The Writing of Branta and Other Affections (Part 2 of 4)

Two:  The Robber under My Bed

Let the adult write stories to the child he was and she was years ago, to the interior of that child, where emotions once spiked and sank with extreme—not to say “world-shaking”—intensity.  For what child does not already know fears as doomful as darkness and the void?  What child has not felt soul-pangs of guilt?  And jealousy?  What child has not laughed with such a helpless delight that heaven was surely at hand?

William Blake wrote two sets of poems, not so much for children (though children are quite able to receive them) as about children.  The first set he called Songs of Innocence, from which, this example:

“‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean

The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green . . .”

(from “Holy Thursday I”)

The second set, which matches the first in titles, but contrasts it in vision, he called Songs of Experience:

“Is this a holy thing to see,

In a rich and fruitful land,

Babies reduced to misery,

Fed with cold and usurous hand?”

(from “Holy Thursday II”).

Blake was well-aware that a child’s heart knows both delight and despair, but knows it mutely (lacking a language to frame, form, or confront it).  Knows it lonely (if no one can companion the child through the halls and tunnels of her interior life).  Knows it meekly and weakly (because, without a name for the experience, the experience is much larger than her own powers of control and survival).

But it is the well-told story that can lend form and companionship and a name to the raw, inchoate experience!

By story the child might survive—particularly because story does not move by cold calculations of reason, but rather by the swift and sensuous experiences of imagination.

So let me tell you the story of a story—and of stories in general, how they work.  For when I was young and very young, I had already begun to “story” my universe, and by the force of imagination (by the shape of this storying) to make some sense of it.  This is the writer’s craft and the child’s natural response, the child’s native ability; child and artist both draw, by the same sensitivities, upon the same resources.  There is a kinship here which rational thought and analytic adulthood can cancel.  But the child alone with his imagination lacks (as the following example illustrates) one essential for the safe, persuasive conclusion of the story-experience: an external storyteller, a companion of love and authority to validate the imaginative flights of the child.

Once upon a time, when I was six—in the autumn of the year when I was in the first grade and walking some distance to and from the schoolhouse—there was a robber under my bed.

This is, as the best of stories always are, the truth.

Every night night when my brother and I ascended the steps into our attic-bedroom, I knew with dreadful conviction that the robber had already secreted himself beneath our double-bed mattress.  Such knowledge caused in me several sorts of torment: for my own skin, should he reach up and snatch me, yes.  Of course.  But that was the least of my worries.  I worried rather more for my brother Paul, one year younger than I and completely oblivious of such proximate horrors; and I was in a state of trembling responsibility  for the rest of my family.  Robbers destroy.  They can, all of a sudden, break out kill everything a small boy loves.

I was oldest the child of four-and-a-half children.  I had been given the name of my father: Walter, as he was Walter.  I was the only one in day-long school.  I was the only one aware of the robber.  Upon me, and upon no other, had fallen the task of preserving my family alive.  That was the greatest torment of all.

The attic in which he slept was an attic.  Dad had built walls into it, hiding dark corners and the insulation and the rib-like trusses; and then he had said to us, “Your new bedroom.”  But we knew better.  It smelled like an attic.  The ceiling slanted as low as attic ceilings slant.  There was one window at the far end, small and slashed by branch-shadows in the night: ’twas an attic.  Where else would a canny robber choose to hide?  Surely not in warmer bedrooms below.  Rather, in the alien spaces, in the hedges and the fences at the edge of civilization: in otherness.

I was, it must be recorded, not altogether without advantage.  I knew the rules of the game. For example, I knew that the robber was there, but the robber didn’t know that I knew. Nor would he, if he could possibly help it, reveal himself to me—in which case the jig would be up, and though he might rush a-slaughtering through our house, he’d never get anything for it.  Therefore, as long as I played innocent—and as long as I stayed awake, thereby giving him good reason to stay concealed beneath the bed—I could control the situation and preserve my dear ones alive.  It was a frightfully dicey balance. It was, after all, a mortal game.  And it was killing me.

Well, every night I made noise as Paul and I ascended the stairs.  And I talked loudly, jovially to my brother while we changed into pajamas—as if all were truly well, and I was happy.  (I spent energies, you see, in two opposing directions: upon my own private fears and statagems and also upon a false, huffing happiness.)  And once we were in bed and in the dark and watching the choppy-fingered shadows upon the window, I told Paul stories.  I continued the stories until he fell sweetly asleep.  And then I forced myself even then to talk, to talk, and so to keep the robber in hiding and my family out of danger.

But a child can keep up such midnight watches only so long.

And then he cracks.

One evening in October, my mother said, “Time for bed.”

Paul cheerily began to trot toward the door and the stairs to our attic.

I, on the other hand, astonished myself by saying, “No.”

I, in my extremity; I, at wit’s end, spontaneously and in genuine anguish, said, “No, Mom. No.”

“What?” said my mother who, being unused to disagreement, was herself somewhat astonished.  “What did you say?”

“I can’t, Mom,” I said.  “We can’t.  We just can’t go to bed.”

“Yes, you can,” she said, her eyes flashing.  I recall that she was sitting in a living room chair at that moment.  “And, Wally, you will!

She didn’t understand, of course.  But her not understanding would be the death of me.  I broke into tears.

“Wally?” she said, more softly.  “What’s the matter?”

“Oh, oh,” I sobbed.

“Tell me,” she said.

And I told her.  I said, “There’s a robber under our bed.  Every night, a robber—“

“Oh, Wally!”  Mom expostulated.  “You know better than that.”

“No, Mom!  No!” I earnestly argued, opening my eyes wide.  “There is!  He’s there right now.”

Mom looked at me a moment.  Then, abruptly, she stood up.  “Come with me,” she said, and marched toward the attic door.

Oh, how my heart kicked and blamed me then!  My mother is a bold woman.  Mostly, that was good.  But this time it could cancel her.

“Mom!  Mom!  You don’t understand!”

I raced after her.  I would have run up the steps first, if I could have.  But she was the swifter.  Up the steps she strode, I rushing behind.  But when I reached the top of the staircase, she was already at the side of my bed, bending at the hips.  She reached, took hold of the bedspread, then, in a grand dramatic motion—and with a cry of “See?”—she snatched spread and blankets and sheet off the bed entirely, opening the under-bed caverns for my inspection.

Slowly I bent, too.  And I saw: dust bunnies, comic books, junk—and no robber . . . that night!

Paul was staring at me now.  The boy at five had just encountered two explanation of a serious sense of trouble: our mother’s rational and evidential “proofs” of its absence; and my “storied” version, which acknowledged its reality, but which at the same time offered some slight advantage to the kid who knew the rules.

Which do you think he would believe?  Well, the question is better put:  which form was more congenial to his child’s mind?  Yes: mine.  Yes: story, because children solve problems by imagination, by giving personalities, personhoods to the abstractions they cannot otherwise understand.

There, Paul and I were together convinced not that the robber did not exist, but rather that robber was still watching outside the window, still waiting to clamber in.

Clearly, the adult method of empirical analysis neither persuaded us nor could comfort us.  What it did accomplish, however, was the opposite of our mother’s intent: it removed from us the best ally we might have had, an adult who would not only enter the premises of “story” as I, a child, had spontaneously begun to write it; who would not only accept this personification of evil; but who would also take upon herself the role of story teller, by plot and imagination to walk us through the evil to a sweet solution/conclusion.

For there was an evil abroad.  There was an evil horribly near.

During my first year at school I discovered that I could no longer count on the goodness of other people.  Nor could I, outside of my home’s environment, always find a motive for the “bad” things they did.  Laws were lost.  Good order was exploding.  For there was a fellow in the sixth grade, huge, his face blazing with pimples, who greeted me regularly with a punch to the solar plexus.  And there was a widow-woman up the road whom other youths tormented mercilessly until—that very autumn!—she came walking down my street at night in her nightgown, confused, weeping barefoot, and crazy.  I never saw her again after that.  Where did she go?  And why would people want to hurt her?

Evil had entered my life.  The shards and pieces of evil, miserably disconnected.  Evil, which, should it invade the consoling home, could destroy those dearest to me.  A bewildering evil before which I was completely helpless.  Ah, but I could—this nascent storyteller could—invoke fantasy to “story” it!  And I did: I embodied formless evil in a figure, the robber; and I wrote into my story (what the credible universe of any story must have) contingent rules of action, by which rules the major character of the tale (me, of course) could find some advantage over evil after all.

Mom’s methods did not solve the problem.

Nor can the children’s story which refuses to acknowledge evil in a child’s life solve the problem it will not name.

But the story that attends to the real problems of the child’s existence can solve them, precisely because it is a story, and only a story.  Fairy tales are a “safe” way to live through difficulty, as all the horrors are present and apparent and suffered—but only fantastically, in imagination.  In imagination, too, they are overcome.

On the other hand, the tools of the triumph are often discovered within the hero of the story, with which the child-listener of the story is invited to identify.  That is to say: the tools are not merely fantasy; they are real characteristics heretofore unrecognized by the child, now brought forth into his consciousness and placed into his hand as a real-world advantage when he encounters real-world problems.  Hansel and Grethel discover bravery, trust/trustworthiness in one another, and cleverness, by which they triumph over the witch that would eat Hansel for dinner.  And the child listening  to the tale (who may have already experienced the fears of being abandoned by his or her parents) now experiences the power of bravery and trust and planned cleverness.  And Branta learns the power of a self-giving love (which is the real and deeper tool represented by the Golden Stone).  And these tools, as I say—being discovered in one’s self—are not themselves merely stuff of fantasy.  They are real.  And they are the child’s ever thereafter.

Only so long as the tale-teller is an adult who sees more than her child had seen in himself!

Moreover, the very form and the plot-order of the story becomes a map through some very real thickets of difficulty yet ahead for the child.  And the value of this map is that it was drawn in experience, not in merely rational explanations.  Explanations fail because they are printed on the brain alone, after which the child must labor to recall them and revise them to new circumstances and apply them.  This is the problem: that the child must, perhaps when she is weakest, labor toward her own solution.  But experience is printed upon the child whole; mind and emotion and sense and affections and fears and delights, available even to spontaneous action and response—for the child has been here before, has acted suddenly and passionately to meet this difficulty before, has laughed in victory before, but all in imagination.

In other words (and to use another, more substantial metaphor) the child has uttered the name of this thing before, knows its name by heart, and can control and command by the use of that name.

The Writing of Branta and Other Affections (Part 1 of 4)

(This is part 1 of 4)

One:  Wild Things

Maurice Sendak once told me of the furor that followed the publication of his children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are.  By pictures and elementally simple language, the story follows a small boy to bed, and then into his vivid, funny, and sometimes disquieting imagination as the bedroom itself morphs into a terrible woods and frightening creatures appear: the wild things.  Many parents and some reviewers were downright upset that small children would see such stuff.  They believed it would damage the children, implanting frights and fears in innocent brains, inspiring nightmares.  Sleep?  Sendak hath murdered sleep.

But the book prevailed, Sendak told me, because the book was right.  It was the tender-hearted parent, the hyper-solicitous reviewer that was wrong.  Far from inaugurating fears in children, such books as his gave a habitation and a name to fears the children already experienced, but amorphously, perplexedly.

One of the most important commandments for the creation of an effective children’s tale is: thou shalt not condescend!

Adults who write to their image of a child, rather than writing to genuine children, do in a real sense utter baby talk. And they miss the mark of a child’s intense experience. They make a conventional assumption of pastel innocence, angelic goodness, fresh unsullied souls (“trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home”)—and in consequence their language lisps, their menu of topics is reduced to the sugar cookie, and their attitude is offensive. Even as they presume to know better than the child, they present a teller and a tale too simple and simply less than a child can (and out to, and wants to) experience. Simpletons tell simplistic tales.

But in fact, as Maurice Sendak knows and has demonstrated over and over (In the Night Kitchen, Outside Over There), stories can embrace all of the basic truths of this existence. They can confront every form of difficulty (Remember? Remember? don’t you remember the thicket in which you lived as a child?) because children are already experts in difficulty! And having both acknowledged and named the difficulties which children had only callowly sensed before, the plots of these stories can carry the child through difficulty toward a blessed, credible conclusion. And such conclusions to plots are, as you know, solutions to problems, now discovered not in rational explanations, but in experience.