A couple moments from Pixar’s Ratatouille are unforgettable. The first is when Remy, the foodie rat, emerges from the sewer system and beholds the city lights of Paris.
“Paris?” he says. “All this time, I’ve been underneath Paris?”
The other moment is when the skeptical food critic finally tastes the best of Remy’s restaurant. It is a refinement of actual ratatouille, a common peasant dish. But rather than turn up his nose, the food critic is transported back to his own modest childhood, to a modest table with a modest dish served by his loving mother. His heart melts at the memory.
In each instance, the plain is a portal to the profound.
They say if you want to write, live a life worth writing about. To me, a well-behaved midwesterner growing up in normal times, this was disheartening news. It seemed living an orderly life would be at odds with living an interesting one.
But now I know that’s true only if your eyes are closed. The plain can be a portal to the profound. Or, to use G. K. Chesterton’s less fanciful words, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”
Take Laura Ingalls Wilder. One of her stories inspired the title of a new lyric piano piece. But, honestly speaking, I was a little bashful about naming her. “The Little House books” can sound quaint, sentimental, and juvenile. When I got them for the first time as an adult, I expected to see quaint and juvenile qualities in the prose that I didn’t notice as a child.
But on the contrary, her writing style held up impressively. While remaining child-appropriate, it reflects the plain, laconic culture she grew up in as well as her own aversion to sentimentality. She excels at showing, not telling, and her concrete language, unlike the prose of other girlbook writers such as Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery, is closer to Hemingway than Dickens. (Ironically, I think this literary quality had a bit to do with the recent wave of criticism against Laura Ingalls Wilder - but that is another topic for another day.)
On the face of it, she had a dull life: bound to the midwest, law-abiding, marrying young, staying married, unglamorously farming. While free-thinking, she did not challenge cultural norms and wasn’t the first woman to do anything.
But she paid attention to life and remembered it. Her attention to farming and societal issues (and, always, extra sources of income) led her to contribute articles to the Missouri Ruralist for several years. (A fascinating collection of these articles is published in Little House in the Ozarks, ed. Stephen Hines.) This prepared her for her greatest work: threading her real life into a fictionalized narrative to make the past live for today’s children.
It’s true her daughter was instrumental to the publishing deal, but the stories are Laura’s. The life was Laura’s. Her quiet life culminated into a stack of cheap tablet notebooks written in a humble farmhouse. Those notebooks turned into Harper & Brothers hardcovers, won Newberry Honor awards, and remain some of the best children’s literature at the library.
I believe aspiring writers and artists have plenty of fodder for the imagination no matter their life circumstances, as long as they live fully in them. We won't all have the same output or opportunities, but if our eyes stay open, the lights of Paris might get brighter.
For further reading
Jonathan Rogers has an insightful weekly e-mail and blog for folks who want to write. He provides so many great quotables, I stopped sharing them because it was starting to look creepy.
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited Pamela Smith Hill (2014). Before Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her children's books, she wrote a true-to-memory draft of her autobiography. The editor's extensive research adds to, corrects, and confirms her account.
And by the way, Laura Ingalls Wilder might have been born the same year as Scott Joplin.
Photo: South Dakota State Historical Society Press