Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl

I recently read this review in The New Yorker of the new Laura Ingalls Wilder memoir, Pioneer Girl. I found it particularly interesting because I had just finished reading the memoir, and I had come to completely different conclusions than the author of the review, Judith Thurman. Thurman concludes her review by writing that “one has to agree with” critics who “have charged that Wilder could not write.”

I think this assertion is a bit unfair. To me, the memoir read like many of my own rough drafts. It is not that Wilder was a bad writer but that the manuscript is not polished. It is episodic, sure, without a clear overarching story. Wilder was simply getting the rough material down on paper that she would later use and reshape into her series of Little House books. As writers, we all know that one of the most important aspects of writing is getting the words down on paper so that we have something to work with, something to revise, rewrite, and polish.

Granted, Wilder did not intend for this memoir to be a rough draft. She submitted it to editors as a finished work. But this occurred at the very beginning of Wilder’s writing career, before she had written the Little House books she became known for. How many of us, at the beginning of our writing careers, have sent out work before we should have? I know I certainly have. There are things I submitted to editors that I cringe to think of now. But it is part of the process. And submitting work for publication is one of the steps we take when we begin to identify as writers, to treat our work seriously. So even if it is a mistake to submit it too soon, it is a mistake we all make and learn from and is part of the evolution of becoming a writer.

The reason I found the memoir so interesting is because of the insight it provides into the writing process and the (sometimes blurred) boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and literature written for adults vs. literature written for children. The annotations are often meditations on the writing process, and the editor, Pamela Hill, did a fabulous job of pointing out hints of Wilder’s development as a writer in this early text. We can see in this early text where the stories we loved as fiction in the Little House books came from, and because they are written down as nonfiction here, we glean some insight into the decisions Laura made when writing the later novels: what to cut, what to keep, what to rearrange, what to invent entirely.

Pioneer Girl provides a unique peek into one beloved author’s development as a writer, and I think it should be treated as such. It is an early work, the raw material of her later books, and it is unfair to claim that Wilder “couldn’t write” simply because her first long form work lacks the introspection and arc of her later books. Pioneer Girl, whatever it lacks, still shows Wilder’s honesty, her voice, and her determination to put her life story down on paper, all the way to a finished draft, and these are lessons we can all take away from the book. Whatever one thinks of Wilder’s writing abilities, her talent for storytelling and creating dynamic characters readers care about have inspired the love of millions of readers around the world.

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My First Novel: What Our Childhood Writings Can Teach Us as Adult Writers

When I was eight years old, I wrote my first novel. It was about pioneers. I was obsessed with Little House on the Prairie, and pretty much everything I wrote before the age of twenty was about pioneers. It certainly wasn’t a polished story, and it was filled with clichés, unlikely events, random anachronistic encounters with Davy Crocket, a slip-and-slide ride down the Rocky Mountains on a log raft, and chapter titles like “Sad Birthday to You.”  (I was eight, okay?) The novel was about a young girl, Martha, who goes west with her family in a covered wagon in an ambiguous time period that was probably mid-1800s. It certainly had its flaws. But the story had some good things going for it, and since the things I did well in that story are often things I struggle with now, and see my students struggle with, I think they are worth pointing out. I think as we get older and more knowledgeable about writing, we lose sight of the lessons we have instinctively picked up from our childhood reading, and we try so hard to “good writers” and write deathless prose or the great American novel, that we forget that much of good storytelling is instinctual. After all, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell both pointed out that elements of storytelling are embedded within the human subconscious. If we can tap into that, and draw on our own instincts and what we have absorbed from our reading, and just have FUN with the first draft, the way we wrote stories as children, then I think we may find it easier to get that first draft out of our heads and onto the page.

  1. An Active Protagonist. The child character must solve his or her own problem. In Martha’s story, her parents die on the covered wagon trip west, leaving Martha to have to take over and get her younger brother and sister the rest of the way to Oregon on her own. So often in children’s stories, I see writers who allow adults to step in and solve the problem(s) for the main character. In real life, kids are constantly being told what to do by adults. In fiction, they need to see kids like themselves solving their own problems without the help of adults. It’s empowering. It’s why we see so many orphans in children’s books. Did I know this when I was eight? Not in so many words. But my sense of story and constant reading led me to make the right decision when I killed off the adults in my novel. This innate sense left me later as an adult; when I began my MFA and started seriously writing for children, my stories were full of adults directing the action. But I knew as an eight-year-old that I needed a child in control.
  2. Don’t be Afraid to Make Bad Things Happen to Your Characters. Come on, look how many people die in this book! On top of the parents’ death (cholera) and the brother’s death (run over by wagon), the grandma died too, before they even left for Oregon. There were snake bites, impregnable mountains, thousands of miles over rough terrain, starvation…. Granted, a lot of this is obviously influenced by the computer game Oregon Trail (the old version, with the black screen and orange text), but it’s still a lot of obstacles to throw in these characters’ way. As I got older, I lost this fearlessness. I was always worried that the conflicts wouldn’t be believable, or that I was getting my characters into situations I couldn’t get them out of. Did that stop eight-year-old Tara? Heck, no! Character can’t get over the Rocky Mountains? Tie some logs together with grass and slide your way down, girl! Now that might not be the best writing and plotting in the world, but it’s brave, if nothing else.
  3. Don’t show off/Focus on Story. This is a common one. Come on, guys, you know who are. Everyone’s afraid if they don’t write fancy sentences with lots of big words, no one is going to realize what great writers they are. If we write simply, how are we going to stand out? But here’s the secret: the prose shouldn’t stand out. As a writer, you want the reader so caught up in your story world, so engaged with your characters and plot, that they are in a “fictional dream.” You want them to forget they are even reading a book because they are so caught up in the story. That is never going to happen if your reader has to puzzle out long, twisty sentences and reference a dictionary once a page. When I wrote Martha’s story, I used the simplest language possible. Now that might be because I was eight and didn’t know a lot of big words, but who says you need a huge vocabulary to be a writer? What you need to do is tell a good story, as clearly and simply and elegantly as you can, and this is what we focus on when we tell stories as children. We must be, first and foremost, storytellers. The prose is secondary.
  4. Confidence. This is the most important one. We all question ourselves. We all wonder in dark moments if we’re terrible writers, if everyone is secretly laughing at us, if we should throw in the towel and give it up already, get real jobs. But that insecurity comes with age. When I wrote Martha’s story, I showed it to EVERYBODY. I thought it was fantastic. I was a genius. It was probably ready to send out to publishers, who would be so surprised that someone as young as I was could write this masterpiece, that they would snap it up, and it would sell millions. It was gripping, engaging, marvelously written…. Truth is, my story could have benefitted from some serious revision. But I believed it was good. And that was all that mattered. And that’s all what matters now too. Because as long as you have done your best to tell a good story, you have put in a good day’s work. Any story, well told, can be salvaged. Even a novel as clearly flawed as my Martha story was has lots of good points, reasons why it succeeds. All it needs is a little (or a lot of) revision. And there must be a reason why this story has stuck with me for so many years, so that even though the text itself has disappeared somewhere in the bowels of my mother’s basement, I can still recall its details with amazing clarity; there must be something there. It must be a good story.

 

What kind of stories did you write when you were young? Any successes? Disasters? Embarrassments? Lessons? Leave me a comment about your stories!

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This blog is where I’ll post on writing topics, especially those related to everything about writing for children and young adults.

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