This month’s O! Magazine is finally worth its cover price for an article on writing. Impossible to find among the effusive, bold-faced red of the Table of Contents, which blubber on about adventures in adult sex education, how to dress 10 pounds slimmer, and whether baby carrots are safe to eat, novelist Jim Shepard’s article “Castles in the Mind” was a scrumptuous read. Ostensibly about the uses of imagination, it is really about writing and writers–writers as people who never let go of our innate ability to become, and stay, engaged.
Also a teacher at Williams College, Shepard underscores the writer’s shamanistic side. Writing forces us to step over to the “other side,” and into the unknown.
Grace Paley’s nice way of putting it is that we don’t write about what we know; we write about what we don’t know about what we know. Tobias Wolff’s version is that every time you write you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light.
If that’s true, and we don’t know what we’re doing at first, then at least for a little while when we’re trying to compose something, we need to remember to cut ourselves some slack. There’ll be plenty of time for brutality later, when revising the mess we made. But we need to be allowed to make that mess in the first place. When we shut ourselves down prematurely, it’s as if we came across a child happily playing in the sandbox and asked what she was making, and when she said she didn’t know, we told her, “Then get out of the sandbox. If you don’t know what you’re making, you have no business in there.” Or if she answered, “I’m making a castle,” we responded, “Oh, a castle. That’s original. No one’s ever made a castle before.”
That girl in the sandbox has every right to respond, “I don’t know if it’s original. I won’t know until I’ve made it.”
We need to do everything we can, when writing, to stay in touch with pleasure. With fun. With the passionate engagement that we all manage, as children. Not only because that will keep us going, but also because it will generate the freedom and the energy that allows us to exhilarate ourselves, and so exhilarate others.
Alongside Shepard’s article is an interview with Toni Morrison, who says, “I start out with an image, even if I don’t know yet how to use it.”
As if this weren’t enough, just hours after reading this article, I listened to a lecture by philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft, who says that C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narniabegan with an image and burst into life when Aslan came bounding into the spotlight of Lewis’s imagination. The point is not only that inspiration must be honored and respected. It is that the writer or artist must never let go of her respect for the Muses, and must never cease honoring them through practical means. We mustn’t let our freedom of mind and spirit be compromised.
Seeing Shepard’s image of the girl in the sandbox in my mind’s eye, I was also reminded of a conversation I had with my young daughters yesterday. They were chattering on in the backseat of the car about their 11- and 12-year-old friends spending their summer shopping, tanning by the pool, and otherwise doing what their affluent mothers do all summer, too. “They don’t read books,” Sage complained, “they don’t paint and draw.”
“They don’t catch tadpoles and frogs!” Juniper interjected, “They don’t like to get dirty!” Giggles erupted in the backseat.
“Can you see Ashley catching crawdads?!” Their classmate, 11-year-old Ashley, wears Chanel sunglasses and carries a cute little Gucci purse.
Heat slithered up at us from the blacktop parking lot as we threw the car doors open. Cicadas throbbed their beat. I remembered my own childhood, the hours I spent outside in trees, under the shade of my grandmother’s Crape Myrtle, reading in the porch swing, lying on the chenille bedspread, book in hand, the old GE tabletop fan humming along at 80 mph. I had hour upon uninterrupted hour with books, with paint and chalk, with blank pieces of paper and fine-lined ones. With my dad’s old portable Smith-Corona typewriter, writing the Great American Novel. With my tiny, red and gold colored notebook, writing poetry.
I felt sorry for my children’s classmates, for the neighborhood children who, like their parents, don’t come home from jobs and day care until almost 7:00 p.m., eat hurried meals, rush through evenings full of activities–soccer, dance, swim lessons, sleepovers, television, back-and-forth between divorced parents, full up with American culture where CASH IS KING! LIMITED TIME OFFER! ACT NOW!
I realized that I can write, in part, because I was left to myself for long hours in childhood, given the freedom to meander through the library and check out books to my heart’s content, given paints and crisp white paper, given my dad’s old portable Smith-Corona typewriter and a typing book and showed how I could teach myself how to type. It never occurred to me, or to any of us back then, to spend hours in front of the television, because there were no daytime television shows, no HBO, no Showtime, no DVDs or video games.
With all these things available today, what is in short supply is time. If we don’t have long, leisurely, undulating hours for basking in our God-given light, neither will our kids. I won’t be surprised if we find ourselves unable to produce many great writers in this generation, or if the world’s best writers don’t come from cultures where cash is not king and where the children are not being MTV’d, Twittered, and Facebooked to death.