Childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul.
I have a kicker for you in the following story. Will you guess it?
Twin brothers come home from school every day, eat snacks, watch TV and do homework, brush their teeth, go to bed and the next morning get up, dress, catch the school bus, attend classes, etc. and then repeat the cycle. The brothers are lively in class, turn in homework, hang out with friends on the playground and interact with lots of adult teachers and neighbors throughout the day. Day in and day out, for four months. Sounds normal, right? It isn't until the weather turns chilly and the boys come to school under-dressed, despite the November cold snap, when a question is raised. What's discovered?
The boys are living on their own.
They are 9-years-old.
It turns out an uncle was supposed to have moved in with the boys while their parents took an overseas trip. The uncle decided not to do it, and then the parents' return was delayed for three months. With self-reliance the boys simply took care of themselves, knowing they were supposed to go to school and figuring it out. They got breakfast and lunch at school; occasionally the uncle dropped food off at home. (For the full story, here's the original article.)
Though I read this a few years ago, the story stuck with me. I was amazed at the boy's resilience. I remember that not long before reading the article, I'd had a conversation with my sister, Meg, whose career is in primary education. I'd asked her what grade she liked teaching the best? "Fifth," she'd laughed. "It may sound funny, but fifth-graders have more 'world' experience. We can have broader discussions. The children have started to be more aware of the world around them and we can apply ideas to more things."
Although at first blush a 9-year-old seemed young to me, it made sense as I thought about it. From my professional work studying generations, I knew that in times past people moved from childhood to adulthood quickly. It wasn't until the 1940's that teenager years were carved out as a separate life stage. And many cultures celebrate the passage from child to immediate adult in a special ceremony once adolescence begins.
So, the idea that a 9-year-old is a critical thinker, capable of insightful reasoning while gobbling up life experience, is not so far-fetched.
What does this have to do with writing my book? This week I wrote a critical incident impacting Johanna, my protagonist, when she is 9-years-old.
Imagine her just beginning to become more broadly aware of the world outside her family. She is full of energy and curiosity and openness. While she is in this state of mind, I've written a scene when the seeds of an idea are planted that will hold her back in the future. Not just any idea, but a false idea, a core misbelief that will stand in the way of what she truly wants, deep down. As an adult the misbelief will feel like a hard-and-fast fact. She doesn't question it; this is the way the world works and she's certain of it.
Sounds kind-of mean, doesn't it?
I need this incident to set up how Johanna views the world. For like you and me, and how what we believe is how we interpret what happens around us, this worldview will be the lens I write through for Johanna. It is wrong and her parents are wrong. It also is a reflection of the times and society she's living in.
I also may sow seeds that will challenge her thinking. For example when Johanna was a 10-year-old (1872) she could have heard of Florence Nightingale who by then had revolutionized the role of nursing in battlefield hospitals. The Nightingale Training School, England's first official nursing school, opened in 1860 in London. By then, Florence's fame meant her story had been told many times over. She'd grown up in a typical Victorian middle-class family, expected to follow in her mother and sister's footsteps of a genteel life running a household and directing servants.
Yet, Florence felt so constrained as a teenager, she underwent bouts of hysteria. She had horrible experiences of feeling as though she was suffocating and couldn't eat in front of her family, imagining that her tongue was too big for her mouth. There was something -- some internal longing telling her she had to do something different -- so strong, she reacted physically from the restriction. Later, against the strong opposition of her family, she rejected the plans they'd laid out for her and pursued nursing, a decision that ultimately saved thousands of lives in her time by revolutionizing nursing with innovations still used today, such as triage.
What will Johanna think of Florence Nightingale?
In preparation for writing my book's scene when a misbelief takes hold (plus some additional scenes that reinforce it), I watched a TED talk by "wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz called "On Being Wrong." If you have 17 minutes it's a thought-provoking talk. SPOILER ALERT: SKIP THE REST OF THIS SECTION if you want to be surprised by the TED talk. Schulz asks the question, what does it feel like to be wrong? Various people have answers like it feels embarrassing or humiliating. But she shares that no, that's what it feels like to realize you're wrong. In fact, being wrong feels like being right.
This is how Johanna will feel. Very sure of something that, as the reader, you will know is oh, so wrong.
How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Week 4 is coming up with its work on getting deeper into how and why Johanna is blocking her own way toward getting what she wants.
Books I'm reading: I finished Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season. Wow - what a wonderful story of a family in western Montana in 1909. Against this backdrop, Doig brings vivid characters to life through language that's rich and nuanced and warm. Now I'm trying to speed-read Chaos Monkey by Antonio Garcia Martinez. So far it's an irreverent tell-all from the inside of Silicon Valley. This is for friend Asma's April Investment Book Club meeting.
Virtual website class: It's been in the back of mind to tweak my website. For instance, there's no reference to me writing a book. As a result, I spent last Thursday in a 1-day virtual class on website revision. It gave me the structure to think through the issues, to research author websites, and then to create a 1-page plan with a timeline on doing the update. One step at a time; this was the first step.
No updates on my kids' future weddings, but last week I did go through a time warp back to my past. After 44 years, my best friend from Illini Junior High School and I got together. Crystal gets the credit for connecting via Facebook. I drove up to Springfield, Illinois, for a 2-hour lunch that with lightening speed became 4 hours. We laughed a lot and felt like 13-years-old again. Without the geekiness. (OK, with it.) There's something so life-affirming about picking up where you left off so that the years don't matter and souls connect again.
In this spirit, here's a wonderful closing thought from Ivan Doig:
Life is wide. There's room to take a new run at it.