“Writing a novel is not merely going on a shopping expedition across the border to an unreal land: it is hours and years spent in the factories, the streets, the cathedrals of the imagination.” – Janet Frame
Born this day in 1924, Nene Janet Paterson Clutha, better known by her pen name Janet Frame, had a personal story that rivaled anything she created in fiction.
A New Zealander, she wrote novels, short stories, poetry, juvenile fiction, and an autobiography, but her biggest celebrity came from her dramatic personal history. Hospitalized for years in a psychiatric facility, she wrote whenever she could and just days before a planned lobotomy, her debut publication of short stories – written during one of her “release” times – was unexpectedly awarded her nation’s top literary prize.
“That,” she said in perhaps the understatement of the century, “changed everything.”
Her story began at 18 when she attempted suicide after leaving an abusive family atmosphere. In-and-out of psychiatric hospitals for the next 8 years, primarily suffering from anxiety and depression, she was falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia and after being treated with both medications and electric shock therapy, she began a long-delayed writing effort, producing a number of short stories that she submitted to a publisher.
Seeming to be spiraling deeper into depression (actually caused by the treatments), she agreed to the lobotomy but then pulled away from it when her short story collection soared. With its success and the prize money, she moved to Europe, ultimately had the schizophrenia diagnosis debunked and lived to age 79 before dying of cancer. In between, she was one of the most prolific and rewarded authors in history, writing two dozen novels, many nonfiction works, hundreds of short stories and poems, countless essays and a 3-volume autobiography that became the film An Angel At My Table.
“As a teen, people thought I might be a teacher,” she said. “I wanted to be a poet.”
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