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The miserable childhood

Let me be blunt. If you want more interesting writing in this corner of the paper, you shouldn't be reading my column. I don't have the background for it. Ernest Hemingway wrote that the best early training for a writer is an unhappy childhood. Frank McCord, who grew up in Limerick, Ireland, author of the unforgettable "Angela's Ashes" (when you read it, you'll never forget it) had his own bitter recipe: "When I look back at my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood. The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is a miserable Irish childhood; and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood...nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty, the loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters, the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years."

By that measure, my happy childhood was hardly worth your while. I had a mother who loved and reassured me and a father who loved and pushed me. No wonder my prose lacks blood and guts and even the Broke Tooth Blues brings no tears to your eyes.

Charles Dickens, one of the most popular writers of all time, grew up in poverty in London. His father spent time in a debtor's prison, but even when he wasn't behind bars, he never supported his family adequately. Little Dickens was working in a factory at the age of 12 and quit school at the age of 14. His miserable childhood left lasting scars. Is it any wonder he wrote "Oliver Twist," the adventures of a poor orphan boy growing up in an English society where mistreatment of the poor was part of the everyday culture of that country.

O. Henry was the pen name of an American storywriter, William Sidney Porter who left school when he was 15 and wrote over 250 works of fiction. The models of some of his best known characters were criminals. He wrote in the simple language of the man on the street, expressing sympathy for human weakness. In his "Voice of the City," he dealt with the loneliness and tragic predictions of simple country folks who came to the impersonal and evil city to seek their fortunes. Where does this feeling and depth come from? Porter spent three years in prison for the crime of embezzlement that was more a matter of sloppy bookkeeping than criminal intent. He could have been pardoned but he never was. Is that enough misery for you?

What background would lead a writer to write "Crime and Punishment?" Fyodor Dostoevsky has been regarded as one of the top two or three greatest novelists Russia has ever produced. He wrote about poor, unhappy, strange, insulted and injured people. When he was a young man he was arrested for taking part in a political conspiracy and sentenced to death. When he was on the scaffold waiting to be hanged he received a reprieve and was sent to prison at hard labor in Siberia for four years, followed by four years as a common soldier. Four years of hard labor in Siberia is probably even more productive for a writer than a miserable Irish childhood.

Earnest Hemingway says the best subject to write about is war. "It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get." Norman Mailer wrote about war. In "The Naked and the Dead," considered one of the finest novels to come out of World War II, Mailer described every miserable footstep through the mud, rain, humidity, mosquitoes, snipers and the fatigue and terror of the jungle and mountains of a small Pacific island held by the Japanese.

Do you want to read about the muck, misery, wheeling, dealing, hypocrisy and dark shadows of politics? Read "Primary Colors" by an insider who hid behind the name Anonymous.

You miss a lot when you read this column. You're missing the misery of a miserable Irish childhood, the misery of poverty and a drunken father, the misery of an orphan hustling in the streets, the misery of working in a factory at the age of 12, the misery of life in a prison, the misery of waiting to be hanged, the misery of four years of hard labor in Siberia, the misery of mucking around in politics and the misery of war. That's a lot, but there's much more misery I'm not telling you about. Sorry, but I haven't been there. But keep reading -- I may not make you cry, but I'll try to help you keep your feet on the ground.