Be ferocious. Take no prisoners.
Never, never give in to any slightest temptation to be adorable; to render kids or animals as cute, warm, fuzzy. Our job is to render them as they are, with pitiless exactitude—sometimes for their ignorance and cruelty.
Not only does sentiment and willed cuteness make for lousy writing: Sentiment’s a lie, smelly as food gone bad or something dead in the bushes. Any trace of it contaminates work, spelling the end of the courageous project of art.
It strikes me that the best way to approach writing children and animals is with exhilaration, as if breathing alpine air. Because writing them always presents a superb (if sometimes harrowing) opportunity to showcase their strange, untutored truthtelling.
The trick is to get the vision conveyed with clinical exactitude.
I’m remembering a moment a bazillion years ago when, waiting in line in a Frostee Freeze, my then very-little sister said loudly to our mother, pointing to another customer, “Mommy, why is that woman so fat?”
Our poor mother was mortified. But that’s how kids roll. And it’s a writer’s job to give that moment—and its larger, more complicated deepenings in our stories—its due.
The best way I know to sharpen your skills in the craft of conveying the raw clarity of children and animals is to read as greedily as you can from the fearless, excellent writers of these kinds of scenes, both in fiction and nonfiction. I’m thinking now of Joel Agee’s electrifying memoir, Twelve Years, describing a period of his childhood when his family lived in East Germany, and of John McGahern’s stunning memoir of a difficult Irish childhood, All Will Be Well. In fiction, I’m thinking of the early novels of Ursula Hegi, James Agee’s A Death in the Family, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow (now famous for the fact that one character is a family dog, perfectly and gut-slicingly conveyed). I think of Eli Gottlieb’s The Boy Who Went Away, Richard Rhodes’ A Hole in the World, and uncountable others: Yiyun Li, Grace Paley, Anthony Doerr, Justin Torres, Claire Keegan, Simon Van Booy. You probably have a list of your own. Keep the best works near, and soak your mind in their techniques before going to the keyboard or the pen. What could be more exciting than getting it right?
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.