Writing for your true self
“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
When an author sits down to write a book, whom are they writing for: their readers or themselves? Are their central characters entirely made up or are they mildly disguised versions of themselves? Would they find the book that they are writing as interesting to read as they find writing it?
In children’s literature, these three questions hold true but there is an additional dimension that authors of picture books and chapter books contend with. That is memory and forgetting. How do authors remember themselves when young? What did they read then? Who were they? And what have they forgotten?
Carl Jung remarks that we are not who we think we are, we are who we really are. We are our own true self when very young. We have very original personalities and characteristics. We have selves that are separate and apart from the world and apart from what we will become. In growing up, that true self is about to undergo a great amount of changes, learning, joys, suffering, victories and losses. We will be sad and happy. Our true selves are about to experience a great adventure. Life will expect us to let go of a certain amount of that truth and originality. How much do we really let go of? What do we give up so as to take hold of our adulthoods or growing up? What do we forget? In the end, would we even recognize ourselves and would we even be able to write about them?
Writers of literature for young “true selves” somehow reach back into their own true self and create something new, for a new audience. Author/illustrator Antoinette Portis claims, “I would say that I write as a child. My writing teacher, Barbara Bottner, suggests that we each have an age we connect to the most, and that it’s productive to write from our point of view at that age. Not every book comes from my 6 year old self—Not A Box certainly did. I put myself back in my 6 year old self, and feel what I felt then.”
At the same time, other kid-lit authors admit to not consciously writing about or for their childhood selves. Author/illustrator Sergio Ruzzier put it this way, “I usually don’t think about what I would have liked as a child, when I write. I think I write for myself, meanwhile hoping that other people, including children, will enjoy the same things I enjoy. It’s true that my taste as a child and my taste now are not that different.” Who is that self? Mr. Ruzzier in 2015 might not be all that different from the little Sergio that he was.
To put down a new idea for a book or story, it always seems brand new at the beginning: coming out of thin air. But the true self has had to learn the clever art of hiding out in a grown-up world. Author Jill Davis writes, “When I write for children, I feel someone buried emerge–my private funny youthful storytelling self. And it’s trying to grab attention in voice and attitude that can wink at a child and also entertaining, and make them think about something in a different way.”
I like the expression that Ms. Davis uses “someone buried emerges”. This is very spot on as it sums up the notion that there is something to unearth to be freed to create something new and original. Writing something new does not have to always be an unearthing of the true self but perhaps that the reason why authors write and want to write for young people, is that they have not forgotten their own distinctive truth.
Author/Illustrator Tracy Dockray had a slightly different twist on it. She writes, “I write something that I’d wished I’d read when I was young. Something that would transport me in an emotional way, or something that would make me not feel alone with a situation. Reading about someone going through the same experience as myself, sibling rivalry, not being the best in class.”
The experiences can even resemble adult truths, such as ambition, doubt, success or failure. “In Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, I wanted to make an absurd book that pointed out how stupid grown-ups can be.” writes author/illustrator Bob Shea, “I like the idea of giving the kid protagonist the power since kids are so powerless. It has more to do with what I have learned as a grown-up rather than anything young Bobby Shea experienced, as cute as he was”
Are they reaching back to their true selves and handing over a lesson that they have learned? Are they proving that they have not forgotten what they wanted to learn? Perhaps. But then again they know that they were once children and aren’t all children the same? Matthew Cordell, the author and illustrator of the poignant book on a very adult theme of disappointment and hope titled Wish admits, “I suppose I must, on some level, be thinking of myself as a child when I make my books, though. I can’t completely NOT be doing that! It just doesn’t seem a priority in my thinking for whatever reason.”
Whether authors think specifically about who they were or not, they are thinking of questions and bewilderments from childhood that they can now answer for the new reader (and most likely for themselves). As an adult reader of kid-lit, the opposite experience occurs. When I read a picture or chapter book and am very conscious that I am reading it as an adult but am I really all that grown up? A picture book or chapter book is automatically a special portal to that true self. I cannot say for certain that I am not my true self reading a book, looking for a reminder or answer that the author has considered. Is it my adult self or my child self that is engaged when leafing through a book created for children? I do not actually become young again, but I almost forget everything I have learned and start anew.
Therefore, is writing any different from reading? Have we let go, on an unconscious level, of who we have become to return to who we truly were?
Matthew Cordell goes on to say, “And I also think a lot about how my books will affect the adults that read them. Because I think all great picture books will satisfy these two different audiences (vastly different!) because both adults and children will be reading them.” In fact, those books that express a deep felt truth affects the different readers the same way, be they small or grown. It might be that kid-lit authors write books as adults for children when in fact we are writing books as children for adults.
In conclusion, the case may be that writers have drawn a difference that does not really exist. They have convinced themselves that they are creating something brand new that never existed before for a new audience that has just come along. But wouldn’t every author of books for children love the chance to sit down with their young true selves and watch as they page through the books that they themselves would be writing some day?
Writer Judy Katchke sums it up very well, “When writing books I don’t quite think of it as writing for children. Instead I write for the part of me that’s still very much a kid.”
Wouldn’t that be the finest experience for writers to have their true childhood selves offer their honest opinion as to whether or not their grown-up self is telling the truth or not?