Last month I pondered a bit on the topic of ‘writing quiet’ – about what that means for me and for my work.
In the course of my ponderings, I mentioned some feedback I received on an early picture book manuscript, which read “Lovely language … but can’t something more interesting happen?”
Although that’s been useful food for thought in some ways, in another far more important sense it’s absurd.
Because how do we define ‘interesting’? Whose version are we talking about? There’s a kind of arrogance in that line, an assumption that the way the speaker sees the world – or the way in which she thinks kids see the world – is *the* way. That there’s a single version of ‘interesting’ which will speak to the readership, and that’s what the writing needs to tap into.
And I see this a lot. We all do. We hear people – often adult ‘gatekeepers’ – say Kids need things to be more black & white or Teen readers want a bit of romance or A child wouldn’t think like that.
I once had editorial feedback on a manuscript that read “It’s beautiful, but I don’t see how it speaks to a child’s concern.”
What on earth is “a child’s concern”? Who is this singular child and where can I meet them? And who is this adult who has an omniscient view of all children, somehow bundled into one handy package?
The thing is – there isn’t a readership; there aren’t ‘kids’ or ‘teenagers’. There’s no monolithic homogeneous mob out there chanting More action, higher stakes, get the parents out of the picture, keep the pages turning, we need romance! There’s just a group of people who happen to be about the same age but who are not a group in any other sense.
Kids ain’t kids. Just as adults ain’t adults. This is self-evident. No one ever says Adults need a happy ending or Over forties need a stronger sense of place or Boomers don’t want to read about dragons or I don’t see how this speaks to an adult’s concern.
As a child, I had many concerns. Did my friends really like me? Was I smart enough, pretty enough, good enough? Why did that magpie always swoop me? Would I ever beat Raquel Fenton in a running race? How could I get my brother to stop tickling me?
But what I remember most vividly are these, from around the age of seven:
- Sitting on the freshly mown grass of the school oval on sports day, waiting to be called up for a race. Spring day, bare feet. Sun on my face. Crushing peppercorns in my palms, the sharp smell of them. Thinking in one moment – This, now, is perfect – and in the next – This ‘now’ will never come again. Feeling suddenly melancholy, but also as if this was right, as if the melancholy, the sense of something being transient – the fact of it being transient – was part of what made it perfect. Then being called for my race, jumping up, dusting myself and my complex thoughts off, leaving them in my wake. Coming second to Raquel Fenton, again.
- Sitting, bored, in my bedroom, staring at the bookshelf, thinking about maybe reading something. Then thinking about how many books I had, how many pages were in them, how many words in those. And then about stars – so many of them in the sky and where did they end and where did the universe begin and what was on the other side of it? Could there even be another side and what were sides anyway when you were talking about space and time? And if there ever was a Big Bang, what came before, what was there in that instant, it couldn’t have been just nothing could it? Was it really just nothing? And how about when we die – is that like nothing? There are so many people in the world and all of us on our way to dying and where do we go then? Are we just gone? I don’t want to die! I don’t want my parents to die or my grandparents or anyone. How will I feel when they die, when they’re just gone? How will I bear it? How does anyone bear anything? How do we live with this unbearable stuff sitting right there all the time? And … and … and … from bored to books to existential crisis in under 30 seconds, my mind flipping inside out, trying to wrap itself around something it knew instinctively cannot be wrapped and that part of living is learning to make peace with that knowledge.
And maybe some of you are thinking whoa, what a weird kid. Maybe. But if I was weird, I have no doubt there were others like me. That there still are. And everyone needs to find their face in fiction, including kids who freak out about the endless stars at the age of seven. Maybe especially those kids. Not to mention the kids who haven’t articulated those thoughts – not even to themselves – but when someone else does, they’ll recognise them. They’ll dredge them up from some deep place, and say huh; so that’s what you are.
Definitely especially those kids.
Years ago, when I first started writing, I tried to get some of those feelings down onto the page. The character I gave them to was about twelve.
And an editor said to me: You need to watch this kind of thing. Kids don’t think like this. This is adult point-of-view creeping in.
And I thought You are dead wrong, at least about some kids. And they’re the ones I’m writing for.
But seriously – can’t something more interesting happen?
The answer is no, and also yes. There won’t be an explosion. No one will fall off a cliff – almost! – and be rescued at the eleventh hour. But maybe there’ll be an important shift; maybe someone will look at the stars and feel their smallness. Maybe their brain will flip inside out just for a moment and then they’ll jump up and lose a running race. And that will be interesting enough, for some kids. And some kids are enough; some kids are all we have. When we try and speak to everyone – when we generalise about kids or teenagers or pretty much anything at all – we miss important marks. We miss readers. And those readers miss stories that speak to them, books in which they can find themselves and see that their complex, impossible thoughts are not weird or wrong, that though they might feel it, they’re not alone.
So as I work on my WIP, and worry that it’s light on plot and has insufficient child appeal and is that a maybe whiff of adult perspective creeping in there and what kid in their right mind would want to read about a star-gazing six-year-old boy named after a seventeenth-century-scientist anyway, I remind myself about the bare feet and the fresh-cut grass and the bookshelf and the stars, and I put my head down and keep going, just in case.