As a writer, you cannot assault the reader with your dark depression. You cannot give the reader nothing but your misery. Or you can, but expect to lose a few people. If a writer wants readers, the writer has to offer up some light, some beauty.
I came to this Gross Generalization while looking at some memoirs I love. The pain recounted in Sue William Silverman’s memoir of paternal childhood abuse is made readable only be the tempering of the pain with some kind of light or goodness. In her case, I believe the good is the beauty of her natural world, as well as the essential goodness of her own self.
The perhaps moral recklessness of Sonja Livingston’s mother in Ghostbread is transformed by Livingston’s painting of her mother’s impenenetrable pride, free spirit and refusal to be moulded into normalcy.
The darkness of Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss is ‘leavened’ by Harrison’s deliberate focus on the unreal beauty of the landscape she and her dangerous father move through.
The thing is that as in books so in life. Survivors of incredibly difficult situations have had to find something to grip on to other than their own pain. They have had not so much to transcend pain, as to counter it, to starve darkness of its own oxygen, as it were, by adding a competitor for the air. Otherwise the writer would not have survived.
A friend of mine asked me on Friday if I had someone I confided in during childhood about certain difficulties. I did not. Well then, she said, did I have some “safe place.” Trish, I said, laughing, “You’re Killing Me Here.” But what about books, she persisted, didn’t I have a favorite book, or world of my own? At first, I said no.
Though, like Silverman, I did have a lot beyond relationships with family and school friends. Like Silverman, I grew up in incredibly lush and beautiful parts of the world. I also moved schools, cities and countries, with each place providing an intense new backdrop to my family life.
Then I remembered Enid Blyton’s childhood book The Enchanted Forest. A world of adventure and constant change, in which various “lands” arrive via clouds at the top of the tree. There is the Land of Presents, the Land of Spells, the Land of Know-It-Alls, the Land of Smacks (English for Slaps).
It is one thing after another –and as in my own life — you never know what is going to happen next. One adventure replaces another adventure. One day it is Smacks, the next The Land of Birthdays; one day you are in “The Land of (Bad) Tempers”, the next “The Land of Do as You Please.”
What better reason for looking forward, for going on: the knowledge that there is no one permanent world, and that the next world or at the least the one after that could be the Land of Topsy Turvy (pretty chaotic – with no firm place to stand) , or The Land of Take-What-You-Want, where, as they say, the world is your Birthdaycake And your oyster.