A Wonderful Childhood

Sometimes I think that because it is so difficult to reconcile the wonder and horror of childhood, people make a choice to remember only one or the other.

—Richard Hoffman, “Backtalk: Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir”

child cryingMany years ago, I sat with a student discussing her work. I was having a hard time knowing how to help. Her stories weren’t badly written, but they didn’t move me. They didn’t even hold my interest very well. And I wasn’t sure what her next step should be. Finally, reaching for insight, I said, “Tell me about your childhood.”

Instantly, a smile lit up her face, a smile that could only be called beatific. “Oh,” she said, clasping her hands to accompany the smile, “I had the most wonderful childhood.”

“Ah,” I said, “that’s the problem with your writing.”

Because the truth is, no one has a wonderful childhood, not while living it anyway. They may remember childhood as wonderful, but that’s a whole different thing. What wonderful means is that they have simply forgotten the rest.

Have you ever heard anyone say, “I’ve had the most wonderful adulthood!”? Of course not, because our adult experience lies close at hand. So close that we have little chance to forget … or idealize. Childhood is as mixed a reality as our adult days, of course. How could it be otherwise? And as children we probably lived both the joy and the pain more fully since we were less well defended.

I don’t mean to suggest that to write for young people you have to have had more pain than most. But I do mean to say, and to say emphatically, that if you’re writing for kids you must be able to remember the pain. Because a childhood remembered without pain is merely sentimental, and sentimental is always false. No living child will recognize it. And no story that refuses to acknowledge both “the wonder and horror” can possibly come to life.

There are, I suspect, fewer folks these days who come to writing for young people with such a determinedly rosy-eyed view. If they have experienced contemporary juvenile literature at all—and what are they doing trying to produce it if they haven’t?—then they know it is hardly idyllic. A good thing since the world our children inhabit isn’t idyllic either.

My mother—never a writer except for letters to her family—wrote a memoir when she was elderly. She began this work in response to a memoir-writing class at the senior residence where she lived, and she took great pleasure in recording her past, especially her childhood on a farm in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota. I value the record she left, as do my cousins, though it isn’t scintillating reading. Its failure to be scintillating didn’t come from poor writing. My mother’s style was plain but pleasantly readable. Her writing lacked teeth, however, because it remained so determinedly positive.

If anyone growing up in that family ever had a moment of disappointment, of pain, of—God forbid—anger (and I’m sure my mother’s God did forbid anger) it never reached the page. “And a good time was had by all.” That was the way she ended her recital of every luncheon she hosted as a young bride, along with a detailed record of the menu. And that’s the way I think of the whole of the memoir: “A good time was had by all.”

The sweetness, after a time, sets my teeth on edge. I want more. Much more. We all do when we enter the world of story.

It was Flannery O’Connor who said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

But that’s true only if we remember it whole.

8 thoughts on “A Wonderful Childhood

  1. writersideup

    Marion, I agree that children live through bad experiences, just as adults do, but when the “wonderful” far outweighs it, I think that’s typically how people will look at it. It’s always a mix, though, ’cause life is a mix 🙂 I do think, also, that in generations past, people were also more likely to want to sugar-coat things—be private—don’t let the world know the bad stuff, right?

    P.S. As an aside: if the God you’re talking about is the one from the Christian Bible, He didn’t actually forbid anger. Jesus himself showed anger at the merchants in the square and temple. God Himself can be angry. What defines their anger is that is that it is always righteous, justified, and most definitely controlled. Not something humans can do so assuredly which is why the teaching is to be slow to anger.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I agree there was far more emphasis on sugar coating, especially childhood, in the past. And when I refer to “my mother’s God,” I’m referring not to the God of Christian scripture or even maturely conceived Christian belief, but rather the perception of God handed down through old fashioned Puritanical Christianity, especially for those of an English heritage, which forbade strong emotions of all kinds, but especially the negative ones.

  2. carleenmtjader

    Anne Lamott in her book “bird by bird” was talking about this same kind of idea. It is at the end of the chapter Finding Your Voice. And that was my reading for today!
    Message reinforced! Thanks.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Just checked my shelf to see if I have that on hand. I would have liked to check that chapter. Though I know I’ve owned the book–and read it, of course–it’s not there, so I’ll just have to imagine what she said.

  3. Joanne Toft

    Thanks – this was great! I have been seeking this from the writing of my Aunts and my Mother – all school teachers, writing as if watching from the outside of life, writing about the men and the farm but their thoughts, frustrations, fears, loves and joys are missing. I keep wondering if I might find that in their personal journals but I doubt it. They were Swedish so this term that Norma brings up fits perfectly. I have not heard it before but makes sense.

    I do wonder if this is a term used by Sweds who came to the America because the Sweds I know now are strong, wild and full of emotions to share.

    Thanks – food for thought in my own writing! Where are the emotions of my own childhood? What do I keep hidden because that is what I was shown and taught as I grew up?

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      At 76 I still struggle to stay connected with my own emotions in strong situations. I was so thoroughly trained to know that feelings of any stripe weren’t quite “nice.” It is, I’m convinced, one of the factors that turned me toward writing fiction, an opportunity to feel what was not permitted me in the ordinary progress of my days.

  4. Norma Gaffron

    Marion, having gone to high school in Wabasha, in the bluff country, would you mind telling me what town your mother grew up in? And I wonder if she lived by the Scandinavian laws of Janteloven, as I did. It’s a cultural term for a principle that discourages individuality…

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Hi, Norma. My mother grew up on a farm in the Root River Valley just outside Houston. And her family was English on both sides. I never heard of “janteloven,” but I know that it was considered very important that she and her three sisters–I think the one brother might have been exempt–not ever be told anything complementary about themselves that might make them “proud.”


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