Childlike Pages for Harsh Red Pens
"It’s the feeling that I’m at the absolute center of things, instead of off to one side—the feeling that the entire universe is streaming in on me. It’s a feeling of strength, of terrifying health, of much-more-aliveness. ... for me, childhood is above all a metaphor for a way of perceiving the world." –Steven Millhauser
Writers and artists can feel a lot of pressure to have their work taken seriously by harsh people with advanced degrees.
Q: Do you ever find letting childlike simplicity into your work freeing? Is it ever something you aim for? What are some of the obstacles to, or anxieties around, allowing that kind of transparentness into the execution of a piece, or just into the way you allow yourself to perceive, in general?
I think of simplicity, most frequently, in the type of emotional connection it can make. Childlike, sure, but I think there's a sort of beauty to the transparency that a child can understand and feel a connection to. In poems, I often struggle with this idea of what is/isn't "complex" enough, not realizing that these are all imaginary boundaries, set by no one. It seems, to me, to only be an obstacle when I allow myself to believe in an invisible standard. One that, often times, exists because of an idea that simplicity can't also be complex. A warm and honest transparency, even if childlike, can raise more complex thought and questioning than even the most abstract of images.
While I have a lot of anxieties elsewhere in my life, I rarely have any when it comes to writing or revising poems. For me, the goal is to always be risking something while remaining authentic. I have never been afraid to share my secrets or my process. Writing is one of the few places in life where I feel most comfortable and maybe that is its truest connection with childlike simplicity—like a child with a pencil and paper—I know at any time, I can walk into this room and begin to write, nothing else is needed.
There are a few ways I go about adding play to my work—when writing new poems, I connect with a close poet friend and we make up prompts for each other. We add the element of surprise by creating word lists for the other with vocabulary we may not normally use in a poem. Another way is—during revising—instead of opening one poem, I open ten or more, then move between the documents to see what interests me. This way the importance is taken off the poem and revising becomes a game where I’m free to move around as needed.
Often times, as poets and writers, we can take ourselves way too seriously. When play is involved, writing becomes easier and more interesting because I’m not putting the heaviness of importance on my work—just joy and play and fun.
The thought of my work going out to people with advanced degrees does intimidate me somewhat, even as I'm pursuing a PhD. I'm surrounded by cohorts from the UN, the Defense Department, and congressional corners of the country. Measured against all that, I pretend to hold my own, lowly community college teacher that I am. Then I see a cohort spill coffee on their shirt, or trip over themselves, and I'm reminded that we're all the same.
Keeping all that in mind, I purposefully aim for simplicity when constructing stories. The writing seems to flow easier when the word choice is concise, and if both Stephen King and Steven Pinker are right, readers appreciate a direct storyteller. Short sentences can be just as impactful as long ones. Take a few of my favorites from King's Toolbox: "Rocks explode. Jane transmits. Mountains float [...] Plums deify!"
I admire any writer who can be verbose and make it work, but it don't work for me. In order to write more, and to appeal to more readers, I channel a childlike part of myself, the part that only cares about creating—verbosity and flowery descriptions be damned.
One of the best gifts children give us is that we get to see the world through their eyes. Sometimes it's funny and sometimes it's beautiful. Or scary. They remind us to pay attention, to notice the details. And isn't that one of a writer's main jobs?
I feel, and have always felt, that it is my child self who composes a story. I only write stories I don't fully understand at the outset. I don't plan or outline because what's the fun in that? For me, finding the end of the story is as much a part of why I write as externalizing the internal.
If there's any one aspect of writing best left to the child, it is, in my opinion, humor. I have young children and they make me laugh all the time, but only when they aren't trying. What makes them so funny is that they plainly report their truth. Here's something my 4-year-old daughter said to me recently that made me laugh: "I bet all the dads in the neighborhood are saying, 'Let's decorate for Halloween!' And the moms say, 'No!'" That's her truth. I do not like decorating for holidays. But my husband gets in the spirit. It's also a reversal of what's true in most other houses: moms usually do the holiday decorating. She doesn't understand this, but I do, and herein lies the humor.
But, if it is my warm-blooded mammalian child self who writes, it is my cold-blooded reptilian adult self who edits. I print out my stories so that it creates a distance, like I'm looking at someone else's work, and then I slash and burn. That is fun, too, in its own way. Finding mistakes. The part I like least is correcting all the wrongs on the page, transferring the edits to the file. This is the job of the adult. To do what you have to do, even when you don't want to.
I have a tattoo of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich just above my wrist. Sometimes I’m evasive, and sometimes effusive, when people ask about its inspiration. But the upshot is that it’s there to remind me to be more childlike. Of course, its constant presence means it necessarily fails in this one task.
In a writing workshop last year, we were asked to write an invocation to a muse, and I could think of no better choice than Ganesha: remover of obstacles, patron of letters, but also a playful child. There’s a small Ganesha that happens be placed on the window ledge above my writing desk—a souvenir from a trip—and I’d never before considered my intention in placing it there. Perhaps my subconscious understood what I really need.
I know that being childlike matters—and yet. In my life, the greatest enemy of that childlike impulse is time. To play requires we fumble, we fail, we make a mess without worrying about the clean-up. And when it feels there is precious little time to do the work at all, play is a huge indulgence. Sometimes when I don’t grant myself that indulgence, a short assignment or writing exercise for a workshop will allow me to do what I’m bad about doing on my own. I’m always surprised at what emerges. We need to find ways, no matter how brief, to build in that permission for ourselves.
I am drawn to, and disposed to emulate, stuff that is crafted. Wizardry in prose, worldbuilding, and plotting is key as far as I'm concerned. For my money, the Red Wedding is one of the great triumphs of narrative storytelling—meticulously set up, perfectly logical given the personalities and interests of the conspirators, masterfully obfuscated by careful choice of point of view. This isn't to say that no pleasure can or should be derived from more childlike, simple moments... but narrative has a lot of competition for those. Music, visual arts, and poetry can do them at least as well. Feats of plot and character engineering like the Red Wedding are something you only get from stories.
And now that you've invited me to unspool my homespun philosophy, here's a gross generalization: Narrative is an intrinsically adult art form. Not that stories can't be for kids, or that kids can't sometimes tell striking or effective stories. But the attributes needed to craft and appreciate stories are adult: Focus, memory, experience, an eye for detail. And this is borne out in the kind of art that speaks to children. They like listening to music and looking at pictures; they like being read to, but they don't really care if what they're reading is a story. (A lot of kids' books aren't.) The kind of craft that goes into making effective art for kids is very different from the kind of craft that makes for an effective long-form narrative. Not inferior! But very different.
At boarding school, in my first year, I hid up in the attics virtually the whole time, eating sweets in a rough, grey blanket surrounded by books that I had stolen from the library. I read Somerset Maugham, Simone De Beauvoir and Wilkie Collins, stuffing sweets into my mouth, one by sticky one and flinching from every creak and banging door below me.
My work in essays, fiction and formal poetry is always fairly dark and pitchy. I use it to identify how I’m feeling. A literary barometer, I suppose. Thermometers only chart the up and the down, and Bi-Polar is more complex than that. Much more like the weather. So childlike innocence rarely finds itself playing anywhere near my angst. The closest I got to writing about childhood was a poem—"A Long Way Home"—a measure of how incredibly confusing & lonely my childhood was. I created world after world after world in my head, where I was loved, safe and pain free.
I worry I’m being too transparent. I write so candidly about my grief & desolation, my period of ‘switching' in the world of Kink, a society so accepting of the unusual, the pained, the muddy, that it was home for a time. I worry that my words will betray me as ‘just too weird’. Because we all know that once you ‘like’ and ‘share’ a post about depression on Facebook that ten people with depression are cured instantly.
There is always someone more weird than me—always one deep, dark fish with suckers instead of scales, or a puffin with a beak of grey tones instead of scarlet. Sometimes, it’s me and sometimes it’s some other crazy bastard. Acceptance is a luxury that I dismiss as irrelevant. I have my tribe, branded with their own scars and painful soul torques—my velvet cushioned friends, shabby and faded, that can be puffed up or slack, feathered or full of stones. But they are my acceptance. And that's how we roll.
As good elementary school teachers know, the best way is to follow the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid! To get back to the age of childlike wonder we must engage ourselves in the process of writing, creating a place clear of worry. Then we can focus on the all-important task of engaging our readers, but how to get there?
The hum of river, scent of flower, tang of wild fruit, or sight of fresh tracks (that give otherwise stealthy animals away) gently guide us in. Inviting the reader to follow their senses can simplify a complex plot, holding their hand until they reach the edge of the forest, ready to go the journey alone. This does not mean we patronize them; children and readers alike are intuitive about that. Patronize either and you will see the loss of respect impossible to regain. Instead, we’re asking for their help as active participants in the journey of words.
Summoning that awesome power when we wrote our first stories as kids and read them aloud to the class with whoops of applause or gold stars from the teacher, let’s trust where the shared road through the great green forest may lead.
What’s easy to lose when mastering an art form is that initial sense of discovery in our “room of one’s own” we’ve worked so hard to build. In this room, work is born from joy and art is a process—a free place to be. As we progress, our space can get riddled with deadlines, pressures, and distractions. Time looms like a great red devil.
“She was like that, excited and delighted by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting a new flavor of ice cream, or dropping a letter in a mailbox. It was a quality he did not understand. It made him feel stupid, as if the world contained hidden wonders he could not anticipate, or see. He looked at her face, which, it occurred to him, had not grown out of its girlhood, the eyes untroubled, the pleasing features unfirm, as if they still had to settle into some sort of permanent expression. Nicknamed after a nursery rhyme, she had yet to shed a childhood endearment.” ―Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies