Every September for the past few years, I’ve sent my daughter to one of the masterclasses the Queensland Writers Centre offers for children and teens. She is a budding author. She has written short stories for school and is currently writing a script with a friend. The two girls get together on weekends and work tirelessly on new plot developments. I catch snippets of their exchanges: “And then Jenny catches her brother spying…” “Yeah, and then they chase him and…” “Or they try to get revenge by locking him in the shed.” “Oh, I know, they…”
During the week, they type up everything they’ve written and spend endless hours on the phone discussing alternatives, new twists, unexpected resolutions. The action of their story takes place in the course of a single week, but as of now they are only on Day One, and the script is already 120 pages long. I don’t have the heart to tell them that at this rate they will end up with a product of nearly 1000 pages – something more suited to a mini-series than a feature film (which of course, they intend to star in). It seems beside the point to inform them that finished scripts are only about 110 pages, that there are such people as script editors, that once they are done they’ll need an agent to peddle it, and then if it’s optioned, a slew of people who can raise the millions it will take to produce it. (And that by the time all of this happens, they’ll be too old for the lead roles.) The issue here isn’t the far off goal, but the fact that these teenage girls are using their energy and imaginations to create a world and fill it with people and events and conflicts.
When she comes home from one of these masterclasses, brimming with ideas and excitement and a folder full of handouts, I quickly debrief her. Always hoping for some new key to the hard grind of writing, I ask: How was it? What did you learn? What did they tell you about character? Plot? Pacing? I scour the materials. Invariably, there are ones with a titles like: The 10 Rules of Successful Writing and Common Pitfalls to Avoid. I grab these and read with glittering eyes. Inevitably, I’m hit with a sinking feeling as I recognise that in my current work not only have I broken all the rules but I haven’t managed to avoid any of the pitfalls. We chat about the exercises. She shows me the snippets of stories they wrote together and the character she created from a magazine photo, wondering excitedly how he might fit into Day Two of the script.
Most of us have written creatively as children. Haven’t we all at the age of nine or ten written our first haiku? And don’t we still remember it today? In contrast, we don’t remember the contribution we made to the latest annual report or that letter of complaint to the council, and that was only last week. Childhood writing is important stuff.
Writers don’t just arrive on the scene as fully-fledged novelists, poets, and screenplay writers. Most have had long apprenticeships and perhaps more than one novel or screenplay tucked away in a drawer. Those who begin early have a leg up in the journey.
The early writing of the Brontë siblings is a good example of this. They each took to writing around the age of ten, entering into an imaginary world that all of the children participated in. As they grew more skilled, they established the habit and discipline of writing daily, developing a degree of continuity that existed for several years. The sheer volume of their production points to obsession, but the pleasure they took in the pastime also punctuates the writing. They produced minute hand-made books in minuscule writing. Several critics suggest that it was too small for adults to read, thereby deflecting any criticism that might have dampened their enthusiasm.
Paul Mandelbaum, editor of First Words, an anthology of the juvenilia of contemporary writers, has a theory that the childhood works often share a creative agenda with the adult works. A look at the juvenilia of Jane Austen is a good example of this. Although not as satisfying to read as her novels, her early attempts at writing show an unrestrained wit and use of irony that appears more subtly in her later work. Also, for those of us who have read and re-read Austen’s novels and wish for more, reading Frederic and Elfrida, Jack and Alice, Love and Friendship, might give us a bit of what we crave.
But there is another important reason to look into the juvenilia of successful writers. As Mandelbaum says, “Reading a literary giant’s grade school science fiction epic brings these authors out of that nameless celebrity dimension they normally inhabit and grounds them in the real world of query letters, rejection slips and professional critiques.” It gives a clue into the long arduous process of becoming a writer. Through this early writing, we can trace a child’s process of self-construction as an author. Virginia Woolf, as Virginia Stephen, penned with her siblings a weekly family periodical in the 1890s. Juvenilia exist for George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, Katherine Mansfield, and many others.
For a variety of reasons, much of this early work is unknown. Alexander Pope destroyed much of the work written when he was a teenager. He felt that its continued existence might have detracted from his image as a child prodigy. W.H. Auden left behind a wealth of early poetry, but is said to have cringed at the idea of any of it being published. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote humorously of his first efforts, which began precociously at the age of six. Rather than allowing the original work to stand as it was written, he wrote tongue-in-cheek and quite self-deprecatingly of both the efforts and the results. As an adult, he provided the lens through which we look at the work of the child.
Like Pope’s, my own juvenilia—more foolish and less literary—was destroyed. I spent years as an adolescent in collaboration with a friend, much like my daughter is doing today. We made up elaborate stories about teenage romance and adventure. Our heroes played tennis competitively, surfed effortlessly and were genuinely nice people. Our heroines were smart, sassy, and beautiful-without-trying. We transformed our bland everyday life and the usual adolescent insecurities into something more interesting and much more controllable. Through our characters we laid out an array of possible futures. At the end of this exercise, each of us made our primary character grow up—we made her chose one of the futures. And then quickly, we cut ahead. Twenty years on, the main characters had married (surfers, I believe), moved to Hawaii and each had a dozen children. This was satisfying—there was another generation of lives to imagine.
We contributed to our story in turns and played upon the developments the other invented. After two or three years of this, with enough scribbled-over paper to fill two large trash bags, we decided that we had outgrown our pastime and shoved it to the back of our closets. A year or so after that, when my friend had her first serious boyfriend, she convinced me that we had to burn our girlish literary efforts, fearing that it might fall into the wrong hands. (I presume now that she meant those of her boyfriend.) So we had a bonfire and fed it with page after page of our adolescent fantasies.
I regret that now. I know that we weren’t writing great literature or anything even passable, but I am curious. I would like to look at those old stories with adult eyes.
Children learn largely by imitation. What they create is a microcosm of what they perceive the world to be. The Brontës used Blackwood’s Magazine for inspiration. Their characters were involved in wars in such far-off places as Egypt and Canada. At a time of expanding British imperialism, this is telling. Jane Austen, more of a homebody and tied to a genteel round of balls and high teas, used her writing as a way of understanding the social customs and hypocrisy she saw around her.
Once a child enters into a fictional world of his own creation, there is an opportunity to mould events, to shape conversations in ways that are impossible in real life. This can be empowering. A vivid imaginary world becomes fused with the real world, but it is a place where events can be controlled. Creative writing can be cathartic. It bathes the soul, touching the deepest parts of us. We should nurture it in our children. Just as we encourage them to read, we should encourage them to write. We should call for a curriculum that includes more creative writing. Not everyone will choose writing for a career, but I guarantee that throughout life everyone will need to write in some form. Making it fun and interesting, giving kids the opportunity to get lost in a fictional world where they have control can only enhance their educations.
And when our children get to the self-conscious age of 15 or 16, and the bonfire beckons, we should offer to keep their scribblings for them. Twenty five or thirty years on, they will find it hilarious and no doubt embarrassing. Perhaps they will see the germ of who they’ve become in the words they wrote then.
First published in Arts Hub in 2005 and later in Writing Queensland in 2007.