The Big Idea: Liz Michalski
A dream about a well-loved fantasy world brings attention to what’s not being paid attention to… and from there, Liz Michalski tells a story in Darling Girl from a point of view long left underappreciated.
My first draft of my book Darling Girl came from a dream, in which boys in Peter Pan-green were flying in and out of the windows of a stone turret, where a girl in Wendy-blue lay hooked to many machines. The boys were whispering, wondering to each other who would sacrifice for them now if this Wendy died. I woke up and thought, “That’s creepy, but kind of interesting,” and promptly dug out my tattered copy of the original Peter Pan.
I’d enjoyed the book as a child, enjoyed the Disney movie and those that came after even more. But on rereading it, I was struck by how beautifully J. M. Barrie described Mrs. Darling, yet how little of her there actually was in the story.
He wrote “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more.” The line felt as if he were alluding to Mrs. Darling’s rich inner life, and then promptly ignoring it.
Barrie ignored Wendy as well — as a character she never develops beyond the role of mother, and when she grows too old to be a pretend mother to Peter, he has no more use for her. By the end of the book, even Tinker Bell has disappeared and Peter has forgotten her. From there, I read about Barrie’s troubled childhood, his failed marriage, and his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, mother of the real-life boys on whom Barrie based Peter Pan.
So what began as a dream developed into a fascination, and then a desire to write a book about Peter Pan from the perspective of the largely unexplored female characters. I finished a draft and gave it to my beta reader. A few weeks later she gave it back, told me she loved it, but that it definitely wasn’t about Peter Pan, and that I needed to figure out what I was writing about.
Hrummph, I said to myself, as well as some unkind things about people who shouldn’t be beta reading. And then I thanked her and put the manuscript away for a few weeks, and when I had some distance I opened it up and reread it.
And of course she was right.
Darling Girl isn’t really about Peter Pan at all, or about the Darling women, although all of those people figure heavily in it. It’s about motherhood, and the secret inner life most mothers maintain. Because motherhood (and fatherhood, to some degree), requires us to package up our selves to provide the level of care and attention children demand. We need to be fully present, and when we aren’t, our kids know it and drag us back into the world. So we bury those selves deep, opening up the boxes only at night when our children are sleeping, on rare weekends away, or early mornings before the household awakens. And we’re so busy we may never feel the loss.
But the twist is, those selves we hide away are often who we really are at our core. We protect them in our innermost boxes because, as much as having children can be a blessing and a privilege, it is demanding and hard, and can strip away whatever previous identities we’ve built up, sacrificing them the way the Peters of my dream sacrificed Wendy. Parenting can strip us down to our core and that last, innermost box.
But it can also create room for a rebirth.
My oldest was getting ready to leave for college when I started Darling Girl, and it was a hard, painful time. Painful, because I adored them, and because I couldn’t imagine what my role in life was if not their mother 24 hours a day. And hard, because they’d started the process of pulling away, of having their own secret life and self, one it was impossible for them to share with someone who hadn’t transitioned yet to seeing them as an adult, not a child.
I felt empty to my very core, packing them up for school for the first time.
But in the silence that filled the house after they left, something rattled. The last, innermost box was waiting for me, and inside was my secret self. Familiar, but changed, honed to something strong, sharp and durable. Something that could spread its wings in the empty space. That could hold space for others and their secret selves. Something that could grow.
I reached into the box. I pulled it out.
And I began to write.