What makes a writer? Sweet N Sexy Blog Post April 2017
The career-ending blow fell unexpectedly on a dull afternoon in the middle of my junior year. Our English teacher, a lively and engaging young woman, who had led us through the usual cheery, upbeat American Lit fare of Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Crane, was commenting on what makes a writer. My classmates may have tuned out at that moment, but I was riveted, waiting to hear the secret told. She said—“a miserable childhood.”
I'm sure I gasped. I was doomed as a writer before I’d begun. My notebooks full of potential titles and intriguing plots could go straight to the landfill. My summer plans to take a typing class and write a salable story for American Girl magazine (one of the top-paying short story markets) fizzled instantly. By no stretch of anyone’s imagination had I had “a miserable childhood.” Where would I get the material to write fiction? Where would I get the angst? I signed up for summer classes in Trigonometry and Water Safety.
It was sixteen years before I started writing again under the influence of Jane Austen, a writer who wrote works of genius without experiencing childhood misery and who showed me the way.
Austen’s childhood, like mine, resembles the ideal childhood recently described by Rachel Meyer in The Washington Post. The five keys to Meyer’s happy childhood, and Jane Austen’s and mine are: 1) Read. The Austen’s were a family that read constantly, often aloud. My parents’ house was filled with books and recorded books that we listened to for hours. One memorable experience was my Dad reading us the whole of Men to Match My Mountains. 2) Create family time. With our parents, the six of us, plus dog, filled a series of station wagons, and picnicked, hiked, or went to lakes and beaches. We built forts, played street baseball, and ate big family meals together, while the Austen’s put on plays. 3) Make music. Jane Austen played piano every day of her life that an instrument was available to her, while we sang on car trips, or joined choirs and took up instruments. 4) Get out in nature. Jane Austen was a walker. We spent summers in a cabin in the woods, walking down to the lake daily, meeting deer and the occasional bear on the way. 5) Thank God. Like the Austen’s, we were churchgoers and grace-sayers. Austen wrote three prayers of gratitude, which I read each week, including the line—“Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live.”
Fifteen novels later as I reread Austen’s Emma, inspired again by her genius, I’m glad she showed me that a happy childhood did not doom me to a lifetime in some other work. And with great confidence I watch my children give their story-loving, story-telling little ones happy childhoods, knowing that books, music, family time, nature, and gratitude won’t cut off the greatest career opportunity ever—being a writer.
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