Over the last few weeks, I’ve been following the terrific discussion threading through YARN’s blogs and readers’ comments about the “adult” voice in YA literature. Our editors and reader-contributors have been trying to define what constitutes “adult” from both a reader’s and writer’s perspective, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the analysis of writing strategies and styles that work (or don’t).
So here’s a partly tongue-in-cheek and partly serious reminder for all we writers to use more of the “kindergarten” voice in our new work. Remember that book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Chances are that even if you’ve never read it, you know the title; it has become a catch-phrase because it rings true for so many people. The book’s essays translate such simple acts as planting a seed in a cup into examinations of the nature of life. I had my own “what I learned in kindergarten” moment recently when I volunteered in my son’s kindergarten classroom.
The five-year-olds have a weekly book-publishing workshop in which they develop a story idea during a closed-eyes visualization, then illustrate the pictures and finally write the text (with the help of a parent volunteer). When the book is complete, the students read their stories to their classmates in the Author’s Chair. Honestly, how many of we grown-up writers wish we, too, could sit in the Author’s Chair once a week? The children made the start-to-finish book project seem so easy, so natural. I’ve been known to make my own process into agony; I had forgotten how naturally it comes to human beings to tell a story. Keep in mind that most five-year-olds are functionally illiterate human beings!
Here’s what I learned in kindergarten:
- Writing a story doesn’t have to be so hard. It can be fun. I witnessed lots of giggling writers.
- Start with quiet time, preferably sitting on a colorful rug. Spend lots of time visualizing before you even start writing.
- When you do start working on the story, do it backwards. Write the text last.
- Instead, do something else creative to tell the story. Drawing is the obvious way to illustrate the tale, but it could be dance or collage or comic-book storyboards.
- If you get stuck, skip the hard part and move on. These kindergartners were encouraged to keep writing a word even if they only knew the first letter and the last letter.
- In fact, make sure you know the beginning and end. Worry about the middle later.
- Ask yourself: Does it make sense? Does it sound right? Does it look right? (In other words, revise for logic, tone and aesthetic beauty, in that order.)
- Take big risks. Then keep going, no matter what. Finish the story in time for Author’s Chair.
The best part of my day in kindergarten was hearing the teacher’s repeated, warm exhortations to “Take risks!” When do you get encouraged to take risks anymore? In high school, you’re told to put your nose to the grindstone and prepare for college. In college, you’re told to think about getting a job. When I finally got a job, I was explicitly told to avoid risk by someone in the company called a “risk officer.”
To a kindergartner, writing the letter R can feel huge and risky. But telling a story with a beginning and end (middle optional) feels easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. What feels risky to you? Writing YA lit with adult themes sure to stir up controversy? Writing in the voice of someone far, far from yourself? For teens and adults writing anything, YA or otherwise, risk just might be writing with child-like abandon again.