On Women of Letters, children and writing

Last month, I went to another Women of Letters event at the Powerhouse. I’ve been to Women of Letters before, but this session struck a particular cord with me.

The theme of the event was “birthday”. For those unfamiliar with Women of Letters, the concept is that a group of women – usually writers, actors, musicians or other well known women – are asked to write and read aloud a letter to a particular theme. This session was linked to the Queensland Writers Festival, so all five of the women on the panel were writers. For some reason, four of the five women (with the exception of the stunning Tara Moss) chose to write letters to their children. (I guess the connection between “birthday” and “my child” is normal for parents?) So, unexpectedly, the theme really became one about parenthood and kids. Now how I feel about having kids is the subject of another post, but what I’d like to focus on in this post are the other kids that popped up frequently in the letters – the writers themselves as children.

Some of the women related stories about their childhood, about how their children are similar to or different from how they were. They spoke about how writing had always been important to them, even when they were very young. Kate Forsyth had even found a letter that she’d written at 15 years old, addressed to her future self. In that letter she confided her dreams of becoming a writer. No, not dreams. Her conviction that she would be a writer someday. (And it should be said that even at 15 she wrote better than I – and I daresay many other people – do).

I felt kinda funny when they were telling these stories. Because I was that child too.

As a child, I wanted nothing more than to read and write. I devoured books like there was no tomorrow. I fancied myself to be like Roald Dahl’s Matilda (what childhood ego!), or maybe like Jo from Little Women, though I didn’t quite have her tomboy spunk. (In reality, I was probably always more like Meg – eager to fit in, to be liked). I knew I was going to be a writer when I grew up, and everyone around me did too. Even my parents bought into the myth – collecting and recounting stories that fed back into my sense of who I was, supporting and inflating it. Like how even as a baby, my Mum could plonk me down on a rug with some picture books, and I’d happily sit there for hours, immersed, my little hands turning leaf after leaf.

My Mum’s favourite story, though, was about my first week in Grade 3, as relayed to her by my Grade 3 teacher…

In the first week of Grade 3, our teacher set us an assignment: to write a story about what we had done over our holidays. It was a test, in a way, to gauge our abilities. At the end of the week, when the stories were due, I asked her for an extension. I hadn’t quite finished. And because she was a kind soul, she gave it to me. She thought I was having some trouble with the assignment, you see. She thought I might have been a little bit slow. And the end of the second week, I handed her a veritable volume of paper. The other students had written one page anecdotes; I’d written a novella.

This was my legend.  All signs pointed to a future where I was a writer. Not just on a blog, but professionally. There was no way it could not happen.

(Photo: Daniel Y. Go Read II, CC BY-NC)

Once upon time there was a child who was going to be a writer. And then she grew up and became…a lawyer.

Hold up.

Yes, it’s true. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not exactly sure what happened along the way to get from there to here. Somewhere along the way I failed to make the transition to “adult” writing. I went through all the early stages. As a kid I wrote countless fantasy and magic-based stories, I went through my detective-story and thriller writing stages, and as an adolescent I wrote a lot of stories about love – usually unrequited – and slathered them in a good deal of angst. But after that? I had no stories. Nothing to tell.

(Photo: CameliaTWU, Oxford, CC BY-NC-SA)

Just to be clear – I’m not saying, “I don’t know what went wrong”, because nothing did go wrong. I’m happy where I am today. I have no regrets. I work as a legal academic, and I love my job. I think I’m extremely lucky to have a job that continuously challenges and interests me, that takes me to incredible places and introduces me to amazing people. And in a way, my present – this present – was always visible in my past as well. I was always equally enamoured with universities and knowledge, with teaching and learning, with libraries and shaded courtyards. This was as much my destiny as anything.

But I do wonder sometimes. I wonder what the child me would think if she met this adult version of me. Would she feel cheated? I wonder what the alternative realities of my life would be, if I’d been more tenacious with my writing, if I’d taken Frost’s “other road”.

Then I saw, on Little Things & Curiositiesthis quote:

When we’re young, we stifle many possible selves to channel our energy into one, but the others can probably never be fully smothered. They merely wait for a trigger to revive. That can be a new place, a new person, or, most powerfully, both.

- Eve Fairbanks

And I knew that it was right. That there was a child inside me somewhere, and that she was a writer. And that she will be with me always. Now, quietly; but someday, maybe not.

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12 Responses to On Women of Letters, children and writing

  1. Sarah says:

    You have such a talent at writing, you had me hooked reading through your post! I too devour books even now,and Little Woman was one of my favourites while I was growing up. The child writer still in you, might reappear at sometime in the future.

    Sarah x

  2. Demi says:

    Dear Kylie,

    I really enjoyed reading your post, Women of Letters. There is great beauty in word-play and I think that’s where the magic begins. Stories can transport us to places beyond our imagination. They give us an opportunity to explore aspects of ourselves and dreams that are otherwise denied in our every-day activities. For this reason, I think it would be a real tragedy if today’s children never experienced what we had – the wealth of stories & tales waiting to be discovered in the well-worn pages of a library novel. I guess there are other ways for modern children to tap into their imaginations… for example, my little brother of 10 becomes a warrior or a fantastical beast when he plays his games on the x-box. Yet it’s not quite the same, is it? Although baby Ethan is only 1 month old, I’ve begun to read to him before he goes to bed. I know he has no clue what’s going on but I’m hoping that in the mere listening, we plant the seeds of imagination and as he grows older, he learns that it’s okay to have dreams and to follow them. This is what I hope stories can unlock for him. In this way, I’m setting him on his own journey, even as I continue to embark on my own.

    ^^ Demi

    • Kylie says:

      Demi! Thank you for your thoughtful and beautiful comment. I’m glad you are reading to Ethan already – I really believe that a love of literature can be nurtured in children from a very young age. But it’s more than just liking books. As you touched on, books can expand our imagination and help us to understand ourselves. But they can also help us to understand other people – to be exposed to different viewpoints and different ways of living. I think reading has helped me to be a more mindful person. This is probably something you’ve experienced yourself – the fulfillment and growth that comes from reading your Buddhist texts, for example. xoxo

  3. Hope Johnson says:

    Kylie, I had to read this post, go away, think about it and come back. I just finished reading “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott about creative writing. If you haven’t read it, I can lend you a copy because it is sooo flippin’ good. Your post and her book touched on very similar ideas and experiences. I can completely understand and can relate to your feelings about being ‘destined’ to become a writer and then taking a different route. I guess it depends on if publishing is the end goal of a writer or the actual writing itself. I have a career mentor in Canberra who is a policy advisor and in his spare time is writing his own book called “Zen Robots” it’s sort of a sci-fi mixed with political themes. Another friend of mine is writing a fantasy novel in her spare time.

    Maybe when you finish your PhD you will have more time/desire to start working on a piece of creative writing. Either way, I think most of the time you are writing or researching to write so you’re still a writer, I think.

    • Kylie says:

      Thanks Hope :) I think you are right that most of my issue is time. Writing requires some dedication, and I don’t have much of that left at the end of the day when I’ve been working on my PhD all day! It will be interesting to see if my time and where I invest it changes a lot once I’ve finished my thesis. I haven’t read Bird by Bird, but I’d love to borrow it one day. I hope you are going well and that all your career planning is coming together xx

  4. Kylie, you and I seem to have oh-so-many life-similarities!
    I loved this post. Don’t know if you need to be told, but you write beautifully and you had me at hello!!
    When I was young, I was so convinced that I was like Matilda. I remember spending an afternoon intensely staring at inanimate objects, trying to make them move. Oh the disappointment!
    I did law as a Plan B. I feel like I have spent so much time and energy pursuing this secondary, safety-net plan that I don’t really care about at all.
    Next year I am quitting my job and starting my own business. Freelance writing. I am shit-balls scared. But I am so done with Plan B.

    • Kylie says:

      Hahahaha, omg I tried to move objects with my eyes too – I’d forgotten that! We are two peas in a pod!

      Thank you so much darling for your words of encouragement. They mean a lot. And I want to send my deepest, heartfelt encouragement to YOU in moving to freelance writing next year. So exciting! It’s normal (and a good thing) to be scared – it’s a brave thing to do. But you will be excellent at it. I love reading your words on your blog and I am 100% behind you! x

  5. Georgia says:

    Love this! I used to write a lot when I was younger and then realised a few years back that I really missed it. I love the idea that the child writer inside cannot fully be stifled by the path you’ve chosen so far as an adult – that’s truly hopeful and encouraging to me. The quote and your closing words there are beautifully inspiring, keep on writing, keep on writing, keep on writing:)

  6. Rachel says:

    Beautifully written, and so true…I’m glad you commented over on my blog, our posts really are so similar! I think a big step is realizing that there exists in us a child version of ourselves, who might be doing things differently if she were in charge. The awareness, as with most things, is where it all begins – and the beauty of being an adult is that we get to decide what to do with it. You’re a wonderful writer!

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