The Great Pretenders: What My Children Have Taught Me About Fiction

I have two little boys, 6 and 8.  When they’re not busy at school, they can spend the whole day playing pretend games.  My husband and I have had many a shared glance over the ridiculousness of their pretend play.  Today, for example, they were half turtle, half man.  This was inspired when one of them threw a towel over the other one, and the pretending didn’t let up for more than thirty minutes.  The low point was when they nearly came to blows over who had the better towel / shell, until one of them remarked “you know, turtles can visit other turtles inside their shells.  It’s like a play date.”

They do this for hours.  None of it makes a lick of sense, and when I have something important to tell them—something like “your lunch is on the table”—I can’t get in a word edgewise.

Meanwhile, on those rare occasions when the house is quiet, I sit fuming at my laptop trying to put out a few hundred words of fiction.  When perfectly formed dialog and drama don’t flow readily through the keyboard, I get twitchy. 

I’ve never transcribed my children before, but I’m guessing they produce several thousand words of fiction an hour.  And I’ve got a couple of birthed-by-fire paragraphs.  So which of us is wiser?

When I hit the biggest roadblocks to producing fiction, it’s always when I’ve misplaced the only writing advice I’ve ever claimed to embrace—Anne Lamotte’s concept of shitty first drafts.  Chapter Three of her classic Bird by Bird is the only text on writing that I’ve ever shoved into anyone’s path.  Not only does Lamotte give you permission to write shitty first drafts, she actually manages to prove that it’s an essential part of the writing process.  Read it and feel better.

This is how it’s supposed to work: sit back down in front of that blank page, and go ahead and write a scene that feels as lively and realistic as a couple of Barbie dolls talking at one another in plastic dolly voices. 

Take several deep breaths and remind yourself that it’s okay. 

Once you shove your characters around like a couple of action figures, you’ll be able to see the scene for what it is.  Slowly and at great personal cost, those bits of dialog and suggestion will be combed and fluffed into a living, breathing moment that will not sound ridiculous. It will be free of half-terrapin-half-kindergartener moments.

But this magic can only happen if you free yourself to sound ridiculous, to spit clichés onto the page like so many cheerios under my younger son’s chair, and clean it up later.

As I type this, I can hear that the game in the other room has changed.  My younger son has just declared “I’m half squid, half dolphin, half jaguar and half horse.”  The fiction is still going strong, but someone should really teach that child about fractions.