Writers are both born and made, and with no exceptions, they are made first as readers before they are writers. For my part, I can say that long before I could read, I was already hungry to learn the secret behind the hieroglyphics on street signs and newspapers, arrayed in regular lines like ants on a picnic raid. I remember trying to puzzle them out, but being unable to crack the code on my own.
Believing, at the age of 4 or so, that holding a text in my hand would convey upon me some sort of magical power, the ability to wield these symbols, to make them work my will, I cast a covetous eye on the stacks of still-warm newspapers outside the corner store, as I roller-skated by with my friends or walked by with my parents.
Though my shelves were lined with the bright backs of Golden books and my father brought me a picture book a week, I was never permitted to touch the paper at home; it was the sole domain of my father, who would read me the comic strips, in all their gleaming cartoon glory on the Sunday pages. He feared, with some justice, that I would mangle the paper beyond all recognition if he let me handle it myself, unable to manage the origami of folding its nested sections back together as they had been.
I can't say I consciously planned it in any real way, but one day, as I strapped on my skates, I heard the rumbling of the trucks delivering the Philadelphia Bulletin, The Inquirer, The Daily News, a jungle rhythm of frustrated desire, and knew I would get one of these papers for myself.
I rattled around the block once, twice, three times, leading a parade of the neighborhood's barking dogs, the neighbor's St. Bernard, with his lolling red tongue, as plush as a velvet cushion, hard at my heels. Each time I passed the store, I cast an eye at the dwindling pile, laden with bright nickels in a cigar box on top of the stack.
On the fourth time around, I suddenly veered toward the papers and snatched one off the top, skating away as fast as my short skinny legs would take me. The store's owner, exclaiming something I couldn't quite hear for the hammering of my heart, ran after me, but the St. Bernard, whose sharp white teeth were fully as impressive as his tongue, got in the way.
I retired to the basement with my prize clutched to my chest. In the damp half-darkness, I inspected it: the outsize headlines screamed something, though I couldn't say what, in their excitable font. The comic strips, in their workaday black and white, tantalized me with narratives, and I guessed at their captions. Photographs of men in serious black suits and ties, women in white gloves and wide-brimmed hats smiled at me from the inside pages. But there was no Open Sesame. I knew no more than before for holding the paper in my own hands.
As I sat on the cellar stairs, I felt my mother's hand on my shoulder. "Where did you get that paper?" she asked, holding it up like Exhibit A on Perry Mason. Her eyebrows rose and rose like the wings of a dark-brown moth.
Something was stuck in my throat. I shook my head as the tears marked the flimsy newsprint with hot, wet drops. For the rest of the day, my mother hardly spoke to me, setting the bowl of soup and sandwich before me at lunch with a doubtful glance. I knew I was in for it when my father got home.
My father's temper was famous in the neighborhood. All the kids on the block, and I fancy some of the adults as well, quivered with vicarious anxiety when they heard his voice starting to rise. His aspect was the worst part, the face swelling twice its size, the purple-blue veins standing out like the rivers on a topographical map. That was worse than the belt he would brandish before him, as though he were training a tiger. But this time, he didn't respond as I had expected.
He was ominously quiet. He grabbed my hand, roughly, and pulled me down to the corner store. I could hardly breathe as he pried open my fingers, shoving a sticky nickel into the center of my palm, then shoved me, hard, into the open doorway. "Apologize!" he ordered. "Tell the man what you did, and pay for what you stole."
I learned a lot that day, something about the worth of words among them. Although I started kindergarten that fall, I didn't learn to read and write properly until first grade. But the desire grew and grew, and I soon began to see how the alphabet made new worlds with its complicated contradance on the page. It was no turning back after that.
Causes Robbi Nester Supports
Anti-slavery and human trafficking
Advocating for disabled children