Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Childhood Baggage

When Jeannette Walls finally told her beau that if he knew the true story of her childhood he would not want to be with her anymore, she told of the shame she carried about such severe parental dysfunction she could not bare to reveal it.

But her soon-to-be husband’s reaction made bearing-all more than bearable.

“This,” he said, “would make a great book.”
The Glass Castle went on to sell millions of copies, and Jeannette went on to literary fame. If ever there was a Cinderella story, this has to be it.

I wonder sometimes if those who were blessed with wholesome childhoods could become great writers. What do they have to pass on? That if you eat your peas and mind your manners all shall be well? Great stories, after all, are about overcoming challenges. Who better to conjure tales of woe and redemption than those who lived them?

Few have lived the horrendous abuse and neglect Ms. Wells endured, and fewer who had managed to rise up the social ladder as she had, long before her memoir was published. But in our way many of us have a story to tell; variations on the theme.

Fiction, more than memoir, allows us to really go there. If you write fiction, I’d encourage you to eschew the protective instinct and let your characters experience that which you know so well: the helplessness, the deep sorrow, the profound self-doubts. Let them make their way out of the darkness.

These make great books.
Use it. It’s called making lemonade.

13 comments:

  1. Good post ... I say it's all fodder :) My kids know it too and behave. We have the best job in the world, don't we?

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  2. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote as if her childhood was wonderful, and it was in many ways, especially the love within her family. But the backdrop is the many hardships they faced. So even a childhood one considers good can make for a good book :)
    But it is the difficulties in life, big or small, with which many readers connect.

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  3. The difficulties in life, be they big or small, are what readers connect with.

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  4. I've never read The Glass Castle, however there are so many books out there about horrible families that it's rather refreshing to go back and read the Little House books. As Ann brings up, it's not the family that causes the conflict but the challenges they face and overcome. Personally, I'm quite tired of dysfunctional family stories, although I've never read this one and now want to :)

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  5. "Making lemonade"...I like that, and it fits...to take the extremely sour experiences of life and redeem them with sugary words...not to make them saccharin in taste, but to be palatable for others to understand and learn.
    I just recently read another of her books: Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. It was fascinating.

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  6. I give people who write memoirs a lot of credit. It can't be easy.

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  7. It's the challenges and heart-aches in life that connect us all and instill empathy. Stories that draw on our deepest, rawest feelings end up being the most gripping and universal. Great post, Mirka!

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  8. Great stuff to think about! I remember a co-teacher I taught with had a poster on her wall that said "Everyone has a story to tell." Deep inside we can all come up with something. And I love that comic!

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  9. Good post, Mirka.

    That is one of the great things about being a writer. Everyone suffers bad experiences at some point; but writers get to recycle it cathartically as material for stories.

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  10. I'll have to check out The Glass Castle, I've not heard of it. Tho I liked her husband's advice! =)

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  11. I haven't read The Glass Castle yet, Mirka. I will have to read it. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

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  12. I've not heard of this. I think what writers need is some kind of "setting apart" experience, but not necessarily a bad childhood. If unfortunate lives were required to breed writers, what a sad lot we'd be.

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  13. II haven't heard of this title. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Mirka.

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