I picked a major for which one reads a lot of Plato and Hobbes. I read the paper. I read trashy novels each summer, but I was generally uninterested in words. There was other fun to have, things to do. Nowhere in my life-manual did it say, “Read. It will change you. Write. It will change everything.”
I might have discovered words in adulthood, but I found myself knee, no….waist, no….NECK deep in a visual effects career that would define the next decade with late nights, fast cars, loud music, insane expectations and the laser pointer in my leather jacket that I’m sure I thought was a lot cooler than it was. I ate it and breathed it and loved and hated every unbelievably long day. I was a senior texture painter in film with a long list of credits and a massive complex about being the best at what I did. My life in words had come to a screeching halt before it ever took off and I had no time to even finish sentences, let alone read or write them. Life was a blur. My job was everything.
But life is funny. I’m pretty sure my visual effects colleagues would have voted me “Least likely to be a stay-at-home mom.” They might have thought it was unlikely I’d procreate at all. But I did procreate. Take THAT universe! And decided to stay home with my daughters.
This was lovely for a long time. My leather jacket turned to a jeans jacket. My angry boots turned to espadrilles. I wore prints. I was healthy. I was happy. Everyone in my life was pretty tripped out by it. That’s when the word started coming.
At first they were others’ words. I had a kid who would only nap in my arms and she napped a lot. So I read. Book after book. Sometimes I start reading one at the beginning of the nap, finish it and quietly knock one off the shelf with my toes and begin another. I read fiction and non. I reread books from my childhood. I read good books and less so. I read all eighteen million pages of Cryptonomicon. The Brothers Karamazov. Nietzsche. Asimov. Vonnegut, Anne Frank, Crichton, The Little Prince…whatever was on the shelf. Everything that was on the shelf.
And the words….? They were good words. They made me think about things. They calmed me. They gave my life a bit of rhythm. When I’d finished everything on the shelf, I started buying books and checking books out from the library. More of other people’s words.
By this time I was starting to be a bit adrift in my life. The economy had demolished my small freelance business and I mined Craigslist for possible jobs that would work with my life. Sadly, there weren’t many posts for “Seeking part time senior level texture painters.” I LOVED being a mom, but I missed being creative and I missed being around creative people. I was cutting up cheese cubes and stacking them into intricate urban landscapes for my daughter. It was a cry for help.
Then…a friend opened the door to finding my own words. She was taking a personal essay class. She thought I’d like it. I did. Seriously, it’s the cheapest therapy you’ll ever find.
I took my little adult school evening class seriously. It turned out I had a lot of words! I wrote letters to the cockroaches I roomed with in an old apartment. I wrote about the people in my life. I wrote about my husband. I wrote about Berkeley. I wrote. I read. I critiqued. I liked it. I also liked that writing had me meeting people and finding myself again, apart from being a mom and creating cheese cities.
I had an idea one day. It was an idea for a story. It was a story about an idea. It wasn’t a novel, of that I was sure. Because I could see it in my head. Years of being a painter in film put pictures in my head that went along with the words. It was a picture book. It could only be a picture book. And so I wrote it. It was called “The Big Idea” and I showed it to a lot of people and they liked it. They liked it a lot.
The truth is, it was an act of total hubris sending that first piece out to agents and editors. No one published it, but I got a lot of nice, personal feedback. A lot of people thought I was onto something. More stories followed. More of my own words came out. More picture books. I went to conferences and joined a critique group…the words were helping me sort of become…me…again.
Ok. Flash forward a few years and here I am. I still flip through Craigslist now and again when the bills come in and I still tear up a bit when I see my friend’s names in the credits of Thor. Life carried on for my colleagues. But, it turned out, life would carry on for me too. The words ended up being a life preserver. They gave me a huge challenge, a chance to be creative in a new way, a place to put my somewhat sarcastic and occasionally inappropriate sense of humor, they got me out in the world meeting new people.
I sometimes begrudge that I didn’t discover reading and writing sooner. Where might I be if I’d been reading in the back of the library instead of watching Voltron? What if I’d started writing picture books instead of working on the Matrix? I don’t know. I’m a big believer in being the sum of one’s parts. Maybe my understanding of film is central to how I write a picture book. Maybe I was writing books in the back of my head somewhere during all those 90 hour weeks. Maybe the absurdity of going from workaholic to supermom creates this sort of thing. I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m just happy I found the words.
So if you’re the parent of a kid who doesn’t read so much, you should follow all the advice about showing them how much you love reading and allowing them to read for pleasure and all the other wonderful information out there. Maybe they won’t fall in love with reading, but they may fall in love with writing and you can encourage them to journal or write poetry. But you should know that even if your child hasn’t found the love of words just yet, words have a way of finding people.
Dev Petty is the author of I Don’t Want to be a Frog (Doubleday 2015). A former Visual Effects artist, mom of two and California native who writes picture books for kids and immature adults. Find more information at http://www.devpetty.com.
Ms. Petty is giving away a copy of I Don’t Want to be a Frog to one lucky reader. Please fill out the form below if you’d like to enter. The giveaway closes at 11:59 PM EST on February 26th, 2015. You must be 13 or older and have a United States mailing address to enter.