Tag Archives: childhood

Remembering Childhood

Marion 2nd Grade

Recently someone asked me, “Why is it that you have such detailed memories of your childhood?”  She commented that she did not.

I reached for an answer and came up with pure air.  Why do I remember?  Why doesn’t everyone?

Years ago, I had a student whose work was technically competent but quite lacking in emotional resonance.  One day during a manuscript consultation I said to her, “Tell me about your childhood.”  Her face began to glow.  “Oh,” she said.  “I had the most wonderful childhood!”

And that was precisely what was wrong with her work.

It’s not that you have to have had a uniquely difficult childhood to be able to write for children.  It is that nobody, nobody in the world has a wonderful childhood.  Exactly as nobody has a wonderful adulthood.  We all have days.  Some days are wonderful, to be sure.  Others are boring or challenging or downright painful.  But anyone who thinks she had a whole “wonderful childhood” has forgotten what that time was like.  And who can write successfully for children from such a place?

Ironically, though, I suspect that part of the reason I remember my childhood so vividly is because my mother was one of those “wonderful childhood” folks.  She spoke often of her own childhood on a Midwestern farm and always with deep reverence, so deep a reverence that I learned reverence, too.

My mother had such a strong need to remember her own childhood as perfect that she tried to make mine that way, too.  As a consequence she lied away every inconvenient truth.  And two passions pulled me into the career of my adult life, a profound reverence for childhood and an equally powerful need to tell children the truth.

I remember clearly the first time I ever wrote from that childhood place.  I was in college and, while I ordinarily occupied myself with more “productive” activities, things that might actually garner course credits, I sat down to my typewriter one quiet afternoon and tapped out a paragraph intended for no eyes but my own.  In a few words I described standing barefoot on a sunny sidewalk in my backyard, then stepping off into the cool tickle of the grass.  Only that.  But that paragraph emerged onto the page with lights flashing. “Important!  Important!” those lights said.  “Pay attention!  This matters!”

I did pay attention, because while the paragraph itself soon went the way of all scrap paper, the silken feel of the words, their heft and substance, stayed with me.  My mother’s reverence for childhood made those words shine.

It was many years later before I sat down to write about childhood again, and this time, carrying my other flag, I wrote about sexual abuse.  I had suffered such abuse as an adolescent at the hands of my family physician, but having distanced myself from that memory, I wrote instead out of a passionate defense of foster children, whom I had come to know too often suffered such abuse.

I wrote about sexual abuse so long before the “me-too” movement that no one quite knew what to do with the story that emerged.  Nonetheless, James Cross Giblin, perhaps the bravest editor in the children’s book industry at the time, brought Foster Child into the world.

Clearly, my mother’s deeply held reverence for the days of her childhood impacted me profoundly.  The ways she tried so hard to “protect” me did, too.  Does my ability to remember rise out of a curious mixture of reverence and defiance?

Perhaps.

Or maybe the answer is the same as the one I once received from my partner in response to a very different question.  When I first met her I was astonished to learn that she comes from a family of four daughters, all of them lesbian.  “How do you get statistics like that in one family?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied with a casual shrug.  “I guess we’re just lucky.”

And that’s me.  Lucky to have retained the textures of my childhood, the quiet, unpressured days; the grinding powerlessness; the longing for what I couldn’t even name; the humiliations; the soaring joys.

And lucky to have found good use for all I have carried with me from those days!

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!

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.

Is Remembering Enough?

YouthEvery time I happen across a children’s television program where adult actors are pretending to be children I am grateful that those of us who write for young people are permitted to appear in the world in our adult clothes. We are even allowed to grow old! 

What we must do, however, to make the leap from our own world to those we serve is to remember what most adults prefer to forget … our own childhoods. 

It’s understandable that few adults want to retain a deep knowledge of their own young selves. Dependence, vulnerability, unfulfilled longing are painful to relive. But while we who write for young people are commending ourselves for our ability to stay connected with those places in ourselves, perhaps we should pause to ask a crucial question. Is remembering enough? 

Is the most intimate knowledge of our own childhood selves sufficient to create a connection with today’s young readers? Especially if it’s been a long time since we ourselves were young? Or is it possible that childhood itself has changed so profoundly that we are at risk of losing our ability to reach our audience? And when I say we, I mean mostly me  … and those other writers out there who are no longer young.

There are, of course, fundamental facts about childhood that don’t change with an evolving culture. Or they change so slowly as to feel constant. And the younger the child we are writing for, the easier it is to find a reliable empathy from our own experience. Very young children are connected primarily with families, and families have a certain sturdy consistency.

But smart phones and the Internet and video games and whatever the next innovation might be do, in fact, alter the experience of childhood. And the revolving landscape of movie actors, slang, and junk food has always been a plague for writers to sort through as they try to make their stories feel current without risking their being almost instantly out of date once they are published. Styles of parenting change. Schools do, too. And the world that seems to be tumbling around us at an ever accelerating rate impacts children as much, if not more, than it impacts us. But how? How do they experience their future as they witness the disaster our climate is sliding into? I came to consciousness during World War II, but that was a war that we all assumed would end one day … and it did. Or seemed to. What is it like to be born into an unending landscape of war? 

RuntOne solution, of course, to staying contemporary with our young people is to write about a future that lies beyond their reach and ours. Many do that these days. Writing historical fiction is another way to avoid missteps in portraying today. That’s what I’m doing in Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel I’m working on now. Another solution for me is to write in an old-fashioned, classic tone set in no particular time as I did in Little Dog, Lost. Animal stories with almost no human characters such as Runt work, too. All those kinds of stories are mostly time safe.

I grow more aware every year, though, of the maneuvering I have to do to stay fresh, to stay in territory where I have authority, to stay publishable. And I’m aware, too, that I can no longer bring the boundless energy to my work that I see younger writers all around me bringing to theirs. 

But that last—all that young energy coming up behind me—brings with it a wholly agreeable surprise. I once was out there pushing the boundaries of the field I entered with such passion and such love. Now I settle back into the flow, knowing writers all around me are pushing the boundaries still, that their work is robust and daring and filled with a whole new passion and love. And those enthusiastic, hard working, young writers bless my work by keeping our field alive.

Norma Fox Mazer taught in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts with me. And she said to me one day, “You realize, don’t you, that we’re grooming our own replacements.” We laughed because, of course, it was true. 

What better way to experience just a hint of immortality?