Here’s our topic sentence:
She must have noticed all the perfectness from the bus window because she couldn’t afford the cab fare: Second Street, glinting and shimmering in the heat, and ponderous summer clouds sweeping their shadows over the sunbaking cars, the marigolds growing in the park, children eating ice-creams.
This comes from Karen Foxlee’s basically perfect book, Lenny’s Book of Everything.
Two devices structure the book: firstly, Lenny (short for Lenora) has a younger brother, Davey, who has gigantism; they discover that he’s growing too fast for his own body. Secondly, throughout the book they receive a mail-order encyclopedia, their ‘book of everything’.
The first could have become a writer’s ploy for sympathy but instead is an well-wrought metaphor for what it means to be a sibling: anger, love, protectiveness, blame. And what it is to carry grief and anger, emotions too big for a child, or anyone, to deal with alone.
The second could have been twee but instead becomes a prism for how a kid learns to see the world, as the two siblings pore over the pages, have their favourites, memories the contents, and plan their expeditions to places they only see in the pages. (And it’s a neat throwback to those of us who had encyclopedias in their home.)
Our topic sentence comes from Lenny’s mother (Lenny’s description of her—“she was made almost entirely of worries and magic”), telling her children the story of Davey’s birth. She begins the story with “It was a perfect summer day when you were born”.
If you’ve ever heard the writing advice ‘show, don’t tell’, this is what it means. Foxlee doesn’t tell us about how poor they are, nor her mother’s marital status. But she bakes it into Lenny’s own childlike reflection on the story as it’s being told—“… she couldn’t afford the cab fare”—as well as some scene setting, of New York in the 70s—“Second Street, glinting and shimmering …”.
There’s a contrast between the perfection we’re being told of, and what we’re actually being allowed to see. And this carries forward to envelop the story—the difference between what a parent tells their child, what the reality is, and what the child perceives that reality to be.
There’s a similarity there between the parent and the writer.
Writing is always a form of hiding. Like a magician, a writer hides what they have of themselves, an elaborate choice of what to show you. I feel that more and more these days.
Somehow, the more you write, the more you hide. Sometimes you try and tell the truth anyway.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’ve always hidden behind writing: as a short-cut to identity, as a plateau of importance, as a distraction to my self.
There are a lot of days I wrestle with my mental health (anxiety and depression, the mix differs day by day). There are a lot of days I’m lucky—I’m also genuinely fine: I have more good days than not, our family functions in spite of the bad days.
This is not about that. But it’s one of a few reasons I worry about the things about the margins. What would it take to make my writing (on the margins) both mentally and financially sustainable? What does it mean to want creative independence and yet be creatively lonely? The question I ask over and over: how am I going to do this?
I don’t know the answers. But I’ve gotten sick of hiding the questions, my own appalling ignorance.
Somewhere behind the curtain,