Bits, Pieces, and Memories–What Stories Are Made of

The three questions children’s authors get from kids:

  • What made you want to be a writer?
  • Which of your books do you like best?
  • Where do you get your ideas?

When asked in a school setting, authors attempt to answer either seriously or cleverly, but in conversation with peers they roll their eyes and share some of the clever answers.  When you think about it, though, these are profound questions and the answers are deeply mysterious. When someone asks, What made you want to be a writer? They are really asking

What compelled you to sit for hours at a desk, all alone, struggling with self-doubt and fear and blank page phobia (surely there’s medical designation for that), all for the sake of the occasional blaze of satisfaction when you know you’ve expressed a cogent thought in a totally appropriate way, when there may be no lasting spiritual satisfaction from it, much less financial?

The answer: I have to.

Which of your books do you like best? is actually

Which story that you labored to give birth to–suffering discomfort and random interior kicking and fond fuzzy dreams, and that now, in the glare of day, is subject to unfeeling reviews and mass indifference, if not rejection (and that’s provided it got published in the first place; the questioner doesn’t even know about the miscarriages)—do you prefer?

The answer: What do you mean, ‘my books’?  They haven’t been mine since the public got hold of them.

Where do you get your ideas? might seem like the easiest to answer because it’s looking for specifics, not tortured analysis.  But even then, specifics may be elusive, especially when it comes to the grand overarching idea of a book like (just for instance) The Giver.  The relationship between the elements of fiction—or any work of art—isn’t easy to distinguish.  As Dorothy Sayers speculates in The Mind of the Maker, the Idea (or inspiration) is so embedded in the Energy (the execution, or work itself) which both are so impacted by the Power (responses to the work), that separate strands are impossible to tease out. A story begins with an Idea that somehow muscles its way to the front of the author’s mind, but it comes already trailing bits of plot and character and pieces of aha! response.  I attempt a definition:lowry

A story is an artificial bird made of scraps and strands that acquires a life of its own during its making and, when complete, flies away.

Speaking of The Giver (and finally getting around to what this post is about), last week I attended “An Evening with Lois Lowry,” sponsored by our local library as the kickoff event of this month’s One Read program.  The event organizers booked a large auditorium but not large enough.  Those who were late (i.e., 25 minutes early rather than 35), were turned away like foolish virgins (not an insult; see Matthew 25:1-13).  I managed to be 35 minutes early, no credit to me.

Anyone who’s interested in children’s literature, or anyone who is a child who likes to read, is familiar with The Giver, so I wasn’t surprised at the turnout. But Lois Lowry surprised me in the best way.  Her talk did not appear to have any structure—it was sort of like life, where the years go one way and the memories go another and things you study you don’t learn while the unexpected lessons end up making you what you are.   Family began her story, as it should: father, a career navy medical officer; mother, an avid reader; older sister and first reading teacher; little brother who came along late.  Lowry was born in Honolulu in 1937 and spent her first two years on the beach under the shadow of the US naval fleet.  They moved back to the states before that Day that Shall Live in Infamy.  She remembers her mother being lonely during the long war years when her father was deployed to the Pacific, but when peace returned he was allowed to take the whole family to Japan.  Lois, then 11, expected exotic locations, but the family moved into the brand-new all-planned-out neighborhood for military families, which looked just like Main Street USA.  The real Japan was elsewhere, beyond the straight streets and tall fences of her cozy community.

The years fly: back to the States, more moving, high school, college cut short for marriage, four children.  Her parents lived long, but the years did cruel things to their memories: her mother recalled sorrowful events with all the pain as if they’d just happened.  Her father kept forgetting why his oldest daughter wasn’t around anymore (an early death from cancer).  Lois started thinking about memory.  What if memories could be manipulated, or dismissed, or brought back?giver

She inherited an interest in photography, as well as her first camera, from her dad.  It turned out to be more than an interest; for a while it was a profession.  In fact, the iconic figure on the cover of her most famous book has a name: Carl Gustav Nelsen, a Norwegian neighbor.  Lowry herself took that picture.

Her remembered life, non-linear and self-sorting, took its own wavering shape as she talked to us.  She pulled strands of family, memory, photography, and place and wove them back into her stories.  When she first pictured “the Community” of The Giver, where everyone served a preassigned purpose and abhorred the unexpected, it was the all-American navy base in Japan she had in mind.  Likewise, the “elsewhere” outside the community gates modeled the expansive territory her hero Jonas escaped to.  The Community can control its citizens only because collective memory has been manipulated (i.e., eradicated).  Preserving and passing on mankind’s memory, just in case it’s needed, is the Giver’s function. Thus the bird was furnished, and with character and conflict, it came to life.

Of course, she had to talk about the movie.  Two things she liked: the expansion of the Director’s role (obviously Meryl Streep couldn’t play a bit part!) added depth to that character that even the author had not appreciated.  And Lowry thought the way memories were transmitted in the movie was much better than having Jonas lie on a table while his mentor pressed memories through his bare back (slides of some disturbing covers from foreign translations made that point).  Another thing she liked: the 22,000 books that filled the shelves of the Giver’s quarters were purchased new and later donated to schools in South Africa, where most of the movie was filmed.

Outside in the lobby stacks of books were waiting to be signed, so she didn’t have much time for questions.  The reliable Big Three showed up, even though I think she already answered them.

One more thing: an amazing story I’d never heard.  She lived in Japan from the ages of 11 through 13, those classic transitional years so rich for authors who write middle-grade novels.  She wasn’t confined to “the Community”—shortly after moving to Japan, her parents bought her a green bicycle and allowed her to explore “Elsewhere” to her heart’s content.  Tokyo was rebuilding rapidly after the war and prospects were looking up.  Still, she found the Japanese characteristically reserved, and she was not the most outgoing person herself.  But there was one boy who looked to be about her age, whom she saw so often they became acquaintances of a sort.  They never spoke, but always looked, and sometimes nodded to each other.  For some reason, she never forgot him.

Fast-forward 45 years.  The Giver wins the 1994 Newbery Gold Medal for excellence in children’s fiction. That same year, a book called Grandfather’s Journey wins top honors for illustration.  At the awards event that summer, Lowry meets the illustrator Allen Say and shares some of her life story.  On learning that her father was stationed in Tokyo, he says, “Really?  I grew up in Tokyo.”  Obviously his heritage was Japanese.  That’s what Grandfather’s Journey is about—heritage, family, growth and change.  “What year? Where did you live?”  More and more recollections spill out between them, faster and faster, until he asks, “Were you the girl on the green bicycle?”

And some say there is no God.  Story itself, an unpredictable fusion of spirit and flesh, gives the lie to that one.

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2 Responses to “Bits, Pieces, and Memories–What Stories Are Made of”

  1. Megan Saben Says:

    Oh wow…what an experience!!!

  2. Sharilyn Says:

    Amazing. I love reading about things like this.

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