Tag Archives: family memoir

Finding Neverland via Buzzzbeemobile

It’s been a busy time at our place the last while, as I have been away on a work-related mission, and am going away again for another soon. I’m just home long enough to administer some TLC to my family. Happily, I received some as well, by way of a homemade book by N and her dad J, called The Bee and the Jar of Honey; a sock puppet, with button eyes and a feather hairdo; a book about keeping a green home; and the movie Finding Neverland, based on the story of Peter Pan author JM Barrie. These things, among others, were waiting for me on my return, and it occurs to me now that they all have to do with storytelling.

I’ll share The Bee and the Jar of Honey because in an odd way it relates to Finding Neverland — at least in my mind. Each couple of sentences is a page in the actual book, and there are lovely illustrations throughout.

Once upon a time, there was a little bee named Buzzzbee. He loved to fly around and collect pollen to make honey. Buzzzbee was such a good pollen collector and he made so much honey he didn’t know what to do with it all. He was a busy bee! One day Buzzzbee realized he had so much honey, six big jars of it! He sat in the middle of his honey wondering what to do with it all. He needed to do something good with his honey so it wouldn’t go to waste. Buzzzbee decided to fly around with his honey in his Buzzzbeemobile and try to find a good home for it. Then he noticed a poor woman who was hungry in her ramshackle house. Buzzzbee flew in through the broken window of the woman’s house. He introduced himself, being a very polite little bee, and gave the woman a jar of fresh warm honey. She was surprised but also very happy. Yay! Buzzzbee found a home for his honey with a woman named Yoma. Yoma was poor but now that she had Buzzzbee’s honey she felt RICH! Buzzzbee’s honey made her stale bread soft and sweet. Yay!!!!!

In Finding Neverland, playwright JM Barrie is our Buzzzbee. Despite an abundance of honey, he’s trapped in an unhappy marriage, and when the story begins, he’s just presented a play that was poorly received. With his big St Bernard, he begins to take walks in Kensington Gardens, and there meets a widow (Buzzzbee’s Yoma) and her four sons, who inspire him to tell magical stories that will become Peter Pan. Tragically, the widow falls ill, but the power of Barrie’s stories bring her, in a sense, to Neverland, and when she dies (sorry if I’m spoiling the movie), Barrie becomes guardian to her children.

I thought the movie was beautifully done, and especially enjoyed the way the writer’s process was conveyed — for instance, Barrie watching the boys jumping on their beds, and suddenly seeing them rise in the air and float one by one through the window. “That’s sometimes how it happens for me,” I whispered to J. “How ideas come. You’re just watching something and it transforms to something else in your mind.”

At one point J beside me let loose a big sigh and said “I don’t want either of us to get sick like that.” These kinds of stories remind us of such terrifying possibilities, but also of the beauty bound with the pain of losing someone you love. I thought of something my aunt told me, about spending the night with my grandmother as she was dying. “It was a very, very special night — though it isn’t the kind of thing I’d want to experience often.” It seemed to me she felt the time, with all its intensity, was a kind of gift, even though she was losing her mother.

Having just read Peter Pan with N made the movie about Barrie’s life all the more vivid. I could see which parts were “inspired by true events” and which parts were just plain old “true,” and since my sister and I are at work on another family memoir, it got my wheels turning once more about how such stories should be told, and what “true” really means. The book is about the grandmother mentioned above, and our grandfather too, and while we have a wealth of information about their lives, we have huge holes and few to ask what should go in them. As much as I crave concrete answers, I find myself drawn to the gaps as well. There’s something compelling, even spine-tingling, about knowing only parts of a story, as long as you know enough of it to feel its power. Transferring those tingles to paper, however, is the challenge that stands ahead.


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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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