Write Like a Child

I have exactly one academic-style talk that I give, and I’ve given it a few times, because I have exactly one thing that I know well enough and that I think is worth talking about at length. The talk is called “Poetry and the Subconscious,” and it basically riffs off of my favorite quote by Elizabeth Bishop: “The thing we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

I go on to weave through a couple dozen quotes from interviews with poets, and make the case that this is what all poets are really doing, regardless of means or motive or intent, or even the style of writing once they get there: They’re using tricks they’ve learned over the years to reach the meditative state the Buddhists call Samadhi—a unified state of mind in which there is no distinction between self and environment, no sense of time or place. Samadhi is becoming attuned to the fundamental interconnectedness of reality. It’s the dissolution of Self, the absorption of one mind into the total oneness of creation. It’s what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi famously calls “Flow” (though I’ve always felt his definition is a bit too restrictive). It’s what athletes call “The Zone.” It’s the source of surprise and wonder at our own spontaneity.

Only when the Self dissolves is the subconscious free to speak—and it’s the subconscious that’s the real artist; it’s the lower, ancient regions of the brain finally having a chance to communicate, after being silenced by the domineering logic of the cerebral cortex in our daily lives. Because the subconscious understands things abstractly and intuitively, and because the neurological pathways are so old—stretching back millions and millions of years—hearing a message from the subconscious a powerful and personal experience. We’re finally hearing deeper selves, in the voice of another.

All art, then, in my opinion, is a bridge of communication between two subconsciouses.

And the way to make art is through this state of “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” where the consciousness fades away. Here’s a quote from one of my favorite books, Zen in the Art of Archery:

The right art is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one, and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.

That “willful will” is exactly what I try to avoid when I’m writing.

The most interesting thing is that this is a practice we all have to re-learn, as artists. Children do it instinctively. Again from Zen:

You must hold the drawn bowstring like a little child holding a proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not completely true that the things were playing with the child.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of children as poets. I’ve taught a few classes as a poet-in-the-schools, but any parent, I’m sure, can attest to the amazing powers of a child’s imagination, and the creative ways they invent new words and metaphors. It really does seem, sometimes, like the child isn’t playing with words so much as the words are playing with the child.

Adult writers can learn a lot from children, I think.

And so we’re trying something new at Rattle this year, and asking for submissions of poems written by children, for what we hope to be a stand-alone annual anthology. Unlike most anthologies of “children’s poetry,” this collection will be written entirely by children for adults. I think it’s worth listening to both what they have to say, and how they play at saying it.

If you have a young poet under 15, you can read the guidelines here. They’re pretty simple. The deadline for this year is September 15th.

—Cross-posted to the Inlandia Blog

2 thoughts on “Write Like a Child

  1. Hi Tim,

    I understand the essence of what you are saying here, but don’t you think that ‘writing as a child would’ is something that is subjective?
    Personally if you were to give a poet some advice on how to improve his skills, his craft, what according to you is the single most important thing? Of course writing like a child, playing with words, and enjoying the process of creativity, losing yourself in the epiphany and not holding back, as you so cogently highlighted is vital, but the very idea of ‘writing as a child’ (forgive me if I am being curt) is ambiguous. I ask this as a personal question, how does a poet sit at his desk, and judge whether he’s writing like a ‘child’ or not? In other words, how does he improve?


    • Thanks, but I think you answered your own question: “Enjoy the process of creativity.” This is drawn in part from a talk I have on poetry and the subconscious, and it covers some of the tools writers use to reach that state … routine and ritual are two big ones that are easy to start doing. Having a consistent time and place, and regular cues, helps tell that secret part of your brain that it’s time to play. Some poets lose themselves in form or grammar, obsessing over the meter, and so on. But really, write and repeat, write and repeat. The more you can get your cerebral cortex to switch to autopilot, the more the creativity can come out.

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