Write like a kid again

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At the eye doctor this morning, the technician who examined me had a literature degree. “This is what an English lit degree gets you,” she said with a wry smile, waving around the room. “I do this.”

We both laughed, because we were talking about editing. You tell the eye doctor what you do for a living when you’re an editor. It explains how your eyes get dry. Being an editor drew a response from Valerie, my tech. “Oh, so you’re one of the elusive editors of books?” She was ribbing me, and us, because editors are everywhere.

Authors are everywhere, too. “I don’t have a book,” Valerie said. “But everybody does, don’t they?” No irony there from her, or me. Lots of times, the book you have in you is a memoir, or autofiction based on your life. Unlocking that life can be hard: difficult to start, or tough to continue writing.

One way to dissolve the difficulty might come from an exercise in my workshops. We called it The Now and Later. Write an episode from your life before age 12. Choose something that felt important at the time. Write it in first person and use active tense. “I aim the bike along the gravel trail leading downhill, toward a street at the bottom.” That’s the Now. After 20 minutes of patient work, go back and write the same episode with the voice of the grownup, seeing the meaning of what happened.

When we had fun with this exercise, we then recopied the writing, alternating the Now with the Later. The point of this wordcrafting is to see how a child’s view unlocks personal writing, the sort of story that can be hard to tell. You drive yourself into the voice with that present tense, focusing on sensations like colors, noises, and smells. Once you’ve cracked open those memories, you’re writing like you are a kid again.

Later, you take those memoir bones — you might call it the spine, like director Sydney Pollock called a movie’s meaning — and supply the meaning. You tell the reader how it worked out in the end, whether the end was just at the end of the action, or better still, years later when the meaning appeared for you.

Another write like a kid trick is youthful abandon. Maybe you were the kind of kid who made up stories and wrote them down. Whenever I’d launch into a story, I was likely to narrate it on Dad’s reel to reel recorder. Lots of people have written glorious drafts in pencil and pen. For awhile before the pandemic, I volunteered at a fourth grade classroom for English lessons. The best of the students’ stories were usually surfacing on notebook pages. The form didn’t matter. The stories, these kids knew, were going to be great.

Difficult material lies at the start of a memoir, and these’s usually stories in it you’d rather not tell again. But as a kid, you could write those stories with the pencil on paper gusto. The meaning hadn’t crept up on you yet. Roberta Flack just released a children’s book that’s a memoir of her earliest days as a musician. The Green Piano tells her story of making a life as a musician, a hard road filled with disappointments and dreams. She also had an upright piano rescued from a junkyard, cleaned and tuned and painted a grassy green.

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