Freedom

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.

PARADISE LOST

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.

22 responses

  1. I had the thought, the other day, that the drug of the current generation is immediacy.

    I hear a lot of very intelligent adults among my friends saying that Twitter, Facebook, etc. won’t harm children, basing that opinion on the fact that it doesn’t harm themselves. And probably it doesn’t; personally, I don’t feel that Facebook or blogging or texting has had a negative impact on me, and in many ways those things have enhanced my life by allowing me to discharge certain types of communication quickly, which then allows me more time for other stuff in my time-starved day.

    So I regard these things as the means to an end, not as an end in themselves. But kids who have no other experience of communication *do* regard convenience-communication as an end in itself. They don’t know how to wait. They don’t know how to ask. They don’t know how to converse with finesse, watching someone’s body language. They don’t know how precision of language and tone can completely change what they’re saying.

    Immediacy isn’t hurting me, because I have a foundation of reality, and I know how to use immediacy as a tool rather than as a focal point of my life.

    But that won’t be true of kids who are raised to value nothing but the quick fix.

  2. In my comment I was thinking about the Ur-story of how the older generations regard the younger, and that this Ur-story continues.

    “……..If what you’re saying is correct, then the empirical research available on stress-related illnesses, including mental illness, and other markers of sociological dysfunction are without merit insofar as they reflect a growing modern malaise………”

    If what you are saying is that stress-related and mental illnesses, and other markers of social dysfunction are widespread and growing among today’s young people, I wouldn’t disagree with you. However, were these conclusions arrived at because these dysfunctions are measured more today, as never before? Were comparable, and as frequent, studies of children done in the generations before the present?

    What about children of parents who worked in twelve and more hours a day in sweat-shop factories; the children who worked in the fields of the family farm from sunup to sundown; and the children of the masses of unemployed during the Great Depression? These were the children of the manual labouring classes, to which, before the 1950s, the majority of people belonged. Were their stresses any less than those of their descendants today?

    “……..My message was (and remains) that if I don’t have ‘time’ for the Muses, then neither will my own children. That’s an active parenting stance, for one thing; it’s also a writer’s perspective, one that I know is shared by my friends who are artists, musicians, and other creative types………”

    It’s wonderful that you recognise this, and put it into practice, and that your friends who are like-minded, do this too. This shows that some children, even if only a small minority, continue to be raised as those of you and your friends are. But wasn’t this always the case with previous generations?

    As to people of the generations before ours, did the majority of them attend to their muses, given they had more time to? Or did they spend most of their idle time in the time-honoured frivolous philistine pursuits?

    I suggest that today’s widespread social and emotional dysfunctions come out of the current and ceaseless technological revolution which is taking us to places we still can’t dream of. We can, as we all know, use technology for good or bad. Today’s young people have, thanks to the internet, access to an Aladdin’s Cave of knowledge and learning which children of my generation and earlier, would have salivated at. This is the positive side to the negative side of the social and emotional dysfunctions you talked of.

    The world I grew up in, tolerated legalised racial segregation and discrimination; the severe circumscribing of the lives of, and opportunities for, women; the persecution and imprisoning of homosexuals; and tolerated other social maladies I can’t now think of. It was an intolerant conformist world, ruled by hat-wearing men in grey flannel suits. Would today’s children, even though stressed, wish to live in that world?

    So I suggest that, as the previous generations muddled through life, so will today’s. They may even, when older, rebel against the philistinism of their society, as did the baby-boomers in the ‘sixties.

    “…….What have you learned in your 60 years………?”

    Not a hell of a lot. But, thanks to the computer and the internet, I’m today reading more, and encountering more information, and generally learning more than ever I did before. I wouldn’t wish to return to how it was. And to those who do, I say: first, turn off your air-conditioner.

    I apologise for this much too over-long comment.

    • Phillip, I don’t know what to make of your comment. I get your point. I hope you’re satisfied with making it. I’m not. I feel sad.

      “Turn off your air-conditioner”? This is not what I was writing about. But it is apparently what you made of it, which reminds me of the line in Anna Nalick’s song, “Breathe,” about the result of putting oneself out there through the written word:

      “2 AM and I’m still awake, writing a song
      If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me,
      Threatening the life it belongs to
      And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
      Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
      And I know that you’ll use them, however you want to.”

      It’s the “I know that you’ll use them, however you want to” part that’s germaine.

      Or perhaps I can learn to communicate more clearly, as I have no wish to live without air conditioning. ;o)

  3. The theme running through your posting, and in most of the comments, might be summed up as: What’s new generation coming to?

    As someone now in my sixties, I heard the same thing from my parents and others of their generation. They, too, heard the same thing from their elders.

    From everything I’ve read, all previous generations have said this. It’s just what people say when they get old.

    Somehow, this young generation will muddle through intact. When it gets old, it, too, will shake its collective head, look at its children, and wonder: What’s the new generation coming to?

    • You think so? I disagree, Phillip. If what you’re saying is correct, then the empirical research available on stress-related illnesses, including mental illness, and other markers of sociological dysfunction are without merit insofar as they reflect a growing modern malaise.

      My message was (and remains) that if I don’t have “time” for the Muses, then neither will my own children. That’s an active parenting stance, for one thing; it’s also a writer’s perspective, one that I know is shared by my friends who are artists, musicians, and other creative types. I can email, or I can write another page of my book; I can spend an hour on Facebook, or I can spend an hour reading a good book. Or I can spend an hour on each, but in any case the way I use my time determines, in large part, my growth as a human being and most particularly as a writer.

      That you so neatly sidestepped these points only suggests to me that you may want to look at how you’re spending your own time; rather than reflect on how old we are or how old we act, do you care to share your thoughts on your use of time? What have you learned in your 60 years?

  4. Eve–you can check out my list on goodreads–under my “irl” name. 🙂 I have read a few of Jim Shepard’s short stories although I confess I haven’t read his entire collections. I just happen to have met him irl and hung out with him at a writers’ conference. (Mostly because he just sat down next to me and start talking and because I didn’t know what Jim Shepard looked like, I wondered who this insanely friendly man might be…)

  5. I loooove Jim Shepard! He is not only a great writer, but a great teacher and a wonderful down to earth and very very funny person. It is just like him to write such a generous article about writing. And I love that you shared this, Eve, for otherwise I would not known about what he wrote!

    • Jade, I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Jim Shepard; but I’m going to now, just because of this article!

      As a nonfiction writer, I’ve tended to focus on reading a lot of nonfiction over the past several years, except for whatever mind candy I’m sucking on (Anne Rice, currently). I defintely need some balance; if you love him, then I’m adding him to my “to read” list. Thanks!

  6. Is it a sign of my approaching age that I reflect back on what seems to be a “simpler” time? We live in the microwave age, the age that as children we “pretended” to have what are now common gadgets (remember Inspector Gadget and Dick Tracey and his TV screen in his watch?).

    I remember the time when Mom spent hours cooking the evening meal or Dad spent hours fixing Sunday morning pancakes while Mom and us kids got ready for church. Now you simply pull something from the freezer and pop it in the microwave and you sit down to eat in 45 minutes or less. Remember when TV dinners were the rage and were considered all but scandalous to REAL cooks?

    People don’t have dining rooms any more because they eat in the great room in front of the TV screen. Kids don’t play on swing sets; do they know “Mother May I” or “Red Light Green Light”? Probably not, but they can beat you at any given video game. TV’s are the after school baby sitters for working parents.

    I could go on and on with images in my mind but that doesn’t answer why we have allowed ourselves to become slaves to this rush. I am already exasperated even commenting on the topic because it is tiring thinking of the constant drive to meet the next imposed deadline for whatever we are trying to achieve.

    My daughter may be the last generation of kids who were restricted to one after school activity at a time, that was encouraged to read because she saw her parents with a book, magazine, or other periodical in their hands on a regular basis (there are at least 3 books on the other side of my king size bed that I grab and read as I go) and a few more stacked on the bedside table.

    I should feel blessed that my daughter loves to read, and writes eloquently and quite thoughtfully. In fact, I think she should blog rather than write brief comments on her facebook page. She sees no need to Twitter.

    But then my daughter has spent more time among adults than among her peers…she is an “old soul”.

    • Vonnie, I hope your daughter is one who builds another generation of readers and writers! It makes me smile to think of her the way you describe her.

      Yes, I remember those scandalous TV dinners! We considered them an extravagant treat at our house, because we had them once in a blue moon and of course had to watch TV as we ate them! We had TV trays and watched “Sing Along with Mitch”–and the whole family sang around the television! Sounds silly even typing that, but still true!

  7. I love that about play and honouring the muse – fits perfectly where I am right now in my novel. I’m tinkering and it’s good.

    When it comes to children, I think there is nothing wrong with a bit of boredom – boredom leads to a picture being painted, a story being written and a game evolved with siblings. That picture you paint of your kids’ peers is tragic. It also reminds me not to turn on the telly too often this summer. Thanks for that.

    • Charlotte, I think you’d really enjoy the article. Maybe you could grab a free read the next time you visit your local bookstore! I enjoyed both the article and the Morrison interview (though I am no fan of Morrison), and especially the sidebar quotes from various novels. Rather than quotes from writers about writing, they included beautiful literary quotes. I loved that.

      I think you’d appreciate what Morrison said about her own creative process because you’ve written about this similarly. It’s obvious you love writing! Delicious!

      About boredom; I learned recently that the word didn’t exist until the 1800s. When I looked this up, I found it was indeed true. There was no “boredom” in the English language until 1850-1855 or so. Interesting, isn’t it, that this was about the time of the height of the Industrial Revolution? By the late 1800s, Toynbee was writing and lecturing about the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the entire world.

      I think we’re on to something here.

  8. I think kids are “overprogrammed” today because the parents are afraid of their own boredom, so they assume the kids must be constantly entertained, too. Passive consumption instead of active creation. Combined with irrational fears of violent crime, and it’s a wonder kids get any free time outside any more.

    • Heni, of course we’re in agreement here. Your mothering gives a perfect example of how children can have childhoods AND go to school. I imagine you have to do as we do, which is consciously and carefully choose what to say “yes” to and what deserves a “no thank you” in terms of scheduling and so on, yes?

      I was just talking with another mom about this very thing, how we are much busier this summer than we’d anticipated, and that having our children in some type of school this past year seems to have increased our busy-ness. I’m starting to see that I have to continue to be somewhat rigid about protecting childhood.

      And I didn’t really anticipate I’d have to do that.

  9. I got off track I think. The writing, yes, it requires time, a great deal of time alone and you’re right, it has to be okay to make mistakes. That’s what holds me back so much. I write, it’s not perfect, I stop. Except nothing is perfect and good takes a lot of practice and effort. I’m apparently feeling quite verbose this morning. I’ll stop now. Take care and I’m sure your kids will have a wonderful summer. I sent my own daughter off for an adventure on Monday, sent her off to the East Coast because she’s young and had an opportunity. She’s far braver than I ever was, mind you I’m far braver than my mother ever was. I trust my daughter to be independent, my mother never did.

    • Oh, I didn’t think you were off track. This centre you wrote about can only be gotten to through the use of time, the refusal to be busy all the time, to (in effect) be addicts always avoiding relationships with our very selves. I think you hit the nail right on the head!

      I intend to write more about this time-taking, the care it takes to pay attention, whether it’s through writing, photography, art, relationships even; so be all the verbose you want. I’m always interested in your thoughts.

      As for your daughter, good for you! We do the same thing–give out kids opportunities because we’re the sort of people who can do that. It does take some courage; but getting opportunities that require courage also builds it, and doesn’t it make people more likely to try even more new things? I would hope so.

  10. I so agree. I find it incredibly sad that most kids are so over programmed. I find it equally sad that people can not walk down a street any more with out staring at a screen because they are “texting” or “tweeting”. When I walk, I get to notice gardens, I listen to birds because I don’t have a cell phone at my ear, or I talk with my kids about what we are seeing or going to do.

    • Lee, now that we’ve stopped home schooling, I find it a seemingly impossible task to pare back the school-related activities, even in the summer time! I’d always had the idea that having one’s kids in school all day gave at-home mothers, or those who work from home, oh so much more time. But, no. Absolutely not.

      So I liked what you wrote here. It’s so easy to go everywhere with a cell phone; I know I do! Lately, I’ve taken to leaving it behind in the car, or silencing it, or otherwise not letting people have uninterrupted access to me all the time. Your practice is a good reminder to actually be with the person we’re with!

  11. This busyness, the TV watching, shopping, game playing, consuming, all of it is an effort to avoid. No less an addiction than crack cocaine. We’ve convinced ourselves and our children that life should only be happy, that we shouldn’t have to suffer. But life is about suffering, not because we’ve done things wrong but just because. People die randomly, nature disasters kill people, we get sick, grandparents and even siblings die, people get depressed, all manner of suffering happens in life and instead of staying still and learning something from it, we run, we stay busy, all in effort to not feel sad. What nobody told me as a child, is that sadness passes, as does happiness. All of it, all of our emotions, they pass but we remain. We have a centre that remains intact despite the winds of our emotions, but nobody told me.

    • Deb, I loved this line of yours, “…sadness passes, as does happiness. All of it, all of our emotions, they pass but we remain…”.

      And then this, “We have a centre that remains intact despite the winds of our emotions,” also so true. Our timeless center. The one that can be captivated and is so glorious.

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