“Other than childhood, what was there in those days that is not here today?” – St-John Perse from “To Celebrate a Childhood”
Perse is not well known today. I know his work because my mother bought a copy of one of his books in 1944, and I found his memories of childhood to be similar to mine in tone as I left home, grew older, and thought back to those formative years before I grew up and started losing my innocence.
If my parents were still here today, they would tell you that I was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Pacific Northwest into the Florida Panhandle just before entering the first grade. If the acronym had been around in those days, I would have been shouting WTF–and probably incurred the wrath of everyone!
Oddly enough, Florida won me over. I “blame” the Boy Scouts and their camping trips for this as well as friends who had beach cottages, and my mother, too, who organized family day trips to all kinds of tempting places.
Florida has been showing up in my work of late. I set my first novels in Montana and then placed a satire in Texas. But I finally came home, and I guess I think of Florida that way now, and concentrated on the world where I grew up. My childhood in Florida was actually quite good once I started looking around at the neighborhood and finding an environment I liked. Basically, I grew up on the beach and in the piney woods.
Now, as those days draw me back now in my fiction, I wonder how many other authors discover that not only can they go home again, but that that is where their most powerful inspiration can be found. Childhood is such an impressionable time that it variously haunts us or inspires us for the rest of our lives. So many people are writing memoirs these days as though the writing itself helps them understand where they came from and what happened there. We do that in our stories as well.
Then, as now, I was struck by the conflict between the land and its beauty and the politics of Jim Crow. That disconnect still makes no sense to me. So, I write stories about it and try to figure it out. I have a feeling a lot of other writers are doing the same thing in fiction and nonfiction. We want to understand what turned us into the people we are today. Nature? Nurture? Probably both. For all I know, fate dragged me to Florida so that I would one day write Conjure Woman’s Cat.
That’s probably not the case. For one thing, I don’t believe in fate. But I do see that childhood wields a lot of power over us and that try as we might, we can never really escape it–supposing that we want to. I don’t want to, though I once did. Stories from a writer’s childhood are always there waiting to be told, to influence what s/he writes many years into the future. Those stories hold a lot of power over us and, frankly, life is much easier if we listen to them and share them with others.
“I see shame as part of a process of becoming free: to create or, yes, to love. These sometimes have to be fundamental acts of disobedience to one’s upbringing or conditioned view of the world. In other words, one can feel ashamed of what one’s doing while at the same time knowing it’s the correct thing to do. I don’t doubt that, for me, part of the satisfaction in the act of writing is that it violates numerous taboos of my childhood that still weigh heavily on me. In the moment of writing, I can be free of them.”
“One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence,” Canadian author Robertson Davies said. That is not only true of those cursed to write, but often serves as the reason they write and what they write about.
The taboos of childhood come in all shapes, sizes, colors and strengths. Some are merely household rules which seem odd, unfair or simply different than the household rules of one’s friends. They twist into the more grotesque shapes of poverty and abuse and every sacred truth that becomes a lie through the epiphanies of growing up. They are the political and social injustices we see through young eyes and the corruptions we feel to the marrow of young bones.
For Rachel Cusk, they are the seeds of the stories we will write, and we can thank our lucky stars that writing is the manner in which we learn to be free of them rather than everything ill begotten from drugs to terrorism. What the psychoanalyst’s couch cannot cure, our fiction finally harvests the strange fruit of those tainted seeds sown long ago.
Unfortunately, one must re-live those slings and arrows to bring them to life in a story. Doing so is like choosing a nightmare over a good night’s sleep. But the process is very cleansing and the weight of the world, or at least one’s past, becomes noticeably lighter and happier once the mystery behind the writer’s life and work is finally understood.
The results need not be heavy, depressing books. They might be mainstream, commercial romances and thrillers. Sometimes they’re page-turning yarns with exciting plots and an unobtrusive message (or no message at all). Yes, they’re also comedies and satires, and even poetry so sweet and dear that no one sees the vinegar within the words. Perhaps they only hint at the taboos they cast out, and that can be a fine thing.
“Everywhere that July in 1963 there were the pines, their long needles shimmering in a faint wind under the hot subtropical sun. In the country there were empty dirt roads, rutted by mule carts. In the towns, sprawled unpainted shacks without windows. Ancient Negro women sat fanning themselves with palm leaves as they stared drowsily from rickety porches at their zinnias and coral vines and heavy-scented honeysuckle bushes. Moss-draped oaks and lacy chinaberry trees shaded sandy dooryards. Scrawny dogs, the flies buzzing at their noses, slept among ragged-feathered chickens poking for scratch feed. Locusts whine from tall magnolias and the steady pitch of power saws. But mostly it was those pines and the tang of their resiny branches and the dark straightness of their trunks. All of it looked like the south of the novelists and the poets, heavy with antiquity, romance and misery.” – Gloria Johoda in “The Other Florida.”
I was in college in 1963 when my friend Gloria Jahoda wrote those words. Like me, she wasn’t born in Florida, but in her now-classic book about the state’s panhandle she observed and wrote about what many long-time residents no longer noticed or took for granted. “The Other Florida” was other because it wasn’t filled with tourist attractions, widely known beaches and movie stars.
Other than a few childhood poems, I wouldn’t write about the other Florida until recently. My family moved there from Oregon just in time for me to enter the first grade. Out of the culture shock of the move, I also saw the place I would live for 18 years through the eyes of an outsider.
Yes, my family went to St. Augustine, Tampa, Daytona Beach and Key West, stopping at many gaudy tourist attractions in between. But all that was crowded and nearly fake with an overlay of commercial glitz and I was always happy to be home even though much of the panhandle was considered backward and impoverished in spite of having the state capital in the middle of it.
I haven’t been back to north Florida since the mid-1980s when my parents died and my brothers and I closed up and sold the house the family had lived (by then) for some 35 years.
In my childhood days, I learned the territory like most kids did…swimming in clear, cold sinkholes, camping with the Boy Scout Troop in the piney woods, hanging out with friends at our pristine and uncommercialized beaches, exploring the Florida Caverns at Marianna, deep sea fishing in boats that went out from St. Marks, learning the voices of Snake Birds and Limpkins at Wakulla Springs, delivering newspapers throughout my neighborhood, marching in parades downtown with the high school band. . .
I saw what Jahoda saw, partly because I was new, partly because the outdoors was our playground in days before the Internet, and partly because my folks arranged day trips to may special places within the confines of this map. In the days before high gasoline prices, my best thinking place was my 1954 Chevy on a dark country road at night. I don’t know what I solved anything, but I saw a lot on the hundreds of miles of roads I saw every week.
If you’re a writer, I urge you to look back to your childhood places and ponder what it was like, what there was to do, what the people were like, and what kinds of stories and legends you heard. Whether you were happy, sad, or borderline average during those days, the memories are potentially very potent.
In looking back, I’ve written (or am in the process of writing) stories on that map set in Carrabelle and nearby Tate’s Hell Swamp, Marianna and the nearby Bellamy Bridge and Chipola River, Tallahassee, St. Marks, Wakulla County, and the barrier islands. My novella in progress is set at a fictional town not too far from Weewahitchka. You can probably find a similar handful of towns near your childhood home. Each has its unusual traditions, the stories people hope everyone has forgotten, legends, ghostly tales, and plenty of Mother Nature.
Florida seems strange to those who did not live there. The same can be said for other places I’ve lived, worked or visited: Northern Illinois, Minnesota, San Francisco, Montana, North Carolina, and North Eastern Georgia. For a writer, a lot of the appeal of going home (literally or figuratively) for stories is the differentness of the place. That adds a lot of appeal to a story. Take a Florida tradition, add in the weather and the pines, toss in a ghost story, and pretty soon you are telling something fresh and knew and page-turning.
You can ramp up your stories with old memories, smiling again with the the joys, possibly even finding closure for the sorrows; your issues, your cares, your friends, your slings and arrows, your memories can be puzzled and camouflaged into your story. They bring strength and depth because you lived them and know what they were all about.
I’ve about wrapped up my Weewahitchka-area story. It gets a potent childhood issue off my plate of memories. More about that later if the publisher likes the story. I think I’ve written some of my best stuff about the places where I grew up because there is so much “material” there I can turn into fiction. That’s why I often urge other writers to look at the towns where they grew up with fresh eyes and see if they can find some stories there.
My stories with Florida settings include “The Seeker” (Tallahassee, Carrabelle, Tate’s Hell), “Emily’s Stories” (Tallahassee and St. Marks), “Cora’s Crossing” (Marianna), “The Land Between the Rivers” (Tate’s Hell) and “Moonlight and Ghosts” (Tallahassee).
When we’re children, we’re often in a hurry to grow up. To our young eyes, adulthood as a time of unlimited freedom.
Later, we look back to our childhood, real or imagined, and wish for those carefree days again.
I explore this theme, among others, in my novel “Garden of Heaven.” One of my favourite poets, though not well known these days, St.-John Perse, also explores this theme in “To Celebrate a Childhood,” a poem found in Éloges and Other Poems.
He asks, as I do, “Sinon l’enfance, qu’y avait-il alors qu’il n’y a plus?” (“Other than childhood, what was there in those days that is not here today?”)
Perse is not, I think, seeking a list of dates, events, inventions, names of kings and presidents. so much as the sense of things and the feeling of things. Childhood, as we look back on it, is a state of mind, perhaps more real in our memory of it, than it was when we first lived it.
In “Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas suggests that we should celebrate childhood in all all its innocence before we grow old and follow the sun out of grace. Looking back, the poet writes, “Time let me hail and climb, golden in the heydays of his eyes, and green and golden I was huntsman and hersman, the calves sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold, and the sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams.”
Childhood in so many ways is our own personal Garden of Eden out of which we grow up and lose our innocence. Our journeys pull us away from that innocence perhaps, as Robertson Davies wrote in Fifth Business, “One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence.”
We cannot–at least for now–stay in the Garden. We have miles to go before we sleep and worlds to discover and ourselves to explore. But I wonder if part of growing up is learning hour to carry more of those old green and golden days with us into the practical world of adulthood.