Archive for October, 2010

Thinking By Hand

October 19, 2010

I knew there was a reason I write out my first drafts with a pencil!  All this time I’ve been telling people that I need something to chew on while writing fiction, and pencils work better than keyboards.  But now the Wall Street Journal comes to my aid with proof of “How Handwriting Trains the Brain.” 

Penmanship has been the subject least likely to be taught for at least twenty years; old fuddy-duddies like me have been complaining about the increasing illegibility of the average hand-writer.  Now that we’re teaching kindergartners to keyboard it might be time to ask if we’re losing something.  Not Spencerian penmasters capable of addressing all your wedding invitations, but mental connections.  It makes sense that children learn their letters faster and better if they have to write them, but research indicates that handwriting stimulates brain activity.  Neural scans show that “sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory–the system for temporarily storing and managing information.”

I’m a little skeptical of “studies” that reinforce what I already believe–in fact I’m skeptical of “studies,” period.  But this one has a lot of anecdotal support, including Shop Class as Soul Craft: an Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford.  Crawford is a PhD and former policy wonk who quit wonking in order to start a motorcycle repair shop.  He argues for an integration of mind and hand, claiming that we think better when we make or repair or build.  Practical skills merge with abstract thought to a greater degree than we know.

I have a permanent callous on the middle finger of my left hand from holding a pencil.  When the thoughts are flowing, I love the downward stroke and the upward curl, rhythmic as breathing.  If I were to look at a draft years later (which I never do) I’d be able to tell the good days from the bad ones by the exuberant cross of a ‘t’ or the lariat-swirl sweeping back to dot an ‘i’.  Maybe that’s just me.  But it was heartening, at an autograph session last Friday, so see girls approach my table with journals for me to sign.  “Fill up this book!” I wrote.  With thoughts by hand.

Don’t say that!

October 13, 2010

“They all say things like that.”

“Kids hear much worse on the playground.”

“They’re going to hear the same language in the movies they watch during a Saturday-night sleepover.”

Yes to all that.  So why not, for the sake of veracity, include an occasional “bad word” in children’s fiction?

It depends, like so much else involving art.  And, like so much else, any lines drawn will be smudged, any prescribed use will be misused.  Here’s the problem:

Fiction is story-telling, and in story-telling, some things have to be left out.  Otherwise it would be life, not art.  Veracity in storytelling is the judicious art of determining what you will show, and how.  Bad language can help to identify a character’s character or signify strong feeling.  But I don’t recall any novels, juvenile or otherwise, that are about bad language.  So it’s not necessary to the plot.  Then what is it necessary for?

Until fairly recently, nothing.  Even The Catcher in the Rye, known for its groundbreaking language, lacks most of the anatomical words we know so well today.  Children’s author have traditionally had three strategies for indicating profanity where the action seems to call for it.  One is by eupemism, where a milder term is substituted for the offensive word.  Norman Mailer, no children’s author, substituted “fug” (if I remember right?) for the other f word when his publisher restricted use of the latter (back in the innocent sixties).  He made it a deliberate provocation.   S. E. Hinton used words like Shoot! and (daringly) Hell! in The Outsiders, but such obvious bait and switch looks silly now.

Another strategy is straightforward exposition: “He swore.”  Though it seems pale and limp standing by itself, it works very well in an action-packed story where all we need is a little stress on the character’s feeling.  Roland Smith uses it frequently with no loss of effectiveness.

Then there’s the nudge, a way of leaving an impression of the word without the actual word.  Here’s how I did it in a middle-grade novel: “‘Bug off,’ says Spencer.  Though he doesn’t exactly say bug.”  That formula is used one other time in the same book; any more would be too clever by half.

These days I appreciate such restraint more than not.  Profanity, vulgarity (often together) have stampeded into YA fiction and even seeped into middle-grade, with such abandon I wonder when the dam broke.  But is doesn’t answer ought.  Everybody knows we can use these words in youth literature now, but should we?  More about that soon.

Gross, part two

October 8, 2010

Almost the whole of Christian theology could perhaps be deduced from two facts: (1) That men make coarse jokes, and (b) That they feel the dead to be uncanny.                                                              C. S. Lewis, Miracles

In commenting on the trend in juvenile literature toward gross-out humor (in order to appeal to boys),I don’t see much speculation as to why so much juvenile humor is obsessed with bodily functions.  In fact, that’s one characteristic that defines “juvenile.” Yes, little kids giggle uncontrollably at the very word “underwear,” but why?  Yes, 5-8 year-old girls (and 5-21 year-old boys) roll on the floor at any mention of poop, boogers, pee, snot–I won’t go on–but what makes these particular emissions funny, when blood is something else?  Lewis’s point is that human beings are a peculiar phenomenon, feet of clay and head of cloud, forever at odds with their own nature.  “I do not perceive that dogs see anything funny about being dogs; I suspect that angels see nothing funny about being angels.” 

Presumably, both dogs and angels feel at fully at home in themselves, whether bounded by skin or spirit.  But humans, who are somewhere in between, laugh at bodily functions and shiver at ghosts.  If this were an inborn characteristic we would expect it to show up very early, and so it does.  Ghost stories are just as popular as gross stories among kids, and what could explain the peculiar popularity of zombies among young adults?

Recent lab tests at Yale University indicate a sense of morality in babies as young as six months.  But a natural tendency, by definition, is not a refined sensibility.  Little children may have a rudimentary understanding of right and wrong but still need to be trained in the nuances, especially regarding their own tendency to make exceptions for themselves.  The humor inherent in the angel/animal dichotomy that translates to potty jokes is no reason to react in horror, but neither does it mean we should forego, or even delay, the training in what’s appropriate.  Isn’t “doing what comes naturally” the antithesis of education?

Ex ducere, the Latin root of education, means “to lead out of.”   Maybe we could start by leading out of the bathroom.