Why I Had to Get Older to Write About Youth
Allegra Goodman on Finding the Necessary Distance to Write up Close
When I was a girl, I craved age and experience. Of course, I didn’t want to be old, but I wanted to write old—deeply, knowingly. At fifteen, I yearned to see inside people the way George Eliot did, and Chekhov, and Tolstoy. I remember reading a throwaway phrase in Tolstoy as he describes a character’s behavior—but as is the way of youth. Was Tolstoy writing about young Nicholas, or Natasha, or Petya running off to war? It didn’t matter. This narrator had seen it all, knowing and showing and gently indulging his own creations. How I wished I could write with such gravitas. How old did you have to be? Thirty?
That retrospective glance at human experience was what I admired—but in high school I did not have much to look back on. Youth was a difficult subject when I was young, and so I gravitated to stories of bitter academics and querulous old ladies. I patronized my elders, showing them up and showing them off, enjoying the inconsistencies I observed.
At seventeen I created Cecil Birnbaum, an orthodox Jew who does not believe in God. In my story “Variant Text” I described this observant atheist. “His friends find it contradictory and even hypocritical, but Cecil has always enjoyed the contradiction and still nurtures it.” Enjoying the contradiction. Could you really do that? Write about someone with a gorgeous crack down the middle? You could! I did! I delighted in my character, garrulous and middle aged, settled and unsettling.
In college I published my first stories about elderly Rose Markowitz. “The pain is what I can’t take,” she tells her sons, “and only the pills will do for the pain.” At twenty I was both sympathetic and satirical about old age. Of course, the young have troubles too—but that was a different story—one I was not ready to tell.I raised four children, wrote five more novels—and finally got old enough to think about being young.
“The question is what kind of writer you’ll become,” said my late great Commentary editor Marion Magid. She would travel to Boston to see her daughter and write off the trip—meeting me to correct long paper galleys at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. Sardonic chain-smoking Marion would sit with me, an eager sophomore, and we would discuss commas and characters, aesthetics, and destiny.
“What will you turn out to be?” Marion mused. “Will you evolve, or keep going with the satire and end up like Dickens?”
Like Dickens? My ambitious ears pricked up. I loved Dickens! “What’s wrong with him?”
Oracular, Marion said, “You’ll see.”
This baffled me. My stories made my editor laugh out loud. Did she also want me to be Henry James? No way. I was too young and happy. After all, I was publishing in her magazine! I had achieved a certain notoriety on campus, even among the literati at The Advocate. Even at Dunster House where the Marxist resident tutor Noel Ignatiev said he put a paper bag over his head as he entered Out of Town News to purchase a copy of Commentary.
But even then, I wanted to be more than funny. As is the way with youth, I began experimenting, testing other voices, longer forms. At twenty-one, I drafted an elegiac novel, Kaaterskill Falls. Ted Solotaroff, who edited Total Immersion, my first collection of stories, rejected my manuscript, asking, dismayed, “What happened to the sparkling Allegra Goodman I used to know?”
What happened? I was growing up, graduating, getting married, studying, traveling, having a baby. I published new stories, revised Kaaterskill Falls. and saw that book succeed. I raised four children, wrote five more novels—and finally got old enough to think about being young.
My fourth child inspired my new novel, Sam. I was already the mother of three bookish and well-behaved sons. Stubborn, yes. Difficult, sometimes—but if I turned my back for a minute, my boys were where I’d left them. Then I had a little girl. Miranda was never where I left her. In a house full of readers, Miranda despised quiet, and sitting around. When she was six and I couldn’t get a babysitter, I brought Miranda to a talk I was giving. “I hate books!” my daughter told the president of PEN New England.
What Miranda enjoyed was rearranging furniture. Cutting her own hair. (“I’m sorry,” her teacher told me. “She grabbed the scissors from the art table.”) Miranda climbed the walls, wedging herself inside doorframes. She drew on the walls, too.
Where did this child come from? This was the question my husband and I asked each other, but as I watched Miranda grow, I recognized her ambition and her energy. I remembered what it was like to race around and wonder why grownups were so slow.
When children are little, they run everywhere. They don’t walk from place to place. I wanted to write about what happens to that eagerness—particularly in girls. What becomes of the girl who wants to climb? I started with this question and a girl named Sam. But who was she? How would I tell her story?
When I first conceived of Sam, I was commuting an hour each way to the North Shore of Massachusetts where I drove my third son, Elijah, to high school. Our drive was a reverse commute, and it did not make sense for me to return home to Cambridge after drop-off. While my son was at school, I worked, and I walked. I spent time in the Beverly Library. I drove along the coast to Gloucester. I stood on the beach and looked at the ocean in all seasons and all lights. This place was not mine, but it belonged to Sam.I had to grow older to write about youth. I had to be a mother to write from a child’s point of view. I needed distance to write close up.
During the years Elijah and I drove to the North Shore, we listened to dozens of audio books, and because he was up for anything, and I believe the driver gets to choose, we played my favorites. Homer’s verses filled our car, the anger of Achilles, and the wine-dark sea. We heard the adventures of Don Quixote and D’Artagnan. We listened to Beowulf in heavy fog, and Moby Dick in sleet and snow. We logged miles with Jane Austen, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy. These were the heroes of my youth, the writers I had read and wondered at and carried in my bookbag.
Now I listened to their voices, sometimes funny, sometimes grand, sometimes witty, sometimes so sad they moved me to tears. As I listened, I thought about the voice of my own book. How would I convey Sam’s life? What words would I choose?
As so often when writing fiction, the voice chose me. I adopted Sam’s point of view and wrote from her consciousness, starting with the first line when she is seven. “There is a girl, and her name is Sam.”
I begin simply and as Sam grows up, my language becomes more complex. As timelapse photography shows seasons changing and flowers opening, I show how hope shades into sadness, and how discouragement shifts into determination. The novel matures with my protagonist.
The scary part was limiting myself to one girl’s point of view. As a reader I grew up on complexity and big plots. As a writer, I relish complexity as well. My novels Intuition and The Cookbook Collector and The Chalk Artist develop faceted situations and multiple perspectives. It felt radical to explore just one. In early drafts I augmented the plot, embellishing the narrative with more voices, more twists and turns. However, Sam resisted this. The book resisted. All that was good and true in the book belonged to Sam, all that was complex was hers as well.
One day, I wrote in my notes, This is the opening of her heart and mind. Isn’t that enough? I began to strip away everything that distracted from my character and her subtle evolution. As I did so, I embraced my subject—girlhood—and womanhood.
My novel is a portrait, not a landscape—but a portrait can contain multitudes. First love, heartbreak, loss, finding a vocation. These are my themes, and in Sam’s story I honor them. Mother, father, brother, teacher, lover, friend, these are the people in Sam’s life, and they are vivid characters, although we see them only through Sam’s eyes. Her point of view is limited, but the reader knows that—and knows more than she. Sam’s mother Courtney comes through, tough and loving, exhausted, bossy, ambitious for her child. Sam’s dad Mitchell reveals himself, wise and muddled, tragic, magic, funny. Growing up, Sam tries to make sense of her parents. And as a parent myself, I learned to make sense of her.
Oh fiction! I had to grow older to write about youth. I had to be a mother to write from a child’s point of view. I needed distance to write close up.
In the Jewish tradition, it’s said that to save a life is to save the entire world. I would add that to write one life is to create an entire world. This is what I learned as I wrote Sam. A small way to tell a larger story.
Sam by Allegra Goodman is available now via The Dial Press.