I finished only one book while on the road this summer, Harriet The Spy, but Harriet proved to be a most enlightening traveling companion — the perfect book at the perfect time. And, as it turns out, arguably the best book I have ever read about writing and living and what it really means to grow up.
11-year-old Harriet is a spy and a writer. Her meticulously honest observations fill notebooks. But Harriet’s cozy and well-ordered world falls to pieces when first, her nanny moves out, and then, her very private notebook is discovered by her classmates. These events effectively mark the beginning of the end of Harriet’s childhood.
As things spin wildly out of control, Harriet falls to pieces — she has to start learning quickly how to reconcile the demands of her muse with the demands of everyday life. This is a letter Harriet receives near the end of the book from her former nanny, Ole Golly — the kind of wisdom we should all be so lucky to have someone impart to us at any age:
I have been thinking about you and I have decided that if you are ever going to be a writer it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years old and you haven’t written a thing but notes. Make a story out of some of those notes and send it to me.
“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats. And don’t you ever forget it.
Now in case you ever run into the following problem, I want to tell you about it. Naturally, you put down the truth in your notebooks. What would be the point if you didn’t? And naturally those notebooks should not be read by anyone else, but if they are, then, Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them:
1) You have to apologize.
2) You have to lie.
Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. Remember that writing is to put love into the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.
Another thing. If you’re missing me I want you to know that I’m not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. You can even make stories from yours, but remember, they don’t come back. Just think how awful it would be if they did. You don’t need me now. You’re eleven years old which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be.
No more nonsense.
Ole Golly Waldenstein
The song below was recorded at Stuart’s, in San Francisco. At the time I was hanging out a lot with a girl known as The Travel Agent. She only listened to old standards, mostly on this musty AM radio station whose call letters I forget. We would listen as we drove around, and I would always turn it up for the Jo Stafford version of “You Belong To Me.” (The Travel Agent’s favorite was “Swinging on a Star.” When the song goes, “Or would you rather be a fish?” she would always unfailingly answer back, “Um, how long do I have to decide?”)
You Belong To Me (Pee Wee King/Redd Stewart/Chilton Price)