Turning-points: The Sword of Shannara

Getting ready to go camping last week I decided I should take a book along, just in case (the forecast called for rain every day). I wasn’t sure I wanted to take my brand-new hardback copy of Dan Wells’ new book, so dug through my bookshelf for something I’d not read in awhile. I found my copy of The Sword of Shannara, which I hadn’t read since probably 1982.

There’s a reason I kept it all this time, even though I remember practically nothing about this book today. It was a Christmas present from someone in my family (I don’t recall who now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were my brother-in-law, Scott). I read it in just a few days during Christmas break–no small feat, considering it’s 726 pages and I was twelve.

The book touched something inside me. It was a deep, rich story, and quite probably my first serious adult book. (I don’t think I was ready for Tolkien yet.) It was still very much on my mind and in my head when my junior high school English teacher assigned us all to write a short story for class. What I ended up writing was a blatant (though very brief) knock-off of Brooks’ book. I even drew a map. I had fun on a class assignment! Who knew? My sixth-grade teacher had all but managed to kill off any fun in writing, but Mrs. DeGarlais single-handedly revived it.

A few weeks later Mrs. DeGarlais took me aside and told me I would be one of three kids from my grade who would be sent to the local annual Young Authors Conference to represent out school. That was cool! I’d get a day out of school, and be able to listen to real writers talk about writing! And some of my friends were going, too, so life was good!

Then I won second place for the entire city in my age group (the start of a trend–I averaged second place for the next five years), and I was hooked. I entered each year until I graduated from high school. I was able to go to the Whittenberg Writing “Camp” on the other side of the state one year. I enjoyed writing, and did it often, though I had a hard time finishing anything unless there was a deadline to hit. It all started from that first story.

My brother-in-law was studying to be an engineer, and was already an accomplished draftsman. He got hold of my map and made me a large format reproduction, all neat and clean–very little hand-drawn. It was pretty awesome!

Just a little bit ago I was outside on a quick errand and decided to see if I could find that original story in the boxes stored in the shed. I went right to it. Perhaps after I’ve had a chance to read it and cringe I’ll repost it here. That could be fun, perhaps. Or perhaps I’ll seal it away back in the deepest depths of the archives where it will never see the light of day again.

In any case, though, it’s time I read The Sword of Shannara again. As I was looking it over just now I noticed a few pages that had darkened tint on the edge. Flipping to one of those pictures I found an illustration–artwork by The Brothers Hildebrant. I’d forgotten there had been artwork. I’d thought artwork in adult books disappeared early on in the last century, but this was published in 1977. Only 35 years ago they were still including artwork. Just a bit of trivia for you.

I owe a lot to this book. Writing has been a source of satisfaction–and even money–for most of my life. I don’t even remember just what it was that I enjoyed so much about this book, but I know it got me excited. It gave me a world to fire my imagination. Mrs. DeGarlais gave me an assignment that made me realize I could write, too. And the Young Authors Conference gave me the confidence to keep going. But Shannara helped me see what was possible.

So I suppose the least I can do is read the book a second time.

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