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”
Many 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.