No Bad Assignments: Selma Lagerlöf Took a Yawn-Worthy Topic and Turned It Into Nobel Prize Gold

September 30, 2022 § 4 Comments

Selma Lagerlöf

By Debra Moffitt

As speculation flutters about who will win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the coming week, let us tip a titanic, plumy hat to Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf who, in 1909, was the first woman to win the honor.

Mostly unknown in the United States, Lagerlöf’s first novel made her famous in Sweden, but she’s beloved in her home country for her children’s book, “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.” When Sweden honored Lagerlöf by featuring her face on its currency, a scene from “Nils” appeared on the back of the 20-kronar note. In the story, Nils Holgersson starts out as a sneery 14-year-old who skips church and spends his free time being cruel to farm animals. But after Lagerlöf shrinks him into a sprite and flies him around Sweden on the back of a goose, he concludes the tale as a loyal friend of the feathered community, a much better son and citizen.

It all began with a snooze-inducing assignment Lagerlöf accepted in 1902 to write something educational about Sweden’s geography. She struggled to get started – a struggle she documented in the actual story. Just when tiny Nils found himself cornered by an owl, Lagerlöf shared “a strange coincidence” involving a lady writer.

“The very year Nils Holgersson traveled with the wild geese there was a woman who thought of writing a book about Sweden … She had thought of this from Christmas time to the following autumn.”

The unnamed writer living in a gray city wanted to start the story in Värmland County, where she was from, but couldn’t get her pen moving. A journey back home to the family farm sent her tumbling through the years, to the autumn fair, to long-ago Decembers when girls wore crowns of candles on St. Lucia’s Day, to tiresome chores but also a family reading together by lamp light, singing folk songs, planting gardens of turnips, beans and berries. The animals came back to her, too, how her father guarded the carp in the pond (no fishing) and protected the doves of the air, insisting they be left in peace. While the writer swam in memories, Nils, the shrunken farm boy who would be her protagonist, appeared in the moonlight.

“What luck to run across one who has traveled all over Sweden on the back of a goose!” the writer exclaims.

It wasn’t luck. Focused, creative energy on blast sent Nils – whoosh! –  high over Sweden, before passenger jets, before Google Maps, before drone footage, before anyone urged us to “take a 10,000-foot view.” From this vantage point, Nils could marvel at lakes of blue satin, the wide grain fields of Söderslätt, how Hälsingland was green as a leaf – the whole of his homeland from the sky.  

Call it the angle or the insight or the hook. It can set up the plot but in no way is fully the plot. It’s a shaft of light more than a 17-point plan. Your way in might whisper to you more than holler. Is that your muse pointing the way? Though the page is blank, it can feel like entering a conversation already in progress. Don’t bury the lede. Grab your reader. Understand the assignment.

But don’t be an order taker. Instead bend your assignment into an assignation, a secret meeting between you and your subject that will go where you decide. Before Lagerlöf had a Nobel Prize, she took a commission to write about geography, applied her own sensibilities and made it something new, utterly changed and fully informed by everything she loved about home, everything she wanted to say.

If how one chooses to live is another kind of assignment, Lagerlöf seems to have aced that, too, her biographer Anna Nordlund said.

Against her father’s wishes, Lagerlöf left home to get an education and then wrote in obscurity until a Danish translation of her first novel. The young woman from Värmland went on to become the author of 27 published works. She blazed through achievements, escaping near powerlessness to live a life of letters, supporting women’s suffrage and dodging marriage in favor of relationships with two women. Thanks to her income from writing, she was flush enough to buy back her childhood home, the farm her father lost, and preserve it for public use.

“She fulfilled so many of her childhood dreams,” Nordlund said. “She became a kind of powerful woman no one could have imagined in her childhood back in the 1870s.”

A productive writer with a social conscience, Lagerlöf led an expansive, creative life, she said.

“She never exposed or mistreated people around her for the sake of art,” Nordlund said. “Lagerlöf always endeavored to reach out to everyone with her writing without diminishing or simplifying the greatness and magic of life.” 

In 1940, the same year Lagerlöf died, she helped Jewish poet Nelly Sachs and her mother flee Nazi Germany. Sachs herself would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. 

Whether we are given them or task them to ourselves, imperfect assignments are part of the deal, especially if someone is paying for your work. Clicks rule. No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the great masses, as Mr. Mencken said. Abide that word count. But whatever is on your assignment plate today, Lagerlöf reminds us to put on a big hat and write the hell out of it. Find your way in so you can relish something that is as true today as it was for her in 1902: Assigners assign, but writers can have the last word.
___

Debra Moffitt is a Delaware-based writer whose essays have appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, Farmer-ish and Garden Rant. She authored The Pink Locker Society (St. Martin’s), a middle grade book series about puberty. Find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Happiest_Writer.

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