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the diary thing 
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06.26.01
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 writing
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cr - crayonIT'S SAD, I SUPPOSE, that it's so rare to read something really, undeniably excellent. I read quite a bit -- magazines, books, a daily newspaper, miscellaneous online stuff -- but it's rare that I finish something and think: That was really superb. I would be happy, for as long as a week perhaps, if I could write something this good.

I pick up about twenty or so magazines a month hoping for that, with rare satisfaction. Today, I finished a piece in the latest New Yorker and knew I'd just read one of the rare ones. "Whose Little Girl Are You?" by Paula Fox is a memoir, by an eighty-two year old Brooklyn children's book writer. I can't recommend it enough. Apparently it's from a book, to be published this fall, called Borrowed Finery. I can't wait.

Paula Fox was born in 1923 to "bohemian" parents, a pair of Jazz Age Scott and Zelda types -- the father a writer, the mother's occupation unspecified -- who abandon her at a foundling home, her mother "panicicken and ungovernable in her haste to have done with me." Her grandmother, an impoverished Spanish gentlewoman employed as a companion at a half-mad cousin's Cuban plantation, rescues her from the home and lodges her with friends of family, "passed from person to person until I was safe." 

She's happiest with "Uncle Elwood", a congregationalist minister who takes her in at the end of the chain. Her parents suddenly appear, and she's sent off to Hollywood, where her father makes a living writing for the movies. 

Her parents are unstable people, stricken with the bohemian's uncontrollable self-indulgence. Her mother terrifies her with seething rages. Her father throws meals out of hotel windows when she asks for a glass of milk to go with her pork chop. Like most "creative" types, they believe in the myth that genius obeys no laws, should be indulged at all costs, yet is usually ignored and stifled by a philistine world. Needless to say, they believe themselves touched by genius. Such people are unspeakably dangerous.

Her mother banishes her from their home in Hollywood, and after a year in a small town outside Los Angeles, in the care of a "Mrs. Cummings", she's back with Uncle Elwood. A few days later, her grandmother arrives and whisks her off to the plantation in Cuba. There's a revolution. General Machado is overthrown, and little Paula returns to America. She's ten years old.

A year later, her parents return from Europe, after escaping the beginning of the Spanish Civil War from the island of Ibiza. Her father sells a screenplay based very loosely on their adventure, and they move to Martha's Vineyard, where Paula visits them. Her father gives her $100 when she throws a dart at a bullseye and pierces the dart already stuck there, twice. She has a wonderful talk with her father about books. She returns to Kew Gardens with her grandmother.


 
"The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book."
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- Samuel Johnson

 
An enthusiastic plug, and a whole lot of morose shit.

LIKE ANY REAL MEMOIR, there's no satisfying arc, no neat storyline in the piece. Life isn't usually so accomodating. Still, every moment, every little half-remembered and cherished memory of this quietly unhappy childhood is so well-observed that you marvel at how this poor little girl -- poor in more ways than just money -- managed to live a life so of its time, yet as solipsistic and dependant as any other child. 

This is my favorite kind of writing. Personal, but not so inward-looking that the world at large, even beyond the pantry door, doesn't intrude. Bereft of self-pity, or that overeager desire to cater to the reader's percieved prejudices, so peculiar to journalists, for instance, or politicians. I could read it every day.

MY OWN LITTLE MEMOIR -- a half a memoir, in any case, woven into a piece about a Toronto neighbourhood -- has been out for a week now. K. said she loved it, along with my old friend Dave, who grew up in the same neighbourhood, and my buddy Dennis, a novelist with a new book coming out on Knopf this fall. I should be happy.

I am, I guess. Still, it isn't quite the piece I wrote, the one almost twice its published length, before the re-writes. It's still recognizably the same piece, built of the same blocks of detail and observation, and probably more structurally coherent thanks to Gary, my editor. Still, the excision of one small section still bothers me, and I still think it would have been a better piece before that last edit, where I gave in and let the paragraph go.

For the benefit of whatever interested readers might be out there, here's the missing bit. It should be placed just near the end, when I'm visiting my old grade school. It's not a neat fit, but just squint a bit, and imagine it in there, after I've talked with the principal, before I teach the class in the library.
 

   Maria comes into the office. She’s a pretty young teacher with a tough, forthright demeanor, dressed more like her students in a rustling nylon tracksuit. She agrees with Lillian. "They don't know where to go. They don't even go to each other's homes. They don't even know where to get a piece of wood for a science project. The parents are just drained all the time." Some kids develop harsh, insular behaviour, a hard self-reliance. "Kids get tough here," she tells me. "If they don't, they get bullied." 

   I remember the bullying. It was constant, a misery that could afflict all but the meanest kids; more discouraging than the teasing recalled by friends from "better" schools and neighbourhoods; the girls often crueller than the boys. Maria describes its effects simply: "You become more aggressive than assertive."

I can actually understand why Gary wanted to cut it. It's tangential. It's very personal; it hints at something peculiar and resonant in the writer's life, something that there simply couldn't be space for in a lifestyle magazine feature about a Toronto neighbourhood. It hints at issues of class, real downers, insoluble issues that are still considered impolitic in mixed company. 

It might have made it. In the midst of the editing process, I was standing in Gary's office arguing for its inclusion, after a few other overtly "biographical" sections had been cut. Sure, it might stand out, I said, but I think it should, so that the point -- an important one, to me -- could be made more clearly. Gary shook his head, hinting that I'd lose this one.

"Maybe if you were famous," he says. "If you were someone like Mordecai Richler, it would probably stay." He didn't give any indication that he thought this was a good thing, but rather the way things were. I said I thought that was sad.

I remembered what K. once told me, something her cousin, a very famous Canadian writer, a winner of literary prizes, known all over the world, once said. "Before I became famous, I had a hard time selling anything to the magazines." Her novels are made into movies, reviewed on the front page of the New York Times book supplement, subjects of national debate here in Canada. In other parts of the world, people assume she's American, or British. "These days," she said, things are different. "They'd publish my laundry list if they could."

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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