Thursday, August 14, 2008

What Makes A Writer?

Gloria: My mother died when I was six.
Arthur: Jesus! Don't they know what they do to kids?
Gloria: My father raped me when I was twelve.
Arthur: So, you would say you had six relatively good years?
--From "Arthur" 1981

What experiences in childhood forges a person? What experiences do writers use when hammering out a work? Even the most fantastical literary journey is ground in some reality. No one invents a character. Not really. Characters are hodgepodges. They are bits and pieces of experience stirred together.

Below are five writers' early lives. See if you can guess the writer based on the thumbnail sketch.
1) His mother keep his son from contact with the outside world. She treated him like a girl, and made him wear his hair long until the age of six. His father, a traveling salesman went mad, probably from syphilis, and had to be institutionalized. He died when his son was five. The son would suffer from terrifying nightly disturbances and nightmares which lasted until his own death.

2) This writer never forgave his mother for dressing him as a little girl in his youth. His father, perhaps to compensate, taught his son to love the out-door life. Unfortunately, his father committed suicide after losing his health to diabetes and his money to a bad real estate venture. The son went to public school, showed some promise as a writer, and abandoned a career as a reporter to join an Italian ambulance unit during WWI.

3) During her early childhood, her father suffered from a lengthy illness. When he finally saw a doctor, a case of diabetes was diagnosed but by that time his illness was advanced. His end was fraught with suffering which included the amputation of a leg. He died a few days past her 8th birthday. Her mother was twenty some years younger than her father; they had a cordial relationship. She did well in school and thrived as a writer, but never seemed happy. The guilt of her depression led her to suicide attempts. She spent a period of time institutionalized.

4) One of ten children, life was a struggle for the Edinburgh family. They were poor, and his Scottish father was an alcoholic. His father viewed himself as a failure compared to siblings who achieved some artistic and financial distinction in the empire. He was schooled by the Jesuits, noted having received a fair share of corporal punishment (ah the good old days) and almost became one of the order. He instead went on to become a doctor, writing in the quiet days when he was still building a practice.

Scroll down for the answers....

1) H.P. Lovecraft (of course)
2) Hemingway (what's with the little girls' clothes and these guys?)
3) Sylvia Platt (Cheer up)
4) Arthur Conan Doyle.


Lana Gramlich said...

Very interesting.
We all have our demons, but some people's get publicity. <:\

L.A. Mitchell said...

This is a great exercise. I only guessed the middle two correctly, but now I'm stuck on how dressing him as a girl translated into Hemingway's writing. I know it must be there somewhere. Maybe in Daisy :)

Jon said...

l. a.
The little girls clothes on Hemmingway and its effect on his life and writing?
Big game, big guns, bull fights and manly men. I wonder if in his head he still thought of the pinafores? And thence the suicide?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lara, some of us have our demons and then we get elected. Definition of a politician.

l.a. I have no idea other than as jon states, his work is ripe with masculine overcompensation. I would bet there is probably more about Papa than we know or than will ever be revealed. Unless someone releases THE PAPA LETTERS. And if they don't release it, then I suggest someone write a book of the same. Of course, names would have to be changed because the Hemingway Estate, a legion of fans, and a little old woman wearing a floral dress and a papal mitre will come after them with a flock of attorneys.

Jon, good morning. Hope your well.

Charles Gramlich said...

I believe from my research into Hemingway that the idea that his mother dressed him in girl clothes is a myth. I definitely think there was a fair amount of hostility between Hemingway and his mom, though.

Lisa said...

Great post! I think many, if not all writers to some degree have a recurring theme that runs through their work and the theme reflects something they continue to work through in their own lives. For most, the issues are established in childhood.