Tag Archives: observation

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!

Whale Watching

Whale Watching

Last July I was on the east coast, having traveled there to receive an honorary MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts where I taught for so many challenging and satisfying years.  After the ceremonies my partner and I went on from Vermont to the coast of Maine, a place neither of us had ever visited before.

The Maine coast, in case you don’t know, looks exactly like its pictures.

Our final day there, I signed up for a whale-watching trip.  It’s something I’ve long wanted to do.  I’ve seen whales rising out of the ocean before.  That was when I was on the state ferry making its way from Bellingham, Washington, up the inside passage into Alaska.  

Several times on that trip to Alaska whales rose out of the dark water we lumbered through, their great backs flowing along in a rhythmic arc, the enormous whoosh of breath startlingly visible.  Each time their appearance was both unexpected and utterly thrilling.  They were so classic, so like what I’d always understood whales to be, and still so astonishingly new.

I began watching the ocean flowing past our ship with a new reverence.  That such a gift could exist, hidden beneath its dancing surface!  That the world I lived in could hold such wonders! 

For a girl who has spent most of her life landlocked, it was an encounter with the sacred.

I joined the Maine whale-watching excursion not as a means of reaching a destination but with the express purpose of seeing whales.  It was a perfect day to be on the ocean, calm, sunny, with a light breeze.  I settled into the bow, ready to be thrilled once more. The thrills were slow in coming.

Eventually, as we were on our way back, a half a whale appeared for half a second.  At least that’s what we were told.  I think the captain was the only person on board whose eyes were on the right spot in the right half second.

And so we toiled back through the sunny day–whales, we were told, prefer clouds–and tromped down the gangplank and onto the wharf, whaleless.  We were given vouchers to try again.  But this was the last day of our trip.  So I left Maine still carrying my memory of the sacred whales in Alaska.

Strangely, though, I didn’t feel cheated.  The whales were there.  I knew they were.  They had once shown themselves to me. 

It was only when I’d returned to Minnesota that I began to see the comparison.  Going on a whale-watching trip is much like searching for ideas for a story.  The ideas are not going to show themselves unless I’m attending to what emerges from the depths of my own mind.  And they won’t necessarily  show themselves on demand.  I may find the ideas I’m looking for because I have gone to a certain place in my thoughts, searching, or they may simply rise into view while I’m on my way somewhere else. 

The point is to have faith that our minds are deep enough, rich enough, wondrous enough to contain all the ideas we need.  To have faith that the stories are there, swimming in the depths, and that if we keep watch, they will rise to the surface, an astonishing gift.

Now when I’m struggling with a story and my mind feel barren, I think of that fruitless trip . . . and of that other journey where whales appeared, unasked, unexpected.  The whales were there both times, I know.  Only patience was needed . . . and perhaps a few clouds to turn my eyes inward.

The sea of our own psyches contains wonders.  Trust it.