Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 7, 2008

Broken Lives of Authors

I just read an essay in Alison Lurie’s collection Don’t Tell the Grownups, in which she comments that children’s book writers don’t necessarily write from happy childhoods or unhappy ones, but very often from happy childhoods that were suddenly broken. She mentions J. R.R. Tolkien’s loss of his father as a small child and his move from South Africa to England. His mother died when he was about twelve, as did C.S. Lewis’s mother. The grieving boy was sent off to boarding school, an experience Lewis said was worse than fighting in the first world war. After the death of his mother, Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, was sent from Scotland to England to live with his grandparents. The river behind the house was his one pleasure. Like Tolkien, Frances Hogsden Burnett lost her father when young and she moved from one continent to another, in her case, from England to the U.S. For the rest of her life, Frances Hodgson Burnett moved between those countries, and her characters, too, are often displaced, looking for a home, or making one, as in a secret garden. Louisa May Alcott, who wrote so lovingly of one happy home, moved about sixteen times in the first sixteen years of her life. And closer to our time, Katherine Paterson spent early years in Asia, where her parents were missionaries, before coming to the United States.

This theory of brokenness shaping writers, like most theories, may have as many exceptions as rules. Lewis Carroll, for instance, joyfully grew up among lots of brothers and sisters, acting out in family plays and writing family newsletters, which were admired by a father who was crazy about nonsense. They stayed in one big comfortable house and nobody died too terribly before their time. Beatrix Potter spent most of her childhood in one house she rarely left. But whatever strength this broken-childhood theory has or doesn’t have, it nudges me to look for the roots of creativity in my own life.

When people ask me how I came to write for children, I think about falling in love with the books I was reading to my daughter when she was little. I laughed, wept, and often felt more engaged than I had with many of the books I’d been reading through and since college. I loved the simplicity in some picture books, the swift circling from a beginning to end; the warmth and heroism in Laura Ingalls Wilder, the magic of the Chronicles of Narnia. Eventually I thought beyond This is good to Can I do this — or something like it?

I think of this love for the literature as what lured me to write for children, but behind the hope and upturning endings, were times of plain old sadness. I can’t think of one broken year that shaped me, but life as I know it sometimes splits or splinters. Writing is often my reply to loss, or putting together what I feel should be whole. Stories fill in empty spaces as we patch what was with what should have been and make something entirely new.

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Responses

  1. What a fabulous, thoughtful post. I do think there’s some credence in the brokenness of a child’s life that makes him want, as you say, to fill in the empty spaces and patch over them with something new.
    We didn’t move around a lot when I was growing up, but my “displacement” was being raised by my grandmother instead of my parents, who both worked. I think the latchkey existence my brother and I shared really did shape our adult selves.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I was trying to think how to word my desire to write but I keep coming back to your “Writing is often my reply to loss, or putting together what I feel should be whole. Stories fill in empty spaces as we patch what was with what should have been and make something entirely new.”
    I think that says it all quite nicely.

  3. Thanks, Jama. Probably everyone in the world has some kind of broken place. For instance, Beatrix Potter may have stayed in one place and her parents were alive, but they didn’t seem to notice her very much.

  4. Thank you! It’s nice to feel like I got the words right now and then.

  5. Funny you should mention Beatrix Potter — I’m writing a post about her as we speak!

  6. Jeannine–
    Great post. I think you’re right–one can form a theory around so many different parts of our lives. Of course, I had sad parts of growing up, but I came from a truly connected, happy childhood. The teen years–well, sure, lots of angst, but still…I remember deciding I would be a writer before any of that hit. I think it was just holding some book or some pile of books I’d just read and knowing there could be no better thing for me to do than be one of THOSE people, the ones who could put magic onto pages.
    I think there may be something about writers that lets them stand inside and outside a situation at the same time, or maybe just remember what it felt to be inside, once they are outside. For kids’ writers, especially. Once we’ve grown up, I think there’s something about looking at the kids around us today & RECOGNIZING the connections with who we were, what we lived years ago. As much as things and lives change, there are patterns, and I think what we do is put those patterns into a story for the next set of readers to see. Maybe?

  7. Yes, putting out those patterns and furthering the conversations. Some of my students who want to write are inspired to fill in holes they see in the literature. One’s doing a piece in which Rapunzels falls for a girl and Locks for Love comes in for the chopped hair; another Wild Thing fan is bound and determined to keep his picture book text under 350 words and the main character is named Maurice. There are variations on fairy tales, an alphabet book in which we get plankton instead of, say pony. It’s exciting to see!


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