This morning I had a very odd experience. I had the privilege of peering in to the mind of a 16-year-old girl – or should I say a 16-year-old writer. And the most peculiar thing of all is that it was me.
A bit of backstory: when I was in high school (lo these many years ago) I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist – but I also had a very practical side and that practical side won out in the university program selection process. I had my very best marks in biology, chemistry and analytical trigonometry in my senior year, and you can guess what I studied in university. And to tell you the truth, that health science degree and the Master of Science have stood me in good stead in my career evolution from health communication, to health & business writer, to creative non-fiction writer, and now into fiction.
But in high school, my English marks weren’t far behind my math and science. In fact, when given the opportunity in my junior year to complete what was then referred to as a “distinction” project” I didn’t choose to do it in science, rather I chose English. To be more specific I chose the short story. This morning I took three magazine boxes off the highest shelf in my office to begin the laborious process of digitalizing all of my publications to rid myself of the glut of paper that threatens to overtake most writers from time to time. What do you suppose was the first document that I pulled out? Much to my surprise, it was my Grade 11 “distinction project.”
The framework for the project was aspects of the short story (very apropos since lately I’ve been thinking that I really ought to read some Alice Munro given that she won the Nobel prize for literature recently based on a career writing short stories – and I’ve never read a single sentence she’s written). The project, painstakingly typed on an old typewriter (with only one or two whited-out typos) was an analysis of the components of the short story. For each of the traditional components – character, setting, plot etc. – I had written a short story that supposedly showcasing each. One story’s character took center stage; in the next one setting was the most important part etc. But it was the themes of each of the stories that told the story of that 15-year-old writer.
The theme that came through again and again, regardless of the actual characters or plot of the story was this: Know who you are, and be true to yourself.
When I think back through my day-job career, and my writing by moonlight, I think that I have truly tried to do this – but I didn’t realize that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche. This was kind of a light bulb moment, because I just finished re-reading what I have long considered to be my very favorite novel: Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.
I first read the book when I was in high school, right around the time that I wrote those short stories. I had seen the various iterations of the movies based on it in the interim, but it was eye-opening for me to read this book so many decades later to try to see what it was that captivated me and to figure out if the book had, in fact, had any influence on my writing.
This time around, I found myself impatient with the narrator. A twenty-something woman of the 1930’s, the unnamed protagonist met and married a much older, and much more worldly man who took her back to England to his estate, Manderley. Haunted by the ghost of his first wife, the young woman concocts in her mind all manner of scenarios, most of which have absolutely no basis in reality – indeed, the reality is much more sinister. I kept wanting her to get over it, to move on, to ask the question to clear up the uncertainties. I don’t remember being so impatient with her at the time. So, I do think I’ve evolved as a woman. But what about as a writer?
Written in 1938, Rebecca was not an historical novel, the genre I found myself drawn to both as a reader and as a writer in the last few decades. However, I read it near the beginning of the 1970’s, so for me, as a young woman, it was historical indeed, and I remember always thinking about it that way. Daphne DuMaurier did not need to create the world of the 1930’s: she lived in it. But for me, the detail was now of historical significance, and I do believe that this influenced my choice of genres.
I enjoyed the book the second time around and hope that some of my own work will stand the test of time as did this ne. Perhaps in the future some young woman will pick up Grace Note and think about the strength of the Lysanor, the heroine, and recognize that she, too, spent her life trying to be true to herself.
2 thoughts on “A writer’s early roots: What we read & what we write”
Hi PJ, I really liked what you wrote here: “Know who you are, and be true to yourself.” That’s a great statement for anyone to keep in mind. Of course, it may very well be that the great books we read as teens help us in knowing who we are. I haven’t read “Rebecca” but when I was in high school (many years ago) I read everything written by Ernest Hemingway. He really got me thinking about story and the writing process, although I don’t know that I like his novels as much from the perspective of my older self. Thank you for sharing that thoughtful post 🙂
I’m glad resonated with you, David. I have little doubt about it: we are shaped by all of our experiences, and I think that our reading choices are among the most potent in one way or another. That doesn’t mean that we emulate those voices. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite.
When I think about reading Hemmingway myself (not by choice), I know that it did have an impact on me. I would never be drawn to his subject matter, for example. I’m currently re-reading another early novel that I loved: Cue for Treason. It was written for the 12-15 year old market and that’s when I read it. Still resonates with me as a first piece of historical fiction — and now available for free on Kindle! Wonderful to have access again.