The Childlikeness of Writers / The Monthly

What Was on My . . .

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 11.35.53 AMIt’s the 30th, and I guess you all know what that means by now: It’s my turn up. So, if you’ve been desperate to know what I’ve been up to, keep on reading, because you’re about to find out What Was on My . . .

Birthday Cake: Butter cream frosting and not nearly enough candles. Yes, it’s true, I’m a January baby. Aquarius. Double Aquarius, actually—which seems to frighten some people. But since I’m blithely ignorant of what that double-hit of Water Bearer means, I continue to be happy that I have something to look forward to in the midst of Switzerland’s coldest month of the year.

Feet: Not snow boots! While North America has been hit with one of the worst winters in years, we still don’t have even a dusting of snow at our home.

Kitchen Counter: My forgotten juicer. Dug out because my doctor said to up my iron. My favourite concoction so far: Beet, carrots, Pink Ladies, lemongrass, ginger, and mint.

Catalogue of Obsessions: Mac Barnett. Every several months, I go through a picture book author obsession. Last time around it was Tomi Ungerer, and I read seven of his books in the course of an hour. This time, it started with my friend Linda Washington recommending Extra Yarn and led into a Barnett reading streak. In one sitting: Count the Monkeys, Battle Bunny, Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, Mustache!, Chloe and the Lion, and Guess Again!

Lake Geneve No Snow

Lake Geneva and the vineyards in front of our home, with not a flake of snow.

Agenda: A lot of wondering around the house brainstorming a new story idea. And when I couldn’t take the nebulousness of it all, sitting down to revise a narrative nonfiction picture book and planning my I-can’t-wait-till-it-gets-here trip to New York. Eight days and counting.

Mind: The childlikeness of writers.

Mostly on my mind since I’ve been reading Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby.

Gopnik talks a fair amount about pretend play and how children spend hour after hour imagining different characters and making those characters ‘real’ by acting them out. This sort of pretend play sounds an awful lot like what I do—what all fiction writers do. Add in play that involves an imaginary friend or an imaginary world and the connection grows even stronger. In fact, a study by Marjorie Taylor shows that adults who played with imaginary friends as children and retain some sort of link to those friends are particularly likely to end up writing fiction.

By the time children grow up and take on adult responsibilities, most have left pretend play behind. Writers, however, continue to imagine people who don’t exist and to create worlds that look nothing like ours. Gopnik reminded me that Plato’s ideal republic would have exiled writers because they create things that are not true and real. And Plato certainly has his modern heirs: think of those among us who don’t read fiction because it is a waste of time, because it is not real. In other words, engaging in the imaginary is not a worthy adult activity.

But, the imaginary also has its defenders, and Gopnik is one such hero. She shows that pretend play is one of the strongest ways children discover psychological truths. They try out scenario after scenario and because children have a strong understanding of causality, they not only learn universal truths about other people, they also learn alternate ways they might act. They explore the wonder of human possibility. They discover how people can transform themselves.

Before I started writing fiction, I studied acting for two years, so I’ve thought quite a bit about the parallels of pretending and writing, about how I could use my acting skills to help deepen the inner life and outer gestures of my characters. But, I’ve also thought about the magic of pretending.

When pretending is done right, it’s a sort of truth-telling compass. Any lie will send it spinning. Children know this. Before beginning imaginary play, they set up their world and the rules of each player’s role. Then, they are unforgiving if another player doesn’t act as he should. They’ll stop the play, remind him of his role, and start over. And they’ll do this again and again until each line is delivered in accordance with the player’s assumed personality.

When it comes to fiction, readers also know when pretending is done right. A story may be told well; we might even recommend it to a friend. But the truly magical books are the ones that make us catch our breath, pause, and think, Yes—yes, that’s how it is. The characters are that true and real. Writers who are masters at pretending created them.

Charles Dickens was as rigorous in his imagining as any child. As he wrote, he would jump up from his desk, run to a mirror on the wall, pull his face into different grimaces and emotional expressions, then hurry back to his desk and continue writing. It is no wonder that he is known for his psychological descriptiveness and keen insight into human nature.

So, yes, there does seem to be a sort of magic in the pretending that both children and the best of writers do—a magic that leads us to understanding people. Even Gopnik, who is a professional scientific psychologist, says she feels she has learned more about human personality and social life from Jane Austen than from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

So, here’s to childlikeness. And extravagant pretending. Because children aren’t the only ones discovering truth and reality in pretend worlds.

Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel

Be sure to stop by on February 10 for Trent Reedy, who just launched Divided We Fall, the opening novel of his new trilogy, and on February 20 for Amy Plum, the author of the international bestselling Die For Me series.ickel sandra nickel sandra nickel sandra nickel sandra nickel sandra nickel

11 thoughts on “What Was on My . . .

  1. Happy Birthday, Sandra! The Gopnik book sounds fascinating. To be honest, I’ve never really understood people who only read non-fiction. “Real” does not always equal “true.” (Most of them are also men, which I suspect has to do more with societal pressure on men to stop playing pretend than on any biological difference).

    • Thank you for the birthday wishes, Elizabeth! And I think you’re absolutely right about the pressure that is put primarily on men. My husband–when I first met him–didn’t read fiction. He’d grown up in a strictly intelligentsia family, where music was noise and fiction seemed to be less worthy than, say, philosophy. One of the beautiful things about marriage–as with pretending and fiction–is that we have the chance to witness another transform himself. I couldn’t have a stronger supporter for all the the different characters that now clutter our house and huddle around our kitchen table.

    • Thank you, Laurie. I do too. It’s easy to fall into thinking that imagining is easy. Because it is at a certain level. But it takes commitment and time and–yes–rigor to arrive at the details that are most telling and magical.

  2. This makes me want to invite Wilma and her bobbing lights of a friends into a picture book – Wilma and the Lights being my own imaginary friends that lived with my five-year-old self in an old East Hampton “saltbox” house. Maybe it should be a picture book about Aquarian birthdays, with a lot of big picture ideas as presents and extraordinary characters discussing them… Oh, but that would make it a biography and include my fabulous real friends! As long as cake and lights and friends are present, then it will be a celebration worthy of this post.

    • Oh, I love the idea of Wilma–and that you remember her! Gopnik says many adults (herself included) remember their imaginary friends only through family lore, not through actually memory.

  3. I love this post, Sandra. It’s full of all sorts of fascinating, thought-provoking ideas. Especially like thinking about the child-likeness of writers. Happy belated birthday to you!

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