Monday Motivation: Honesty, fearlessness and clarity
Why are some of the greatest writers drawn to write fiction for children? One answer I’ve heard is that in England at least, books intended for children were taxed at a lower rate than those destined for the adult market. This meant that they enjoyed higher sales which in turn meant that writers earned more money…
Writers, according to this logic, are like everyone else: we are drawn to the deepest and most accessible honeypots.
The other reason is more complex. Many writers – like many people, including parents – assume that children are less discriminating about what they read than their elders. The opposite is, in fact, true.
Children are the most demanding and most discerning of all readers. They spot bullshit at a hundred yards. They’re super-sensitive to cant and pretension. They’re not satisfied by flim-flam and will lose interest in a heartbeat if you stuff your story with elaborate description, or dialogue that drags, or any of the other stuff that sometimes manages to impress the juries of our most prestigious literary awards.
The simple fact is that children love good stories and anything that gets in the way of a good story will simply turn them off.
There is, of course, no silver bullet guaranteeing anyone success in the field.
One of the best children’s writers of all time was E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. And browsing through the internet, as one does, and following a number of promising leads, I found myself in The Paris Review, which conducted one of their signature interviews with E.B. White in 1969. In it, White says some very wise things about writing for children.
“They are,” he said, “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.”
As long as it’s presented “honestly, fearlessly and clearly”. To me, that sounds like a pretty good recipe for all fiction, whether intended for newbies or geriatrics.
You might not have any interest in writing for what are now called, I think wrongly, “Young Adults”. (Although if the marketers of YA fiction would be prepared to call me – and my ilk – Old Children, I suppose I wouldn’t object so strenuously.)
But because children are so clear about what they want, and what they don’t, I think it’s useful to ask yourself, as you’re working on your magnum opus, whether what you’re striving for is a kind of honest, fearless and clear prose that tells your story without pretension.
Further research (I am sometimes and unpredictably indefatigable) revealed the forward by John Updike to a collection of White’s letters. In it, he quotes an early story by White in which the narrator remarks upon his startling discovery “that the world would pay a man for setting down a simple, legible account of his own misfortunes.” The world, in this case, was The New Yorker – and the account they paid him for was the first story he ever sold them.
But there it is again: White points at “simplicity” and “legibility” as being cardinal virtues.
I can do no better than agree.
Weekend Retreat, Temenos, McGregor – 24 to 26 March: Just two places left. Why not escape from your busy life, from cell phones, children and partners … To think. To day-dream. To be creative. Most importantly, to write.
Creative Saturday, Muizenberg, Cape Town – 1 April
30-Day Writing Workout, online – 2 to 31 May
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