At age twelve or thirteen I read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Since I was an only child, I spent a great deal of time alone and in my imagination. I didn’t have any way of knowing that later in life I’d want to be a writer, but I did begin to understand the power of storytelling. I loved that book so much I read passages of it over and over because I read it as a boy’s adventure story. I repeated the stories often to my friends, mostly arguing how great it would be to go down the Mississippi River on a raft, to camp on mysterious islands, to spent all day doing nothing but fishing and watching boats go by on the river.
One of my friends had the misfortune of having two first names. His name was Stacy Frank, which our teachers always got backwards and he always tried to correct. Stacy was a patient friend, whose love for adventure was as great as mine, but he lived in the real world and I lived in imaginary worlds I found in books. Yes, I was a nerd. And I was passionate about the books I was reading. When there was no one around to hang out with, I walked to our local library about a mile from my house and spent hours looking at books and daydreaming. Anyway, Stacy laughed at me when I said I was running away to the Mississippi. I suppose almost every eleven or twelve year-old-kid entertains the thought of running away at some point because the world is a cruel place.
I tried to get Stacy on board my imaginary raft, the one I’d built in my mind, the one I could see clearly in Huckleberry Finn as my destiny. Stacy Frank said things like, “I don’t think so, Learst.” He said things like, “Where are you going to get logs that big to build a raft?” Yes, Stacy Frank was anchored in the real world, he was practical. As far as I was concerned, I was already on that raft (the one in my imagination) and I tried to convince him by telling him stories from the book, how Huckleberry Finn’s father was a no good drunk, and steals Huck from the Widow Douglas, the woman who tries to give Huck a home. I told stories about almost being run over by a riverboat, and meeting Jim, the slave for whom Huck develops a strong friendship. But Stacy Frank wasn’t biting.
Well, I said, that hot summer Sunday afternoon, I’m going to the Mississippi River whether you are or not. I’m going by myself. I’m not afraid, I told Stacy Frank. I was sincere and I was a great adventurer, at least in my mind. That night I was sick and on Monday I stayed home from school. Stacy Frank went around telling everyone I’d run away to the Mississippi. He even said so to a few teachers.
On Tuesday, while I was standing at my locker, a group of kids walked by….One of then said, “Hey there, Huckleberry,” and they all laughed. All day long and for the rest of that school year I was known as Huck. The smart kids called me Huck, the jocks called me Huck. At first I was embarrassed, but then the notion of it kind of grew on me. In a weird way I’d become a celebrity. Apparently I had convinced Stacy Frank that I’d really gone to the Mississippi River, had told the stories with enough detail to convince him of my seriousness, and armed with that knowledge I began to understand the power of stories, how they held me in their grip, how they allowed me to go places I’d probably never go, but while I was held captive by them, they were, for a time, for me, more real than my own life.
It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I’ve read it through completely as least three times, maybe four—it’s not a small book—but when I tell this story I’m reminded how powerful is the imagination; it has the power to transform a person’s world, the power to take you places you might not otherwise go, and this can only happen through reading. And through reading you will become a better writer, a better storyteller. Talking about it makes me want to read Huck Finn at least one more time.