Thursday, 12 April 2018

On Writing and Small Children - by Ruth Hatfield

Every month I watch the 12th day creeping towards me with a sense of increasingly desperate panic. What on earth am I going to write a blog post about? Every month I swear to myself that I’ll give up writing this blog, and every month I realised I’ve left it too late to quit and I’ll have to write at least one more blog post anyway, so I might as well get on with it. And then I have to climb right inside the barrel, get down on my knees and begin scraping around for absolutely anything.

The trouble is that with two very small children, I really don’t do much writing at the moment. I do a lot of thinking about why I’m not writing, and planning times to write (i.e. when the children are in bed, and asleep), and then finding that when those times come all I want to do is curl up with a book, and my brain’s full of fluff anyway. I do a lot of reading children’s books, so I really ought to find some inspiration there. But re-reading Mog and the Granny for the ninetieth time doesn’t spark off that many original thoughts about writing. I also do spend a lot of time wondering when I’ll ever get time to properly write again – by ‘properly’ write, I mean what I used to do, which was bury myself in it for hours and days on end without having to once consider whether I ought to break of at some point and scrape the dried sardine from the front room carpet.
Well, I guess the answer to that is – not for a long time. And what I’m left with is the reality of what writing means to someone with two tiny demanding dependents. I’ve definitely learnt some lessons about books: I’ve discovered that quite a few modern picture books have texts with self-referential humour that’s clearly more aimed at adults than children, and that the kids, far from being happy just to look at the lovely pictures, actually get bored when there’s all this arch stuff in the text they don’t understand. Obviously many of the books I find grindingly repetitive and annoying (a thousand apologies to Judith Kerr, but I’m looking at you, Mog) are the ones my daughter loves best. But there are some that we both love love love. Oh, Julia Donaldson! – she writes texts that sound great, and that remind me of what a living, laughing joy language can be. They make me think about how I sat down from the earliest age and began to try to paint my own pictures with the language I knew, just because it seemed like such an exciting and beautiful thing to do.
My Naughty Little Sister
Then in the past month or so I’ve been reading longer stories at bed time, and on the recommendation of my own mum, I first went through the entire five volumes of My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards, and am now working my way through the collected works of Milly Molly Mandy. My daughter loves them so much that she lies listening in silence, not interrupting for the whole story (which given that she normally doesn’t stop to draw breath  is an absolute miracle). I didn’t get them at first – I remembered loving them myself as a kid, and I quite liked reading them, but it took a while for the charm to really grab me, and then I started to see what my daughter saw. They’re stories in which often absolutely nothing happens. A tiny, very domestic incident is described in great detail, from the point of view of a child. Of course it’s exactly how my daughter sees the world – things she can understand completely, written as intensely as she herself notices them. Swinging on a swing is a really interesting, thrilling and relatively new experience to a small child. (Actually, it was a relatively forgotten experience to me until a short while ago, as I hadn’t been on a playground swing since I was a teenager). You can make an entire short story out of it that a child will love. Watching your friend get a haircut. Being frightened by a vacuum cleaner. It’s all there.
I’ve tried stories with more adventure in them, but it’s clearly not what a child of my daughter’s age wants. Which is the real thing I’ve learnt recently – the best way to find out what children like to read is to read with them. Then not only do you remind yourself of how they see the world, what matters to them and how they want to be entertained, but if you’re lucky and they like the books you liked, you might get to experience again the real pleasure of reading children’s book through the eyes of the child you once were.
So after all, it turns out that my small children are both a hindrance and an inspiration when it comes to writing. Must hold on to that. Must hold on to that…


Damian Harvey said...

A good post Ruth - doesn't sound as though your scraping the carrel at all as finding the time to write can always be difficult... and there can be many and varied reasons for it. Great to read that you are finding inspiration where you can reading to your children too. Don't give up.

Lynne Benton said...

Lovely post, Ruth - and some excellent points about what children actually like reading about, which you will remember when you eventually get back to writing. Never fear, you will get back to it!

Steve Gladwin said...

It sounds to me like you really need your monthly stepping out into Blogville, Ruth, and I really hope you continue to enjoy it. x

Anne Booth said...

I absolutely love your descriptions of your daughter listening to a story she loves and how taking small children's and their experiences life seriously is so important. It's a great reminder.

Penny Dolan said...

Really enjoyed this post, Ruth, and that close glimpse of a young child's view of their world and what really matters or fascinates. Hope that - with time- the utter exhaustion eases and that you'll slowly but steadily get back time for "deep writing".

Don't give up right now, though, as this may be a time for collecting ideas, scribbling down useful picture-book ideas and writing drafts of poems.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Lovely post and reminded me of some early and enduring favourites. I don't remember ever being read to but MNLS and MMM were among the first chapter books I read to myself. I can still read and enjoy MMM!