January 1, 2015

Finding My Way Back Home

Guest Blogger: Jenny Sechler

When author and critic Elizabeth Janeway first encountered Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy,” in 1964, her response was prophetic. “I hope that hundreds of snoopy little girls will go and buy themselves notebooks and start writing down their observations,” she wrote. I was one of the legions of “snoopy little girls” who identified with Harriet, who read Fitzhugh’s book and felt that maybe, finally, someone understood me.

So, like many Harriet devotees, I eagerly made the pilgrimage to the Eric Carle Museum’s exhibit of Louise Fitzhugh’s original pen and ink illustrations, hosted in honor of the book’s 50th anniversary. As I entered the gallery and saw the beloved, familiar faces rendered in Fitzhugh’s bold, inimitable hand, I felt like I had come across pictures of my own childhood, like I was greeting my childhood self. I was filled with joy, not just at sight of Harriet in her spy clothes and sneakers, but also at the memory of myself in similar attire, tromping through the woods in my rural community and bemoaning how my lack of neighbors made it impossible for me to start my own spy route.

Harriet has been described as many things over the years. She has been called mean, a brat, a feminist icon, opinionated, honest, even a liberator. The 11-year-old protagonist of Fitzhugh’s novel spends her after school time spying on her neighbors, often in elaborate, creative ways – and writing down her observations in a notebook, which she always slams shut with exclamatory zeal.

And even when Harriet isn’t spying, she’s writing. She writes about her friends, her parents, her teachers, just about everyone she encounters, either directly or illicitly. Perhaps what I admire most about Harriet is how certain she is, especially about herself. Harriet maintains that certainty even after a series of painful losses. Her beloved nanny, Ole Golly, leaves to get married, and shortly after this, her classmates find and read her notebook. Deeply wounded after learning her unfiltered thoughts about them, Harriet’s classmates turn on her, subjecting her to a campaign of ridicule. Yet even in the face of this, Harriet turns to her notebook and writes: “I love myself.”

Like Harriet, I was a nosey child, an observer – not a joiner. Like Harriet, I knew I was a writer. As I grew older, I questioned this. To be a writer, I decided, you can’t just declare it to yourself. You have to do more than keep a notebook, or write stories and poems that never leave the intimate confines of your writing groups. To be a writer, I thought, you had to deliver. Being a writer had to be something in the real world, something you could answer to that inevitable “What do you do?” question at parties.

Years went by during which I couldn’t legitimately provide that answer, because I was making a living doing something else. The identity of “writer” was one I only whispered to myself when no one was looking. 

After spending 15 years in another profession, at age 45, I am finally ready to become a writer in “the real world.” And I’ve discovered I had it backwards all along. As I sat down to review the steps I needed to take in order to begin this process – identifying my options, understanding the market, scheduling informational interviews with others in the profession – I realized that I couldn’t do anything until I summoned my inner Harriet. I needed to declare myself as a writer. I needed to say it to myself and I needed to introduce myself as such to others, to announce it with certainty: “Hi, I’m Jenny and I’m a writer.”

The more I say it, the easier it becomes. I’ve been writing all my life. I don’t have to justify my identity to anyone, especially not to myself. Of course I’m a writer! Was there ever any doubt?

Doggie paw favicon


Jenny Miller Sechler is a writer living in Leeds.

Leave a Reply