The seeds of the writing bug: guest post by Barry Grills

Happy to present yet another post in the series When Writers Read Kids’ Books. This one comes from Barry Grills, whose new memoir, Every Wolf’s Howl, is just out from Freehand Books. I love what Merilyn Simonds says about the book: that it “celebrates the human need for wildness and the courage to live an authentic life.”

Here, Barry writes a post unlike any other I’ve had on the blog to date. It’s about the fact that his parents didn’t read to him when he was a child. And somehow, the writing bug persisted inside him anyway. Thank you Barry for this wonderful contribution.

I have no recollection of my parents reading to me when I was a child. In fact I am quite certain it did not happen.

My brother, a world class guitarist, discussed this with me a few months ago, when I was visiting him out west. He maintains this missing rite of youthful passage reflected a preoccupation in our household with music. Both my parents played the piano. Of an evening, visitors joined them around their old upright Heintzman and sang their hearts out after the dinner dishes were washed and put away. My brother and I had voice training when we were young enough to be sopranos. My brother’s musical gifts were on display dozens of times when our family had company. My brother and my parents and I all sang in the church choir at one time – in four-part harmony. My father was a tenor, I sang bass, my brother’s voice had not yet changed and he performed alto. My mother was a noted soprano. Except for my brother’s changing voice, I wonder if we might have formed a barbershop quartet.

My brother talked recently about how unfair this preoccupation with music must have seemed to me back then, when I was so passionate about books and being a writer. I waved his concerns away. We are what we are; a fact of which I am glad. As I write this now, I am relieved I did not have to give a reading in my parents’ living room at age fifteen, the year when I began to write stories every day after school and on weekends, in the same fashion that my brother was called upon frequently to perform a song or two. It would have felt dreadful, I think, to stand in front of glazed gazes reading deeply flawed, uncrafted work that experimented with far too much. At fifteen, my writing flipped between octaves in much the same way my singing voice had floundered a number of years earlier.

My parents gave me a few books when I was a child. Inevitably, they were little covers of popular television programs: Zorro, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers. But they did not read them to me. Later, I found my own materials to read, from friends, from teachers. I read Two Years Before The Mast at a young age, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer. In my family’s culture at the time, a varied collection of books was difficult to find and my parents weren’t motivated to persist.

So I read adult books as a child. And this, I think, is one of two things that happens when the culture of being read to doesn’t take place. First of all, one reads adult books. Second, one develops a cultural family history based on oral tradition.

Instead of reading children’s fiction and, later, young adult fiction, people who have no experience of lying in bed – the covers tucked up to their chins, someone sitting on the edge of the mattress, turning the pages of a great story that will change their lives – move quickly to adult books. The seeds of the writing bug for me were sown in the first years of my teens by novels by Ernest Hemingway, Robert Ruark, Evan Hunter, Herman Wouk. Then, by the time I began to write myself, I devoured everything I could find by John Updike and Ray Bradbury. I wanted to write like John Updike because he was so wickedly clever. As for Ray Bradbury, I would ponder the beauty of his writing and wish to emulate it.

There was, though, someone who told me stories. He made his stories up. My uncle. He would build a large bonfire down on the river where he lived and sit there with my brother and me, spinning incredible yarns, as he poked endlessly at the embers, about how he survived Custer’s last stand, or how, as a private detective, he’d brought to justice a gang of truck hijackers. He would make these up on the fly; they were wonderful stories. I wrote a short story about my uncle and his stories, adding a male character in puberty who thinks he’s too old for such stories, calling the story “Waiting For Unc”. Although it was never published, an editor at a New York magazine wrote me a long letter of encouragement when I was around eighteen. And encourage me it did.

And my older son, David, who reads to my granddaughters with his wife, Rachel, most nights, reminds me that I told him and his brother stories whenever we travelled anywhere by car. My favourites were The Iliad, The Odyssey, and elements of The Aeneid. He claims he and his brother loved these stories tremendously. He remembers Agamemnon the most, because Agamemnon wouldn’t listen to the people he should, like Cassandra, for instance. And he liked the story about Discordia showing up at the wedding feast uninvited, carrying her golden apple.

I suggested Richard Adams’s Watership Down when David and I talked. His daughters, Emma and Lydia, would like it, I said. This book too began its history in print form as a story told on car trips to a young, appreciative audience.

Oral tradition. And adult materials. For me, at least, these were the kinds of stories I read and heard as a child. Sometimes I miss the children’s books I will perhaps never get to read. Then again, we are what we are.

One footnote, though. When I was in my early twenties, I managed my brother’s band for a time. I lived with some of its members in a large house where the band could also rehearse. Some nights, after everyone retired to their respective rooms for the night, one of the comedians would call out: “Bawwy, would you wead us a stowy?” Chortles, chuckles, guffaws. I would read them a story. Something like Erskine Caldwell’s “Warm River”, which is one such occasion I remember.

The musicians in the other rooms would fall asleep to an adult story. Yes, we all lived there for the music. But literature wormed its way in anyway, slipping between the notes, refusing to be shut out. Just like it did at home.

Barry Grills’ stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including Quarry, Grain, and the University of Windsor Review, as well as various anthologies, including Best Canadian Stories. He is also the author of three cultural biographies from Quarry Press on the lives of Anne Murray, Alanis Morissette, and Celine Dion, as well as an updated Celine Dion biography, co-authored with Jim Brown. He is a past chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada and the Book and Periodical Council, and he has been both a federal election candidate and a municipal councillor. He currently lives in North Bay, Ontario. His memoir, Every Wolf’s Howl, has been published by Freehand Books this autumn.


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14 responses to “The seeds of the writing bug: guest post by Barry Grills

  1. Barry,
    Thank you! I love your stories in this post. My mother did read aloud to us, growing up, but we also had a storyteller in the family, my mother’s older cousin, Edith. We’d visit her in her 4th-floor walkup apartment in the bohemian neighborhood of Old Town, Chicago, and she would regale us with tales about herself and her parents, as well as bits from the latest Johnny Carson show.
    Mary Ann

    • kristendenhartog

      Telling stories, rather than writing them, is quite a gift, isn’t it? It’s one I don’t have, that’s for sure, but give me a pen or a keyboard and the words will flow.

  2. Nice. I’ll have to try and find some of your work on Kindle versions! Stories like these can be quite enjoyable to read, especially with the fall about here and the winter soon approaching. (:

  3. Marilyn

    Lovely post, Barry. You sure didn’t miss out on the good books in spite of not having been read to as a child. You were lucky to have caught the reading bug, and also lucky to have been part of such a musical family.

    • kristendenhartog

      I laughed out loud at the idea of a budding writer having to “perform” like a budding musician does. I have never thought of it that way before, but thank goodness (for all) I was not subjected to such rehearsals too early on!

  4. Lenny

    Hmm – the human need for wildness and the courage to live an authentic life – think I’m going to have to read that book!

  5. Ann T

    What a great post! So true what you say about budding writers not having to “perform” the way budding musicians do. Perhaps, though, they should, and would then be better prepared for that side of the writer’s life?
    I grew up in a reading/writing household, but have married into a non-reading family that is very musical (as in playing rather than just listening). To me it’s a great loss not to know the pleasure of reading, but it’s equally sad not to know the pleasure of playing an instrument.
    I loved your anecdotes about telling stories. My husband, who is not a big reader, is a great storyteller, and I’ve always envied his ability to come up with stuff off the cuff. Often, his oral bedtime stories were more popular with our sons than my book reading.
    Thanks for contributing this very enjoyable post.

  6. pam

    Another beautiful post – much thanks to you both!

    Warms my heart to hear from a fellow writer who grew up finding books to read… on his own. It was the same for me. There weren’t many books in our house, but I sought them out – and I found some beauts, early on.
    Bless the librarians I met along the way in various small towns across the prairies!

    They were my guiding angels.

  7. Wonderful piece! My brother-in-law, who is now a poet and an English prof, was laying on the sofa reading one of his mother’s books while in his early teens. A neighbour walked in and saw what he was reading and said, “Oh! That’s a bit racy for him at his age, isn’t it?” Without looking up from the book, he said,”It’s OK. I’m covering my eyes for the racy bits.”

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