Childlike thinking makes for creative writing

Alison Wells is a mother of four, fiction writer and blogger. She is just completing a comedy space romp novel Housewife with a Half Life and a collection of short stories. She blogs about writing, creativity and head space at Head above Water (www.alisonwells.wordpress.com) and tweets about everything (@alisonwells).

The transition from childhood to adulthood involves a mental development that allows for more abstract reasoning, logical complexity, a greater awareness of consequence and an understanding of the nuanced dynamics of human relationships. However there are ways that childlike thinking can get us back to the basics of life and enhance our creative endeavours:

Mindfulness.

Babies and very young children are absorbed in the moment to moment awareness of their surroundings and the stimuli around them. The parents of young children often bemoan the snails pace at which a walk somewhere has to be undertaken but a key memory for me is when my youngest son was 18mths and on one of his first walks in the big outside world. He became absolutely fascinated with a pebbledash wall, he looked at it, touched it, ran his fingers along it, went right up close. The other day I helped my daughter make daisy chains. To do so, we sat right down on the grass, feeling it under our fingers, surrounded by a galaxy of daisies, some fully open, some pink tipped. We selected the correct stems, just thick enough, made the delicate slice in the stem, threaded them through. There was a light breeze, bird sounds, occasional traffic, the concentration of the threading action. This slowing down and careful examination of things can bring us into the heart of a story or emotion. When describing a scene we can open it up around the mind of the reader by including the smallest of details, a cigarette butt, a shiny bottle top, a half-open fushia bud, the angle of a business man’s tie.

Key characteristics

Children take things at face value; they make broad comparisons based on ‘similar’ or ‘different’. Only as they grow do they learn to make more nuanced distinctions. While the nuance is what differentiates a truly great writer from an adequate one, when we first introduce a character in a book, we need to use the broader brushstrokes, to give us a handle on the person, a hook. While it may not be politically correct; as humans we always make an initial judgement based on looks, similarity to ourselves, race, colour or accent. In our books our characters will make assumptions about one another based on initial impressions. These might later turn out to be incorrect. In writing, we can use the transition from the broad strokes to nuance to explore a developing relationship or an increasing or decreasing understanding between characters.

Fearlessness and Free thinking

Small babies have no depth perception and no sense of the danger of falling. Terrifyingly young children will run out onto a busy road with no sense of danger. Even older children, teenagers and even young adults carry with them a sense of invincibility. While many children invent rules for their games, there is a greater sense of freedom, where ‘let’s pretend’ means a car can fly or a giraffe can talk. As writers we need fearlessness to write at all and to take chances with our writing. We need to ‘run into the road’ into topics or subject areas that we find difficult to deal with in order to exercise our skill as writers. We also need to stretch our imaginations while making sure that our stories have their own internal logic.

Curiosity and Interest

Is a crane bigger than a whale?

Being party to my children’s homework, I realise how many facts they become aware of in a short space of time about history, mythology, geography, music, art, science. Browsing through their books I discover quirky interesting facts that are absolutely gripping. One of my favourite short stories ever is A Stone Woman  by AS.Byatt. She writes about a woman who literally turns to stone, but what stone! She is made up of so many different types that characterize the veins, the skins, the face, the limbs. The manifestations of stone also become more intricate over time. Stone happens to be one of my favourite things. In this story it was intrinsically fascinating, due to the level of detail employed but it also worked as a powerful descriptive device and metaphor. One of my sons knows everything there is to know about astronomy and I have used his knowledge in my work to provide an extra layer of interest in my stories. Facts are hooks that if used appropriately can inject life into writing.

Fundamental questions, fundamental themes 

Why are we alive? Are you going to die? How do we know that heaven exists?

The parents of young children hear these sorts of questions every day, and often at bedtime when the impending darkness and separation may whirl up anxieties in the children. It is poignant to hear these existential questions from the mouths of babes and very often we don’t have the answers. But these questions can remind us of the archetypal themes that underpin all literary endeavours. It is commonly known that so called ‘children’s’ fairytales deal with dark themes. But these are the themes that are eminently and poignantly human. Whatever the style or genre of a book, whether its tone is light and fluffy or serious, the undercurrent of the archetypal concerns and themes will still be there. Often as adults we bury the fundamental fears and concerns under the flurry of everyday life. As writers we have to expose and deal with these raw terrors. These concerns translate into our characters’ complex motivations, make people take unusual decisions and do extraordinary things.

The child that you were and in some ways still are has special access to both wonder and fear. This child makes judgements and takes risks and sees things with fresh eyes. Use those qualities to create writing that has an extra edginess and magic.

11 thoughts on “Childlike thinking makes for creative writing

  1. Lovely – leave it to Alison to bring your brain to a full stop saying, “I never thought of it that way.”
    Thanks Olive and Alison – Kristi

  2. Thanks so much to Alison for this great and thought provoking post!

  3. Great post, Alison! And can’t wait to read your ‘comedy space romp’ – sound fantastic! :)

  4. [...] about her writing journey. My guest post Childlike Thinking makes for Creative Writing can be found here. Thanks again to Olive for asking me to [...]

  5. Lovely post, Alison. Your story sounds intriguing.

    Olive, congrats on your review in the Examiner today, I was sitting with my son in the childrens book section in the library and grabbed a copy of the examiner, delighted for you and it was a great review for you.

  6. Alison and Olive, thanks so much for the wonderful post.

    Olive, please drop by my blog when you can. I have something for you!

  7. @Kristi; How Did You Get There; Absolutely Kristi, it’s a post that makes you really think. I particularly loved about being relatively fearless as writers and Alison’s comment about our need to “run into the road” into topics we find difficult to deal with, so as to improve our skills as writers.

  8. @Catherine; Can’t wait to check out Alisons’ novel either. I’m sure it will be a cracker, judging from Alison’s short stories:)

  9. @Brigid; Thanks so much for your kind wishes. I haven’t seen the review yet, as had no idea it was in the Examiner! Must try and get a copy or hopefully the review will be posted online next week.

  10. @Julie; Cheers for the shout-out on your blog!

  11. Thank you for a fascinating post. I love those *pebbledash wall* experiences. I can remember being one of those children who spent hours examining a small detail. I think I’d still do it today if it wasn’t seen as quirky for adults. What the heck! Note to self – must have more *pebbledash wall* times.

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