Writing and Healing: Revelations of Research

by Pamela Jane Bell on March 4, 2012

Writing and Healing LogoPost #36 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing and Healing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Writing and Healing

Revelations of Research

by Pamela Jane Bell, regular guest blogger, children’s book author and currently writing her memoir

stairwayFor as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by banisters and stairways leading to rooms perched high above the treetops. I can spend hours poring over blueprints or photos of stairs, lofts, and attic rooms in various designs and configurations.  Whenever I think of my perfect writing space, I picture myself in an upstairs room, writing dreamily while the voices of my family drift up from below.

I didn’t know or even think much about the source of my stairway fantasy until I happened to catch an old movie on TV.  I Remember Mama (1948) depicts the ups and downs of a Norwegian family living in San Francisco around 1910.  The film generated a TV series of the same name that I’d loved as a child of three and four.  I remember how intrigued I had been by the big old-fashioned house and the stairway leading to the oldest daughter, Katrin’s, attic room.  The film brought it all back again.

Photo from the film "I Remember Mama."  You can see a bit of the staircase in the background

Photo from the film I REMEMBER MAMA. You can glimpse a bit of the stairway in the background


Each TV episode, I recalled, began with Katrin, now a grown woman, returning in her imagination to her room looking out over the hills of turn-of-the-century San Francisco.

I remember the big white house on Steiner Street, and my little sister Dagmar, and my big brother Nels, and Papa.  But most of all, I remember Mama.”

Once again, Katrin is fourteen and stealing a few moments from busy family life to write in her journal.  From downstairs we hear her mother calling.

“Katrin!”

“Coming, Mama!”

We know this is the voice of the past, the voice of memory and imagination.  In both the TV and film versions of the story, Katrin is simultaneously a young girl living her life, and an adult looking back on her childhood. In other words,  I Remember Mama is a memoir*.  As a child, what really intrigued me about the series, I realized, were the parallel worlds of the writer – past and present.  And the attic room where Katrin wrote her stories and eventually her novel-memoir about her family was the physical embodiment of those worlds.  It was there, gazing out over the hills of the city, that

Katrin writing in her attic room

Katrin writing in her attic room

Katrin gained the perspective that allowed her to recreate the landscape of her past.

Like unlocking doors to hidden rooms, each discovery I made about the source of my stairway fascination led to an even deeper insight.  After seeing the film, I remembered how thrilled I was as an older child to discover that one of my favorite authors, Maud Hart Lovelace, understood the mystery and allure of banisters and stairways.

In Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Betsy and Tacy go from house to house to collect names for a petition:

“Opening doors gave glimpses of strange faces, of banisters leading mysteriously upstairs, of an organ, of a hired girl in a cap.”.

“Leading mysteriously upstairs” is integral to the magic of stairways.  Like prop stairs on a stage set, a glimpse of a disappearing staircase and voices calling off-stage, hint at a world implied but not seen, and inspires us to imagine.  What do these hidden rooms look like?  Who are the people living in them?  What is their story?

When I designed my writing room, I made sure to add a stairway and banister

When I designed my writing room, I made sure to add a stairway and banister

The final revelation about the origin of my stairway obsession was the most important of all.  Though I could not have articulated it at the time, watching I Remember Mama as a little girl led me to realize that the ordinary events of family life could be shaped into a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  And so the world of the story-teller, and a fascinating and functional piece of architecture fused in my imagination.  Happily, knowing this does not diminish my fascination; in fact it makes it even richer and more intense.

Memoir takes you deep into your interior to a mysterious place where memory is transformed by imagination.  In the process, you sometimes uncover long-forgotten sources of the stories or settings that intrigued you as a child and continue to influence and inform your writing as an adult.

What enriched your creative vision and inner world as a child, and how has it shaped your writing, and your perspective?  Was it a particular color of a princess’s gown, a window seat, or a mysterious garden?

*Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes is the original novel that inspired the film.  The book is based on Forbes’ own life growing up in San Francisco.


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Pamela Jane Bell is the author of twenty-six children’s books, and is currently completing her memoir on how she became a children’s book author.

Her newest children’s book Little Goblins Ten (Harper, illustrated by Jane Manning) is a humorous riff on of the classic country rhyme “Over in the Meadow.” Little Goblins Ten was recently reviewed in The New York Times:

“Readers are rewarded with ample humor and wit… there’s a sweetness to the parental-offspring interactions in the playful, alliterative text.”—New York Times Book Review


Pamela Jane’s first book, Noelle of the Nutcracker (Houghton Mifflin, illustrated by Jan Brett) is still in print:

“Jane’s first book magically captures the dreams-can-come-true atmosphere of the holiday season…Jane is a skillful storyteller. A lovely novella any time of the year.”— Publishers Weekly

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Each month Pamela Jane Bell gives us something new to consider.

Pamela’s other hat, that of a children’s author, gives her a unique perspective. If you have children or grandchildren you’ll want to check out Pamela’s new lovely, illustrated book — Little Goblins Ten — that received a starred review by Kirkus and a review by Publishers Weekly that said, “In a gently spooky spin on “Over in the Meadow” that counts up to 10, various ghouls and beasts groan, swoop, and haunt. Jane has fun playing within the nursery rhyme’s parameters…”

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Becky Povich March 4, 2012 at

Oh, I loved this! Thank you, Pamela.

Matilda Butler March 4, 2012 at

Pamela:
I also am fascinated by stairs. After moving my office around to several rooms in our new home, I finally latched onto the upstairs room that looks out on the forest (except when Kendra is here and that’s her study.)
Thanks for sharing this with us.

Kendra Bonnett March 4, 2012 at

Nice piece, Pamela. I think we can all look to movies and early television programs that had a profound effect on us and captured our imagination.

Pamela Jane March 5, 2012 at

Matilda and Kendra, thanks so much for you comments. Matilda, I’m glad Kendra gets the upstairs room when she comes to visit — you are a very thoughtful guest! I had a writer friend who used to write in the basement on a ping-pong table until her editor told her to get upstairs in the light. I think she likes the light but probably misses the big table.

Pat March 5, 2012 at

I, too, loved I Remember Mama! Thanks for sharing this discovery of the little attic room’s influence on your writing, Pamela.

Cara Lopez Lee March 5, 2012 at

I saw “I Remember Mama” on TV when I was a girl, and it stuck with me, too. The part I loved best was them going through the bills each month and being relieved that they would not have to “go to the bank,” and how the parents used this white lie to make their children feel safe. The story that influenced me the most from my childhood was “Little Women.” I wanted to write books like Jo and I understood that Jo was, more-or-less, Louisa May Alcott – meaning such dreams really were possible. My memoir was published just over a year ago, and though it’s not full of girlish innocence, I like to think that Jo’s spirit of independence and desire to live a life of the mind were there to inspire me.

Pamela Jane March 6, 2012 at

Hi, Cara, Thank you so much for your comment. As you know, Jo also wrote in the attic! That was a upstairs-writing inspiration for me, too. Your memoir sounds really interesting; I will look it up!

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