Tag Archives: charles darwin

"Your mother can't be with you anymore…"

Dramatic tension is essential for holding the interest of jack russells

Years ago, when my daughter and I first began drawing faces together, she discovered how easily tears could be added, and she would implore me, “Mommy, draw girl crying!” and I would do the round circle head, the eyes, the down-turned mouth, and last of all, the tears. My daughter is, and was then, a happy, sociable, energetic child, but during that phase she would have watched Bambi every day if I let her. Among her favourite books were the ones I mentioned in my last post, which have happy endings but go to dark places along the way — the threat of being eaten or embedded in stone. Such stories are still the ones she wants to hear again and again, long after the cute, sweet, light stories have been shelved and forgotten.

Babar is riding happily on his mother's back when...

I like to muse about why children want these stories; when (if) they can be too much; how parents should handle the emotions they expose, and the inevitable questions they instigate. For instance, it took my daughter a long time to understand what the gunshot meant in Bambi, and to know what to do with the knowledge. When we read Babar, the story of an elephant whose mother is killed by a hunter, she immediately stopped me and asked, “Do hunters take moms away? Are there hunters in Toronto?” And for the rest of the book, she kept flipping back to that page where Babar’s mother was shot.

For weeks after the Bambi penny dropped, she’d ask, “Did you lock the door?” as soon as we got home. And then I started to hear her role-playing with her stuffed animals, and having one say to the other, “Your mother is not coming back. Your mother is never coming back.” (For a time I worried, but she is turning out just fine.)

Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

First released in 1942, the movie Bambi holds up well today, and the book, originally published in Austria in 1923, is considered a classic and often referred to as one of the first environmental novels. Apparently its author, Felix Salten, wrote the story with an adult audience in mind, and indeed the Wall Street Journal reported that “you’ll find it in the children’s section at the library, a perfect place for this 293-page volume, packed as it is with blood-and-guts action, sexual conquest and betrayal.”

Salten was in his fifties by the time he wrote Bambi, A Life in the Woods, and had been writing plays, short stories, novels, and essays for years. But his books were banned by the Nazi regime in 1936, and as a Jew he was forced to leave Austria for Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1945 — just three years after Disney released the animated version of his story, featuring a white-tailed deer rather than a roe, but retaining the heartbreaking scene in which “your mother can’t be with you anymore.”

Plate I from Darwin's Expression of the Emotions

I once met a grandmother who told me she didn’t think her toddler grandson should read How the Grinch Stole Christmas because she believed it was best to expose him only to happiness at his tender age. So that he would only be happy, I guess. But not even babies are “only happy.” In fact, you might argue that happiness is one of the more rare baby emotions. It takes weeks for a baby to smile; the wait is longer for laughter. (Said Charles Darwin, upon observing his own babies for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, “In this gradual acquirement, by infants, of the habit of laughing, we have a case in some degree analogous to that of weeping. As practice is requisite with the ordinary movements of the body, such as walking, so it seems to be with laughing and weeping. The art of screaming, on the other hand, from being of service to infants, has become finely developed from the first days.”)

Actually — if one is looking for good messages in children’s literature, the Grinch is a stellar example. This is one of the rare Christmas stories in which the protagonist comes around not out of self interest or self preservation, but simply because he is moved by goodness. But I’ll save that for a December post.

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Inspiration? Fred Flintstone, I think I owe you…

Mary with a transport roaring by

Mary with a transport roaring by

A good friend tells me she credits her Catholic upbringing for her decision to become an artist. Though Catholicism is not a part of her adult life, it loomed large in her childhood, and she was in awe of the stained glass images in her church, and later the biblical images that form such a vital part of art history. I understand this a little, though as an outsider. I love many of those images too, the grand ones and also the humbler ones. My husband and I were taken with a TransCanada Highway madonna we spotted some years ago, somewhere between Mattawa and North Bay. We snapped dozens of pictures of it.

But I think in all honesty that what drew me to the sight — what prompted me to want so many pictures of it — was the landscape around as much as it was Mary. The landscape of my childhood has been one of my biggest inspirations.

Deep River

A while ago another friend told me he believed he’d become a writer because of his Christian upbringing, steeped in Old Testament stories and psalm singing. He remembers being transfixed as his father read the stories aloud, and wanting to shout out to warn one character about another.

After these two friends revealed their thoughts to me, I got to thinking about about inspiration. This man’s siblings did not become writers, and the woman’s siblings did not become artists. What makes one sibling hang on every word of a dramatic story, or gasp at brilliant stained glass, while the others find their passions elsewhere? And what made me become a writer?

Religion was more or less absent from my home, but I remember the lurching feeling my writer friend talks about, because I had it too, though I experienced it reading children’s books and playing games and watching television shows and playing Barbies alone for hours on end. When I look back, I see this as the beginning of my love for storytelling, and my curiosity about the way the layers of stories unfold.

I remember feeling sick watching The Flintstones. The half-hour stretches were almost unbearable, partly because Fred’s meanness disturbed me, but also because the episodes always revolved around a misunderstanding — such as when Barney bought a ring for Betty, Fred hid it for him so it would be a surprise, and Wilma found it and thought it was for her. It was agonizing to watch, since I could not see my way through to the inevitable resolution before it actually came. Even the music that opened the show gave me that gnawing in the pit of my stomach that told me something was about to go very, very wrong.

None of this meant I didn’t want to watch — it meant I needed to watch, to see the story come full circle.

And I would imagine my own stories too, both by writing them down and acting them out with Barbies. I mentioned in an earlier post that I liked to play on my own because it gave me the freedom to take the story in any direction I chose. I took it very, very seriously. In a sense, I guess my days now, tucked away in my office writing, are a logical extension of those earlier times.

Writer's Room by Jeff Winch

Writer's Room by Jeff Winch

And that reminds me of Charles Darwin, who tells in his Autobiographies of his boyhood love for beetles. “I will give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

Some of us find our passions early, and I feel lucky to be in that group. I knew from a young age that I wanted to write, and so I wrote — very badly at first, for a long, long time (sometimes still). But I didn’t stop. I was always hooked. It wasn’t enough for me to read other people’s stories; I had to make my own.

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Writing by hand (and the origin of tickling)


Charles Darwin's daughter Annie

Still reading about Charles Darwin, this time Annie’s Box, a lovely family memoir written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes. Annie of the title was Darwin’s daughter, who died at the age of ten. This book has loads of personal detail about the family itself, and weaves Darwin’s professional life with his years as a husband and father.

Darwin comes across as a devoted parent whose fascination for his children stemmed not only from fatherhood but from his work. Keynes mines Darwin’s many notebooks for insight into his ancestor, and Darwin’s enthusiasm for a wide array of topics shines through as we read of him designating notebooks for his various explorations.

His “natural history of babies” began in a book with a white vellum cover, inside which he noted how his infant son “stretched himself just like old person” and how, when Darwin touched the sole of his baby’s foot with a piece of paper, “it jerked it away very suddenly and curled its toes, like person tickled, evidently subject to tickling…. What can be origin of movement from tickling?”

I love the idea of Darwin scribbling away in his books, a different one for each topic, and how he let his thoughts tumble forth at random, not worrying about how illegible they were or how awkward the sentences. These were private notebooks at the time, and obviously an integral part of his process.

For me, the act of writing by hand is still an important part of my work, though so much of my writing day is spent at the computer. I tend, in the early stages of a project, to stay away from the computer altogether, and simply carry a book with me, so I can jot down my thoughts as they come — at random, without context, but full of promise that they will somehow be strung together into something legible and compelling.

Occasionally I’ll even paste images or articles that seem connected to my thoughts, so the books take on a kind of scrapbook look over time. All of this is such an essential and intimate part of my process, and has been since I started writing seriously. Sitting in front of the blank computer screen is too daunting early on, not to mention uninspiring. But when a story starts to take shape, or when a character seems human, I’m rooted in my chair, fingers on the keys while I work the notes into something more cohesive. Things grow from there.

But even once the story gets going, there are still times when I’ll move back to the notebook — times when I’m stuck and need a closer physical connection to the page. So for me, it’s very much an act of moving back and forth between the old-fashioned notebook and the computer. We can make “notes” now on the computer, and do so many things that mimic handwriting — scratching a red line with the Track Changes tool, and adding our new ideas in red, or any colour we like. While I use those tools extensively, I don’t use them exclusively. They aren’t quite (for me) the real thing.


Strangely, with The Occupied Garden, I made  a notebook after the fact. The research and writing of this book was such a long an arduous process that I had trouble letting it go and moving on to something new. So I began to collect notes and images that hadn’t made their way into the final story, and I placed them into a book that became a memento of that time.

I’ve never stayed loyal to one brand of notebook, as much as I like the idea of that. Certain projects seem to require certain types of books, and I like to feel that out when I’m looking for a new one. But recently I came across some gorgeous ones called Cover Stories, given that their covers are taken from vintage hardback books and transformed into spiral-bound journals. The maker of these charming journals, Eva Kolcze, says that for the most part the books were rescued from a box in a rummage sale or a shelf at Goodwill.


“I feel as though I’m giving the books a new life and purpose,” she says. “There are certain books that I’ve found recently that are far too special to turn into journals, for example I recently came across a 1939 Pears Encyclopedia and a tiny book about John Ruskin which was probably printed in 1903.”


A great lover of hardcover books, she says she chooses the images for their “distinct colours, illustrations, fonts and stories they contained.” That they contain them no longer is a little unsettling for me as a writer, but then again maybe it’s not such a disturbing idea that decades from now one of my own covers evolves, and provides inspiration to a scribbler like me.


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On memoir: "As if I were a dead man in another world…."

Charles Darwin, 1816

Charles Darwin, 1816

For a mish-mash of reasons, lately I’ve been reading Charles Darwin’s Autobiographies, which he never intended for public view, but rather for his family. It’s a slim little book, full of asides that give wonderful insight into his character — and also sage advice for writers of memoir.  It begins:

A German editor having written to me to ask for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children. I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather written by himself, and what he thought and did and how he worked. I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

When my sister and I were writing The Occupied Garden, we often used personal accounts and diaries in our research — but what we would have given to have found such a document within the family! We were very often frustrated by the fact that we didn’t know what had happened on a given, dramatic day, and it was SO tempting to make something up, as is allowed and expected in fiction. And we would often joke with each other, “Oh didn’t I tell you? I found Oma’s diary….” A little magic book that explained everything and contained the family’s deepest secrets.

Of course such books, when they do exist, are usually not terribly dramatic. That doesn’t make them less fascinating. Wrapped up in our familiar lives, we often forget that what is ordinary to us might be of great interest to our children and grandchildren and so on. Old letters and documents and autobiographical musings from one’s family can be just as mesmerizing as old photographs.

For some years, my mother has been working on her life story — not a book to put out into the world, but to leave behind for us. Of course it’s for her too, and I’m sure the process is immensely gratifying. I get the impression that she enjoys delving into her memory this way, and digging up what she can about the street she grew up on, the school she attended, and the time she chopped the heels off a pair of  pumps to make fashionable flats, and to her dismay, the toes stuck up. I love the infinitesimal details, pragmatically recounted: how much it cost for a hair cut, and what route she and her siblings took when Great Uncle Ernie led their bike-riding excursions.

The internet is overflowing with how-to sites about memoir-writing, geared to the “non-writer” (whose work, while valuable on its own, can often be a gold-mine for the professional writer). In my opinion, excellent advice can be found at Days Road Writers’ Workshops.


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