Saturday, May 14, 2011

Through the Eyes of a Child

Some of you may recognize the title of this post as a lyric from a song. If so, feel free to let me know what song it is since my internet research sessions always end up with me doing less "researching" and more "challenging Google Images to come up with increasingly outlandish results." (Note: According to Google, an image of "Fabio riding a unicorn" does not exist. I know in my heart this is a LIE.)

I know this lyric because it was the subject of one of my astronomy classes in college, taught by the unspeakably awesome Dr. Möbius, whose soothing German accent could turn utterly terrifying when he talked about DON'T PLAGIARIZE WE WILL FIND YOU. (He's now part of something called the Experimental Space Plasma Group. In comparison, I belong to the Dragon Age Alistair Fan Club.)

Not even an actual human being.
I loved astronomy and Dr. Möbius. But they totally messed with my head. For months afterwards, I became nervous walking outside at night because of the overwhelming feeling that I was looking out, not up. I made bargains with Gravity the way some people bargain with God -- "Please keep us all stuck to this crazy spinning space ball; I promise to be good and eat my beets and to remain in a state of constant velocity unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force!"

From our microbial perspective here on Earth, the universe is boundless. The prospect of floating unfettered into the black reaches of space is terrifying -- no rules, no geography, no limits. Also you would explode. We need limits. We need rules. We need terrain.

Sometimes, someone's imagination is described as "boundless" as well. It's an interesting word, meaning both "immense" and "unlimited," free of boundaries. I don't think anyone's imagination is truly boundless; we are all a product of our experiences and observations, and these inform how we think about the world as well as how we perceive it. But some people -- especially children -- seem to have fewer imaginative boundaries than the rest of us.

Thank God she doesn't have access to the Large Hadron Collider.
I often find myself fearing my stories in the same way I feared being propelled into the vastness of space. [Update: my father says you would probably explode if you were shot into space. Otherwise you would just "de-gas," your insides would "melt out of you," and your blood would bubble like it was boiling . . . blah blah "the bends" . . . blah blah (okay now I'm thinking about Radiohead) . . .]

There are rules in fiction -- boundaries -- and we need to understand why these rules are in place; they don't just materialize out of the ether. Continually switching tense, for instance, makes your story difficult to read. Giving two or more of your characters the same name might be confusing. Of course, for every rule there is someone famous who has broken it and a hundred undergrads who feel this gives them permission to break it, too.

"Punctuation isn't real, man."
But I know sometimes I subconsciously invent rules where none exist, or I adhere to rules that should, in a certain instance, be broken. I have boundaries in my head.

When I was in middle school, I wrote a story about the President of the United States locking himself in the bathroom and refusing to come out, and the government trying desperately to cover it up and finally resorting to installing a lookalike in the Oval Office to prevent the collapse of the nation. Would I write this story now? Maybe not. There are loads of flaws. Loads. Starting with my decision to spend three paragraphs describing the First Lady, who is fat and annoying, slowly being engulfed by a bean bag chair while the Head of the CIA looks on, refusing to help because she's so fat and annoying. I don't know if I would give myself permission to write this story now.

But when I was eleven? HELL YEAH, MORE BEAN BAG CHAIR!

This picture of Terry Pratchett was honestly one of the top results
for my Creative Commons search, "Bean Bag Chair."
What does it mean??
And what that says to me is that I am less of a writer now than when I was eleven. I think the best writers write the bean bag chair scene first and think about it later. Maybe it won't work, maybe none of the story will work, but let it exist. This is a lesson we can take from kids. Most kid writers (fewer nowadays, in my opinion, but that's another rant post) feel unfettered by rules.

My junior high students, unfettered by rules about not going through my purse.
Pictured: a bus ticket, toothpaste, and my driver's license.
This was brought home to me one summer when I was finishing the script to a musical called Shoes (a sequel to the story of Cinderella). My writing partner (he's a composer) and I ran a summer theater camp for about ten years, and each summer we'd write an original musical. Sometimes it would be more like an original most-of-a-musical when camp started.

I was having a problem with the ending of Shoes. The plot centers on a Royal Shoemaking Contest sponsored by Queen Cinderella (shoes are a big deal in her kingdom), and what I wanted to happen was for crazy old Mr. Twinkle and his living frog shoes to initially win the contest, but for him to be unable to fulfill his duties, thus making our heroine, who had gotten second place, the ultimate winner.

But how was I to get Mr. Twinkle out of the picture? I couldn't come up with a satisfactory solution. So I brought the issue before the cast, ages 7-16.

This was a non-issue to them. "He gets eaten by a dragon."

They had no boundaries. Never mind the fact that this would happen at the ball, or that there had previously been no mention of a dragon, or that how the heck are we going to stage that without scarring small children? It was simple, tidy, and apparently self-evident to anyone unencumbered by practicality or logic.

It was absolutely right.

The dragon now has a prominent role in the show, and one of the characters even sings a lullaby to him:

. . . No more knights to fight today,
No more maidens fair,
No pestilence and rank decay
To spread everywhere.
Dragon bedtime,
Calm your claws,
Lower your great head,
Later you may 
Maim again.
But now it's time for bed.

So my writing mission is to get rid of as many boundaries as I can. Sanity can come later, but I'm not going to let it onto my laptop at the expense of what is right.

Sometimes, a ravenous dragon is the answer.

You're welcome, literature.


  1. Wow! You have opened my mind! So often in my poetry and songwriting i limit myself with a preconcieved notion of form, or the overall outcome when I shpuld let what comes come wvwn if it is no good. Bad writing is better than not writing at all.

  2. I totally agree. One of the advisors at my grad school said if we write twenty pages and end up finding only one good sentence in there, it was worth it.