Janet Frame was born in New Zealand of a simple hard working railroad man, and a brilliant woman with a "high class" ancestry. She led a life of material poverty juxtaposed to literary wealth. She was fortunate her mother was well versed in poetry, literature, and music. Like a bubbling spring she continually blessed her children with her treasures along with their milk. Yet, the best gift of her childhood was a fascination with words so strong that she actually collected them throughout her life, the way others collect figurines or baseball cards. 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 coming 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 adventures I was overjoyed."
I once caught the tail end of a PBS program called "An Angel at my Table" about Janet Frame's life. 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. Was the story exaggerated? How could someone live such an impoverished and tragic life and make a success of it? The film director, Jane Campion, who produced the movie, was enthralled with Janet Frame's novels from the age of fourteen, 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... "
It was amazing to me that Janet Frame had become a well published author with her history of mental instability. She claimed New Zealanders had been so starved for something to read that they accepted her. That doesn’t explain, though, why they gave her every possible award for her works. I think she obviously deserved them. She also became so well known in Europe and the United States that the year before she died; in 2003, at the age of 80, she had been nominated for the Nobel prize for literature. That's more than 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. Even after all those years and success, she still led an incredibly simple life eschewing grandeur. I suspect she would not have known what to do with the money.
I chose Janet's autobiography based upon my deep interest in her life as portrayed in the movie, and correlations to my own. I wanted very much to learn her style and what she might reveal about her writing journey. One problem we all seem to have is that a movie never really captures a book we have enjoyed. However, it is just the opposite in this case. I'm glad I never read her biography first. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to watch the movie. I sadly trudged my way reading through her autobiography. At 435 pages 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. Except for the first section, I was so disappointed I almost decided to give it up. However, I felt compelled to present her story, and continued to read as I had put so much emotional and time investment into this project.
I had been hungry to absorb the intriguing details of her life as presented in the film. I wanted to learn more about the tidbits I found in researching what the critics and historians wrote about her and sought diligently for them in her autobiography. But, the cohesive details were lost to me. Her life story was boringly written as though a news reporter was presenting dry facts. This interrupted the flow of the her gifted prose so well done in her novels. 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 intriguing vignettes of her life I had seen in the movie? What made this woman tick? And what could I learn from her to improve my own writing?
What a dichotomy when comparing it to her fiction!!!
Even though I did not find Janet Frame’s autobiography to be the enjoyable read I had hoped to have, I gained a lot from it. I learned more of her personal life that explained her eccentricities. Perhaps she was a high functioning autistic as some have said. What I gained was the knowledge that to write is to write, to organize, to set aside time, to stay out of the way of distractions. All aspiring writers know this. Yes? But, foremost, I learned from Janet Frame, HOW she did this.