I'm taking a creative writing class at Cabrillo College in Aptos. I always get a bit nervous the night before because I've waited til the last minute to print out my paper to share in class. Now, the printer is NOT cooperating!

Plus, today was the day I was supposed to do a presentation on an autobiography written by whomever I wanted. I spent a lot of time in the beginning of the semester checking on different authors and doing quick reads of which ever of their books I could find. Read a few good ones, but nothing I wanted to present.

Then I remembered Janet Frame from New Zealand! I had seen a movie of her life on PBS a few years back and then again on Netflix. Always thought to read her books, but never got around to it, so now was the time to read her autobiography.

(Note: I had to use my wheeled walker in order to get from my car to the classroom. I carry a backpack now instead of a purse since I have notebooks and school things to carry about. Plus I had to take my laptop (17 inch) too, as I couldn't get the presentation printed.

These are my notes and part of presentation. I did several readings from throughout her book, and one of her novels.

What does it take to be a good writer?
A shy withdrawn personality with awkward social skills??
Being called loony, Insane? Having a diagnosis of the madness called  Schizophrenia?

That's what Janet Frame thought for several decades of her life. It's too bad she was misdiagnosed. Well, except for the shy personality, lacking confidence. She really had this eccentric personality accentuating her life. It made it difficult for her as well as others.

She led a life of material poverty juxtaposed to literary wealth. Her only toy as a child was a tin can tied to a string which she dragged around behind her. Yet, it seems, the best toy, the best gift she got from her childhood was a fascination with words so strong that she collected them throughout her life, the way others collect figurines or miniature cars. She was also fortunate to have a mother well versed in poetry, literature, and music that she was continually spouting it to her children along with their milk.

Janet wrote of her earliest collected words:

"I remember learning to spell and use these words: decide, destination, and observation, all of which worked closely with adventure. I was enthralled by their meaning and by the fact that all three seemed to be part of the construction of every story --- everyone was deciding, having a destination, observing in order to decide and define the destination and know how to deal with the adventures along the way. Partly as a result of the constant comng and going of our relatives and of our own shifting from place to place, I had an exaggerated sense of movement and change, and when I found I could use this necessary movement to create or notice advantures I was overjoyed."

I once caught the tail end of a PBS program called "An Angel at my Table".  I was so fascinated, I kept wishing I had seen the beginning and one day learned it was being aired again. Needless to say, I made sure I watched it. I was fascinated. Was the story exaggerated? How could someone live such an impoverished and tragic life and make a success of it? It was amazing to me that Janet Frame could become a famous author with her history of instability. Had New Zealanders been so starved for something to read that they gave her every possible award for her works that she qualified for? But, they were not hoodwinked after all. The year before she died, in 2003, she had been nominated for the Nobel prize for literature. That's sufficient evidence she was a talented writer. It's probably a good thing she didn't win, as she might have been burdened by the two million dollar award as she led an incredibly simple life eschewing grandeur. She seemed incredulous that her work was so popular. She died the following year at the age of eighty.

One problem we all seem to have is that a movie never really captures a book we have enjoyed. I'm glad I never read her biography first. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to watch the movie. As it was, the movie is what encouraged me to seek out Janet's autobiography. I chose it based upon my deep interest in her life as portrayed in the movie, and sadly trudged my way reading through it in order to finish it in time. It is not a fast read!

Her life story had originally been published in three volumes. (To The Is-land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City) But, I went for the copy that included them all. It was 435 pages!

I was so disappointed I almost decided I would not present it in class. I had already read a couple other biographies in the beginning of the semester I could use one of them instead. However, I felt compelled to present her story. However, I continued to read as I had put so much investment into this project.

I was hungry to absorb the fascinating details of her life as presented in the film. I wanted to learn more about the intriguing tidbits I found in researching what critics wrote about her and sought diligently for them in her autobiography. But, the details were lost to me as her life story was boringly written as dry facts interrupting the flow of the treasures I was looking for. At least that was the way I experienced it trudging through page after tedious page of redundancy, poor editing, and punctuation. Or I should say confusing lack thereof. Her run-on sentences dragged me through paragraph after paragraph.

You might say, then, why did I bother to continue reading, if it was so bad?

Wanting so much to complete my own life story, I was searching for this mysterious power she had to write poetry and fiction and her own autobiography, that won her so much acclaim. Someone had found her writing more than acceptable, not only in New Zealand, but in other parts of the world, too. What more was there than the intriging vignettes of her life I had seen in the movie? What made this woman tick? And what can I learn from her to improve my own writing.

Janet had the misfortune to have a head full of striking frizzy red hair that would not be tamed throughout her life. This, and and her lack of social skills made it difficult for her to feel likeable. She craved approval so much that she kept quiet, smiled and did anything asked of her. As an adult, she made herself so unobtrusive when living in the homes of others that she would go hide in a room away from the kitchen to eat her meals so as not to disturb anyone. She also preferred to not be around others as much as possible.

Yet, in the 1930's based upon her depression and a suicide attempt with aspirin she was sent to a mental hospital (the Loony Bin) for a "few days of rest" and subsequently diagnosed with Schizophrenia when she revealed her lifetime of imaginitative creativity. Her desire to be a poet and writer, sealed this definition and she was essentially kept prisoner for years. It is amazing to me that even after recieivng many brutal treatments of electric shock therapy she still functioned well enough to produce a novel and have it published. The day before she was scheduled for a lobotomy, her psychiatrist was suddenly convinced she was sane enough to be released based upon her publisher's acceptance and approval.

The film director, Jane Campion, who produced the movie, "Angel at My Table" was enthralled with Janet Frames novels from the age of fourteen. She said:
"Frame achieved that supremely difficult task of finding a voice so natural it feels almost as if it were not written. Her autobiography does so much more than clarify her personal history of misdiagnosis - it tells us about her whole life, which was unexpectedly enchanted, but certainly tragic. Apart from the years she spent in and out of mental hospitals, two of her sisters died by drowning in unrelated incidents. I learned about the life-saving role writer Frank Sargeson played in offering her a place to live and teaching her how to survive as a writer. A later delight in the third volume was her love affairs, one on the island of Ibiza and another with a Spanish man who wore two-toned shoes. Her ability to write about her pain and humiliation as calmly and even-handedly as her successes disarmed me. I got to know her in intimate detail and loved her tenderly.''

Jane met her once for a short period of time before making her film. And many years later she visited her odd eccentric home.

 " ...she took me through the house and showed me how she worked. Each room and even parts of rooms were dedicated to a different book in progress. Here and there she had hung curtains to divide up the rooms like they do in hospital wards to give the patients privacy. On the desk where she had last been working was a pair of earmuffs.

"I can't bear any sound," she explained... "


From the film:

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