I first started writing, when I was 8, because my cousin Jody wrote. She had a literary name, after Jo in Little Women, and she was two years older than I. I envied her vocabulary. Her characters didn’t go to the bathroom, they went to the latrine and would have found discussion of such matters vulgar. I was so jealous of my cousin’s cleverness, I kept killing off all my characters to get revenge on them for not being as interesting as Jody’s.
During the summer weeks and holidays that we were together, Jody and I sometimes started writing in the morning, pausing only to read aloud to each other, or, impatiently, for food, and then look at the window to discover that the sun had set. I was hooked, in a constant state of inspiration, compelled to turn every scrap of paper, drop of blood, flower, stick or mud puddle into writing materials.
Today, sitting down at my computer, I often feel as if I should put on a seat belt, as if I’m about to do something dangerous at high speeds. At these times, I think wistfully back to my childhood, when hours spent writing were equally exciting but lacked that trepidation. Sometimes, overwhelmed by the work involved in marketing my first novel, drafting a second one, rewriting a short story ending before it appears in print, and trying to keep up with my PhD course work, I wish I could recover the magic and joy of my childhood writing – to become so lost in stories that I can ignore imprecise word choices, digressions, and undeveloped paragraphs, to just plunge on, unaware of my surroundings, unconcerned about agents and editors and teachers, oblivious to the dangers of what I might discover.
Often just the memory of my childhood processes proves inspiring and reminds me not to take things so seriously. My memories also give me practical techniques for carrying this out. I leave my computer, remembering that sometimes thoughts flow better when I’m sitting on the floor with an old picture book as a writing surface. I remember that I don’t have to restrict myself to conventional office supplies. And when I’m stressed out by deadlines and blocks and the critical voices in my head, I can defy them and restore the spirit of play with small gestures: writing on colored paper, using different pens, drawing in the margins. And it’s sometimes not only fun, but also useful to return to the approaches that Jody and I used for immersing ourselves in our characters’ lives.
We used to invent families of 10, 12, 15 children and create histories and lives for them. We cut pictures of the kids from old Penney’s catalogs, found pictures and descriptions of homes in real-estate magazines from the free rack at Dillons, drew pictures and wrote essays supposedly by each child, made diplomas and grade cards, cut out rooms from Good Housekeeping and appliances from Sears catalogs. Jody had one sheet that consisted of rows of clock radios, one for each member of the family.
Now when I’m blocked, not sure what a character will do next or why, I take a cue from my childhood self. I look through mail-order catalogs for my characters’ faces; I furnish their living rooms, decorate their walls, dress them for a week – and often, coming back to the story, find that what has seemed a silly activity has helped me get a grasp on the character and caused the story to evolve as if on its own.
As children, Jody and I knew some things instinctively. We never panicked because we were stuck. We just put the writing away, and read books, watched TV, played games, or even, grudgingly, did chores, and let the ideas arise from our experience.
Movies also provided ideas for stories. After seeing The Parent Trap, about identical twins who are separated as babies and discover each other years later, I decided to go not one, not two, but three better. In my story, identical quintuplets are separated as infant shipwreck victims, and coincidentally sent to the same boarding school shortly before their 12th birthday. The first two discover that they’re twins, and then, in a riveting scene, the third appears, followed by a poignant reunion with the fourth. By then, I was so moved by my own work, I couldn’t go on, even though Jody wanted to know what happened next.
Even while I look back with amusement, I recognize a value in our utter lack of concern for reality or logic. I know that the same state of mind that allowed ridiculous plot twists can also yield surprising answers to my writing dilemmas, unexpected metaphors, unforeseen but inevitable endings.
Today, my cousin Jody works as an accountant and hates to write. I wonder if, as she figures payroll, she finds herself imagining the lives of the people she pays. And although I find writing harder now, although I write to confront rather than to escape my life, although I’ve become more of a perfectionist, returning to my childhood for inspiration and solutions replenishes me.
And sometimes, handwriting a story late at night, I recapture the magic from my childhood: watching details appear, motives emerge, a movie play out on the page, I only realize I’ve been writing when my hand begins to ache. Briefly, all the pressures have receded and my perspective has shifted. The prospect of publication is exciting, but it’s the process that matters most, the magic that I first stumbled into with my cousin Jody a long time ago.