The Payoff of a Lonely Childhood

“Gay kids grew up alone, attentive to all the ways in which they did not belong. It tends to make one an extremely good observer, the first step in becoming an artist. Never underestimate the payoff of a lonely childhood.”

—Roger Sutton, Editor in Chief of The Horn Book

I love that idea: “the payoff of a lonely childhood.”

lonely childNot every children’s writer grew up as an outsider, of course. But many, many of us did. The reason seems pretty obvious. Those for whom childhood was lonely find ourselves compelled to go back and live it again, to fix it.

Thus we give a character the kind of difficulties we struggled with, however well disguised, but this time we have the power to make everything come out right!

Irritating the Ones You LoveIt’s the same principle as the one rearticulated in an intriguing book called Irritating the Ones You Love by Jeff Auerbach. (I say rearticulated, because the concept is certainly not new.) The premise is that we choose our life partners out of an unconscious need to replay and consequently “fix” the unsatisfactory aspects of our primary relationship with our parents. So if you are a woman who had an emotionally distant father, for instance, you are apt to take on an emotionally distant husband out of an unconscious drive to solve the problem you had no control over in childhood.

I grew up gay having no idea I was gay. In fact, I didn’t have the courage to face into and acknowledge my sexuality until I was middle aged. But the discomfort created by my invisible-even-to-me orientation contributed greatly to making me an outsider.

Certainly there are other factors—many of them—that create outsiders. And others were in play in my life, too. But being disconnected from my own sexuality was a profound one. As I realized when at last I came to understand and accept my own, our very core is created out of our capacity to love in a deep and intimate way. Those who aren’t in touch with that core because it isn’t permissible to be so—or who are in touch but have to hide what they know from the world—will almost inevitably be outsiders.

Pain, deprivation of all kinds feeds art. Probably more surely than our more positive experiences, though all come into play. That’s easy to understand. Until I read Roger’s words, however, it hadn’t occurred to me that my early status as an outsider taught me to be an observer, to gather the material for my art. But it’s true. It did. And that’s a truth I embrace with gratitude.

(Incidentally, the deep changes in our society for lesbians and gay men and the changes in my own psyche that have come with maturity have allowed me to shed that outsider status—most of it, anyway—without diminishing its power to feed my work.)

The power of observation, the first step in becoming an artist. The payoff of a lonely childhood.

I like that!