Essays on Childhood: In a Man’s Voice

There are moments in life when someone casually helps you make a connection, and the effect is anything but small.  Such was the case when I grumbled to my friend Allan that I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to get a commitment from men to write for the Essays on Childhood project.

Allan said simply that it did not surprise him at all.  “Elizabeth, a lot of men find it very hard to write about their childhood.”  Something about the way he phrased that made me rethink the dynamic.  I realized I processed the hesitance to follow through as a lack of interest.  Allan helped me see it’s not that at all.  It’s a level of difficulty and often of pain that may be more pervasive in male childhood experience than female — not at all to say women have easy childhoods, but there is something here connected to the male psyche and experience in the early years that may be keeping a lid on what is actually a very keen interest in writing.

William Stafford

Allan is a writer, editor, teacher, and author published many times over.  His second book on the spiritual struggles of boys is due to roll off-press soon.  Obviously he was himself a boy once, but beyond that he has jumped into the deep end, both personally and professionally, of analyzing the male childhood experience.

Allan’s first book on the issues opens with this chilling poem by William Stafford:

Sure You Do

Remember the person you thought you were?  That summer

sleepwalking into your teens?  And your body ambushing

the self that skipped from school?  And you wandered into

this carnival where all the animals in the ark began

to pace and howl?   The swing they strapped you in?

The descent through air that came alive, till

the pause at the top?  The door on the way down

that opened on joy?  And then, and then, it was

a trap.  You would get used to it:  like the others

you could shoulder your way through the years, take on

what came and stare without flinching, but you knew at the time

it was goodby to everything else in your life.

The great door that opened on terror swung open.

The first time I read this poem I was unable to speak, literally, for a full 30 minutes.  I put it in front of a few men I know, and with limited commentary said, “I’d like to know what you think of this.”  The effect of the poem on my friends was similar to the effect on me, but with a key difference:  While my silence came from the shock of surprise, theirs was from the instant recognition of what was presumed to be a secret.

In 2012, Essays on Childhood will engage this challenge of creating a space and a process for men to write about their childhood experience.  One observation is that men tend to write with more personal distance from their subjects than do women, and when the subject is one’s own childhood that is not exactly an option.  I am fortunate to know a lot of very cool men — smart, funny, serious, engaged people who possess unique viewpoints and an interest in connecting with other people.  They may not know I identify them this way, but part of the next wave will be telling them and asking them to lead this grand experiment…………

Esse Diem readers, your suggestions for this outreach are more than welcome!

(Much gratitude goes out to John Warren, who was the first man to write for Essays on Childhood, to Michael Powelson who shared an essay from his own blog for EOC, and to Julian Martin, who will be representing the male voice in the essays shared before the end of the year.)

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16 thoughts on “Essays on Childhood: In a Man’s Voice

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  2. I agree with Allan. There are things I’ll never know about my dad’s childhood because he can’t bring himself to talk about them. He certainly won’t volunteer, and if I ask I’m likely to get only part of the story (true of all of us, I know). There are also things I never knew and never will know about my grandfather. Most of what I know about the traumas of his childhood comes from my mother and grandmother. They weren’t gossiping; they wanted me to know what he had overcome and what a special man he was. I look at a lot of the men I know, and I feel like there’s a person inside of them whom they abandoned a long time ago, or whom society and their culture abandoned. I don’t know. You’re absolutely right: it’s no more difficult being a man/boy in this world than being a woman/girl, but it is different, and upbringing makes a lot of that difference. One of the dominant emotions I see in men is shame. I don’t know why men must be so ashamed of who they are and what they’ve done or accomplished. Loneliness is there, too. Well, it’s complicated. I’m painting with a broad brush. Good post, and thank you for taking an interest in “us”. 🙂

    • I love “you people.” LOL

      What is honored and what is reinforced in male and female children can be very, very different. What is encouraged, what is slammed shut….I am amazed, truly, by how early adults begin tracking children into particular personalities and behaviors. It’s frightening.

      When my paternal grandmother died and I was participating in cleaning out the house, I found a small notepad with a leather cover. On the cover was embossed, “Things to Do Today.” Inside there was one goal, written in pencil, in my father’s unique and recognizable hand. Though the coordination was not what it became in later years, it was obviously his handwriting as a boy.

      “Get out of town before it’s too late.”

      Our family, including my dad, had a good laugh over this. But I still think of it, and am not sure it’s actually funny at its core. Boyhood is a lonely place. I’m hopeful I can be educated in the next essay round about the hows and whys of that dynamic.

      Thank you for your comment!

  3. You don’t know this, but I wrote my essay. Well, I wrote two drafts of it. It was called, “A House Underground.” I didn’t give it to you and I bowed out of submission before my name was included in the project. I didn’t mention it before because I knew you would want to know why, and then I would tell you, and then you would convince me to send it anyway, and then I would, and then I’d regret it. (Can anyone say “projected fears?”) But, now that you are asking for input (and it’s too late anyway), I’ll tell you…

    It wasn’t good enough for EoC. Wait. That’s not right. It was good. It wasn’t great, but it was good. What I mean to say is that, after reading other essays for EoC, I decided that the my voice doesn’t fit there. Reading a lot of the essays, I feel like I’m reading Pat Conroy or William Faulkner. Many of them “feel” like southern fiction to me. It may just be the essays I’ve read, and I haven’t read them all, but I felt like the voice of my experience grated against those beautiful voices you have highlighted in the past. I didn’t feel like EoC was a place I could feel confident about sharing that voice.

    I think that may sound a bit harsh, and I don’t mean it to. I love the work you do and the writings you expose me to. But they aren’t stories that grab my soul, as they seem to grab yours. Also, please remember that while I say that I didn’t feel like my essay would fit, I’m also admitting that my fear of what people might think of my voice paralyzed me without giving anyone a chance to hear it. That’s cowardice, and I have no excuse. Boyhood is scary and lonely, and I’m not sure there’s any way around that. Just remember that all men are still just boys. Most of us just figure out how to live beside the loneliness without feeling the need to cry or fight or f___ it away.

    • Matt, your honesty is compelling. I hope you know I have always respected your decision, as I do anyone’s, to make writing public or not.

      A few thoughts……the game can only be played by those on the field. So yes, it is an interesting trap, as long as voices that sound different or reflect different experiences stay silent, there will be a tendency for a certain theme of other voices.

      I never want to coerce anyone into anything. There is no value in that. This project is entirely voluntary, there are no prizes to be won or money to be earned. It is about providing a place for people who want to try something new, who have an interest in writing, to express themselves around a theme I have found to be deep and significant. Sometimes, that depth is too far or too painful and it is not the right time for exploration and the vulnerability that can come with it, either to yourself or to others. I totally get that. I once waited 12 years to write about something.

      I do hope that some day you will read all of the essays. Not everyone is trying to grab your soul. Some are just purely funny, because sometimes (OK, often) really funny things happen when we are kids.

      What grabs my soul is writing and writers. Period.

      “Boyhood is scary and lonely, and I’m not sure there’s any way around that. Just remember that all men are still just boys. Most of us just figure out how to live beside the loneliness without feeling the need to cry or fight or f___ it away.”

      Oh snap. You just grabbed me.

    • And I have to ask, why are ALL men still “just boys”? That has always sounded like a cop out to me. If boyhood was so bad, why stay there? What keeps so many grown men from moving forward in a more complete way?

      If someone had more difficult or unpleasant boyhood than my husband, I don’t want to know about it. Yet he defines manhood for me. It is interesting for both genders to consider, what keeps us from growing past an early trauma or sadness? Do those experiences have to define our adult lives? Can writing it out and putting it out into the world give us some power over the past that helps? Maybe. I hope so.

  4. I feel lucky–there was no terror in my life. I wasn’t beaten or sexually abused. Now there was a boy or two that scared the shit out of me a few times but mostly it was a Tom Sawyer life. We played and played and there were hundreds of kids it seemed playing kick the can til after dark and sneaking into the men’s softball games just two blocks away and climbing over the fence to see the Charleston Senators games during the star spangled banner cause the cops were at attention and couldn’t catch us. My mom and dad hung in there, raised five of us and none ever went to jail and all were employed and none moved back in. I feel like I am writing an essay.

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  8. Well, Well. I have been reflecting on my own boyhood a LOT as of late. This discussion has grabbed me. I find that many times I can write about things I can’t speak about. But then there is the built in trap. If I write them because I can’t speak of them, how can I share them? Then I would have to speak of them. Writing is brave. Much respect to those who share their thoughts freely because I have found it to be truly terrifying. Does that feeling ever go away?

    • Does it ever go away….I can only speak for myself of course, and for me it does go away.

      In my experience, some thoughts or words or people or events have power over me because they remain unnamed. When I finally pull it out of my own head and make it external, it’s not so much that it goes away as I find some new authority over those things. They have a separation of sorts that allows me to step back and evaluate and better determine how much of all that will continue to live crunched up inside of me.

      These things don’t go away because I write about them, but I have a kind of Rocky to Mr. T moment of, “You ain’t so bad!” Bring it. ‘Cause I’ll drag your trouble out in the light, and then let’s see how bad you are then.

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