The Writer as Urchin (a lyric essay on writing for children)
03 April, 2014 by Matthew Greene
Escape and revelation. A relic unearthed. Sandbox quarry. Self-serving simultaneous with relinquishment, a keeping and letting go. To drain the mind to replenish it. Fiction writer writing fiction.
The writer stands on the corner under a flickering street lamp.
Road forking like ruptured vein, all paths promising.
The writer leads you down the back alley.
First frightened, you learn to love darkness and the unknown.
Footprints of forebears dirtied and bloodied and followed blindly.
There is light to be had.
If the writer is human, then what is the writing?
The writer is not immortal, not capable of escaping death.
The writer is merely a character.
Life ends like the closing of a book, and in the final chapter, just before the close, a resolve. A denouement. Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major: a rapid ascending of chromatic perfect fourths and a terminal march of chords. Music in a moment.
Yet the world soldiers on. And so the writing does, too.
Unlike the writer, the literary work has no end. A piece of literature never stops working, never quits in its pursuit of truth, never dies. The writing itself is at once earthly and transcendental. It is a chorus of superhuman realities, a collective consciousness.
Sometimes the light is blinding.
I was introduced to poetry during my sophomore year in high school. As the years progressed, I became increasingly interested in the operation of words, their subtleties and hidden meanings. I began to manipulate them to create art.
I wrote poetry. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote fiction.
Pathetic, hopeless fiction.
But the attempts were not pointless. I was exercising.
A way to dream, a way to learn, a way to express. A way to feel.
In the turbulence of adolescence I looked inward. Now I look out.
As a writer, artist, thinker, and human, I explore imaginary caves, cutting and digging in pursuit of truth, and when those gold specks are found, I carefully extract them and bring them into the light.
This is not painless. The process of extraction is trying and unending. The writer is sure to find treasure, but not all of it will be shared. Bits and pieces of knowledge are dropped, forced away from the writer’s hand by the necessities of story.
Let’s talk about that.
A child sits in silence in a sandbox.
He tells his hands to do the work, to give his mind a rest.
Between his fingers grains of sand grind scratching surface.
Nicks and cuts of learning.
Rain begins. Sand structure slips away. He persists.
What to do to make it stand. How deep to dig.
Sitting back, satisfied smiles.
A castle has been built.
One aspect of writing literature for young people is a sure thing: children want to be entertained. How interesting it is, then, for the children’s writer to realize the harsh, inescapable truth about writing in the genre: Unlike written works for adults, which are technically only for adults, works for children are for children and adults.
Children do not choose which books are “appropriate” for reading, or decide which books get published or win awards.
Parents, teachers, librarians, publishers—these are the first readers the writer must convince.
The children’s writer works large to small: First is the publisher, often the only factor in determining whether a book becomes a book at all. Then it’s on to the greater public—the parents and teachers and librarians who assess the publisher’s decision to publish. These are the most cautious readers of a children’s work. They pick apart every word and phrase, every sentence and idea, usually with the intention of eradicating any hint of obscenity. In this group there are lovers of children’s literature, but there are also censors.
For children, literature appeals to a different set of senses (we might call children the sensors), and it’s got nothing to do with innocence or purity. It’s about intuition. So when it finally comes time for the writer’s work to engage that intuitive, young mind, it does so on a level of understanding incapable of being achieved by adults. Conditioned by years of experience, as well as by the acquisition of both practical and impractical knowledge, we adults are deceived by logic and reason into thinking that a children’s narrative must serve some or another purpose, that a child must behave a certain way, learn certain things.
Write this way for children and any hope of artistic success is gone. Talk down to children, forget it.
Instead, care for them. Show them reality, but also fantasy. Take them on an adventure. Give them hope and something to fight for.
Be honest, for the eyes of a child are vast and sophisticated.
We sail tonight for Singapore, don't fall asleep while you're ashore
Cross your heart and hope to die, when you hear the children cry
Let marrow bone and cleaver choose, while making feet for children's shoes
Through the alley, back from Hell
When you hear that steeple bell
You must say goodbye to me.
~Tom Waits, “Singapore”
The immortal creatures stories are. A bequest to the cutting edge. Salad days ahead. A keeping and letting go. The fiction writer writing fiction. Darkness and unknown, sandboxes and subversion. Lighthearted heaviness. The writer as urchin.
This essay was written by Matt in 2012 as a partner text
to our children's book, Mildred Viola's Melting Brain.