We’re born with the ability to write. All of us. That ability can grow like Jimson weed over a septic tank, or it can atrophy like the brain of an infant deprived of sensory input.
Communication is natural. We use gestures and grimaces; we coo and cry and scream from the time we are hatchlings. As we develop motor skills, we draw on misted windowpanes, delight in new crayons, fabricate castles from empty cartons. Our curiosity is so intense that our parents must create a safe haven for us, lest we come to a premature end.
“Let’s pretend,” we suggest. Let’s pretend we’re astronauts, barrel racers, pirates, or, in the case of my cousin’s toddler, a cow. Elise’s cow thing has been going on for some time, complete with sounds and tail switches. I presume the latter activity is to keep off flies. I was a shapeshifter myself as a child, changing from underwater explorer to archeologist to Indian, the latter arising from my admiration of my Aunt Christine, who was Native American.
What is pretending? What is making up stories, if it isn’t writing? If we were all born storytellers, why did we stop? We left the downy comfort of our nest. When we did, we found ourselves in a world of expectations, of rules, of constant comparison to others. We were thrown into a world of shall nots, instead of a world of why nots.
For most people, it starts with formal schooling. My friend Terri drove a school bus. She was dismayed at the change she saw in her little passengers by the end of the first week of school, from insatiably curious and excited, to subdued or rebellious and sassy.
What do we learn at school?
- There’s a pecking order. The littlest chicks are at the bottom and the cock-sure experts are at the top. They know everything. Plus, they are bigger than you.
- Making mistakes is bad. Beyond bad. Never make mistakes. Kids who make mistakes are stupid and careless. They can’t be trusted to take care of themselves, to figure things out on their own. Those who make mistakes will get bad grades, demerits, and detention. They will be publicly humiliated. Never have a big house, loads of clothes, or a fine car. Won’t get into the right college.
- In writing, form trumps content. You are penalized for every mistake you make, however insignificant. You learn that having a fertile imagination and telling a good story is nowhere near as important as the proper placement of apostrophes, correct spelling, or standard grammar, whatever standard happens to be at the time.
- Only some people are gifted. This is one of the most toxic ideas in our society. It sends the message that if you don’t get immediate results with little effort, you don’t have talent. You might as well give up. It doesn’t acknowledge the consistent hard work that leads to success in writing, art, music, cooking, sports, or any other field. In a debate about schools and creativity on a site called debate.org, a recent post stated that if a person isn’t “naturally creative,” they never will be, implying that it’s not the school’s fault, since nothing can be done about it. And if you are labeled as gifted, you may be haunted by the fear that you’ll never live up to the label. You will find yourself in a competition to determine who is the most gifted.
The words of others have great power to shape your self-image and your belief in possibilities when you are a fledgling. A young lady I know dreamed of becoming a lawyer and graduating from an Ivy League University. The response of the most important person in her life was, “Who do you think you are to think you could do that!” My friend who expressed an interest in becoming a doctor was told by an advisor, “Oh no. You can’t do that. People from here don’t do that.” A sixth grade teacher told my friend whose family worked a truck farm that the unabridged works of Charles Dickens were too advanced for him.
Psychologist Laura Huxley, in her 1963 book, You Are Not the Target, pointed out that if an adult accuses a child again and again of being a liar, that child may eventually become a liar. Often the child is simply fantasizing and in her mind actually seeing the fairies under the mayapple leaves in the woodlot.
The old childhood saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is simply not true. You have to learn not to let words damage you.
Sometimes the first step in writing is to exhume those words embalmed in your subconscious. You didn’t put them there. Someone else did. Maybe you need to have a funeral for them the way we did at band camp for the song “Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” It had been sung far too often that week. The words went into a cardboard box and were buried with great ceremony on a sandy beach in Michigan.