Preface: The Crazy Child
Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much…
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any
farther, But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
–Walt Whitman, from “Beginning My Studies,” Leaves of Grass
The Crazy Child is an aspect of your personality that is directly linked to your creative unconscious. It is the place in your body that wants to express things. It may want to tell jokes, to throw rocks, to give a flower to someone, to watch the sunset, to make up insults, to sit quietly — or to play video games. All these impulses, all the thrilling, scary or ordinary ones, come from your Crazy Child.
The Crazy Child is also your connection to the past. Everything in your genetic history, your cultural history, your familial history, and your personal history is recorded in your body — in your nervous system. Your Crazy Child has direct access to it all. Everything you have done, and everything that has been done to you, is in its domain.
I experience my Crazy Child as energy coming up from my feet, through my torso, and up the back of my neck. It connects me to the Goddess, to God, to the earth, to space, to darkness, to my senses, to my dreams, and to sex. All the exciting and all the dark stuff simmering or roaring through my body is the Crazy Child.
Your “creative unconscious,” your “creative source,” and your “Crazy Child” are close cousins. I often use the terms interchangeably, but “Crazy Child” has the virtue of sounding playful and wild. When you address it as your Crazy Child, your creative unconscious may feel invited to come out, make itself comfortable, and start writing.
The Crazy Child’s Goal
The Crazy Child’s goal is to express itself — to have some kind of existence in the world. We spend so much of our lives telling it to behave or to shut up and go away, that it probably feels unappreciated. The Crazy Child would like to be heard.
Writing is a safe way for this part of you to be in the world — or a relatively safe way. If your Crazy Child wants to rob a bank, writing about a robbery is more prudent than doing the robbing. If it has an insight that makes you vulnerable, you can write it in a private diary.
When the Crazy Child writes, it’s a raw, truthful part of you that reveals itself. It has not been civilized. My Crazy Child knows what is happening, in spite of all contrary messages. It knows what it’s like to live in my neighborhood, in this culture, in this time, and in my body. My Crazy Child is the real me — or at least an essential, energetic part of me.
The Crazy Child coils tension into a story, loads a poem with gripping images, unfurls a play’s or novel’s plot ratchet by ratchet, and punches up an essay’s most dramatic point. The other voices, the Editor and Writer described below, are valuable aids to writing. But the Crazy Child — your creative unconscious — is the source.
Crazy Child, Writer, Editor
The Crazy Child has two companions: the “Writer” and the “Editor.” These three voices are much the same as the Freudian id, ego, and superego, and much the same as the child, adult, and parent of Transactional Analysis. Sometimes the voices get along well, and sometimes they are unruly antagonists.
The Crazy Child is equivalent to the child or the id. The id, literally, means “it” — but the word has a darker flavor. Some German parents, when they want to discourage their children from going out at night, say the “id” is outside, just as we would say “bogeyman.” The Crazy Child has some of that forbidden aura.
The Editor is the superego or the parent — the “should” voice. It analyzes and criticizes our writing, and is intelligent, well-read, and thinks it is civilized. Its judgments can be helpful, harsh or anywhere in between. The Editor might say you are right on schedule and doing well or it might tell you to get a real job.
The Writer is the voice that negotiates and plans, and it strives for coherence and reason. The part I am thinking with now is the Writer, which is the same as my ego or my adult. I use it to organize this book, to plan my writing life, and to schedule my lunch breaks.
If you are reading this with your Writer, you are probably absorbing it carefully. Your Editor could be assessing it at the same time, and possibly deciding that you’re not good enough for this book or that Let the Crazy Child Write! is too elementary or far too strange — or it’s a perfect match. Your Crazy Child will have its own feelings: it might be scared, irritated, awed or delighted.
All aspects of writing are expressed in these voices. One of them — Crazy Child, Writer, Editor or some combination — is chattering at every moment. When they quarrel, the Editor often tells the Crazy Child it’s stupid or shy or sappy. These quarrels can stop your writing cold.
Let the Crazy Child Write! will help your Editor and Writer understand how your Crazy Child is the vital force behind your creativity. They will learn to honor and tune in to your creative source. When they are getting along, the Editor and the Writer respond warmly to the Crazy Child.
All You Need Is the Urge to Write
Let the Crazy Child Write! is for anyone who wants to write. You may have no experience whatsoever, or you may have written as a child and are interested in trying it again. Perhaps you keep a journal or have begun stories, poems, plays or essays on your own.
Your job might involve some writing, such as preparing technical manuals or reports or briefs, and you are curious about creative writing. You may even have taken a class or read an inspirational guide, and now you want to explore the nuts and bolts.
All you need is the urge. Let the Crazy Child Write! will help you develop a connection between writing techniques and your unique creative source. You will learn, step by step, how to tap into your creative unconscious — your Crazy Child — and its indispensable, dynamic knowledge of writing.
How to Use this Book
Let the Crazy Child Write! is meant to be read on your own or with a writing group — either way. The chapters build one upon another, so it’s useful to read them in sequence. But you don’t need to; you might learn as much by following your nose and skipping around.
Each chapter introduces a writing technique. A discussion explores the technique, an exercise gives you a taste of it, and a workshop section, which is optional, suggests how to give and receive feedback. Each chapter closes with a short writing practice that gives you experience with the technique.
Every chapter begins by discussing a technique of creative writing. The focus is on how that technique works in conjunction with the nervous system, and why it is important to creative writing — both to writers and to readers.
Examples show how the technique functions in stories, poems, plays, and essays, and how the energy and pungency of the technique arises automatically and naturally from our creative unconscious. That mischievous Crazy Child heightens our skills because it already wields them.
The discussion will indicate what you know, but don’t understand that you know. Learning creative writing is first a matter of bringing writing techniques into awareness. They are alive and thriving in the realm of the Crazy Child.
Every chapter presents an exercise that gives you hands-on experience with its topic. You can do the exercise on your own or, if you have a workshop, do it during the workshop meeting. Do it quickly and with as much exuberance as you can muster. Don’t worry about how well you are writing. There is no wrong way to do any of the exercises — except to not write at all.
You can do the exercise in a half hour. You can lie on your bed, prop yourself on the stairs, lean against a tree, or sit in a cafe with other people or by yourself, however you are comfortable. My favorite spot is at my local daycare center, in a tiny room painted like a magic forest.
In general, follow the method suggested by Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones: keep the ink flowing. If you use a computer, keep those fingers wiggling. If you use a pen, keep that pen on the page, and keep it moving.
It doesn’t matter how good the writing is. It matters only that you are writing. You’re retrieving some of the natural skill your creative unconscious has, and acquiring a feeling for it. That’s the goal.
You may want to wait until you feel confident as a writer before you join a workshop. You can read this book on your own and ignore the workshop sections, or you can peruse them for more information about writing.
If you’ve already written pieces you like, or if you just feel daring, consider starting a group. A workshop consists of two or more like-minded people who give each other feedback on their writing. This can be done in person, by mail, or by electronic mail. Workshops generally function best, however, when everyone is physically present.
You find out two things in workshops: how well your writing is going, and what steps to take next. These are surprisingly difficult to learn on your own. Your Editor often has too many suggestions or too many hostile judgments. A workshop will provide you with constructive insights in a way that you’ll be able to hear — even if your Editor and Writer are being contentious.
When you are ready, suggest to a suitable friend that the two of you start a workshop. If a friend doesn’t come to mind, post a note on a community bulletin board, advertize in a local paper, or make an announcement at a reading. Once you find someone, you can both invite friends.
You may be surprised how many people want to write. Decide on a regular meeting schedule and ask that members commit for a specific number of sessions. At each meeting, plan to hear everyone’s practice piece, written since the last meeting, and plan to write and listen to the exercise for the chapter you are reading.
It may take several sessions before your group gels, so be patient; the ideal is for each person to feel engaged and encouraged about writing. A workshop’s first concern is to establish a safe atmosphere. When it’s well on track everyone gets excited and stimulates better and better writing in each other. You have then created a “fermenting brew.”
Several ground rules, outlined on page 17, help generate this brew. I call the guidelines “kindergarten rules” and indeed they seem childlike, but they have a complex history. They have evolved over twenty years in my workshops and in other workshops around the country. The underlying concepts were first presented in 1973 by Peter Elbow in his book Writing Without Teachers.
The kindergarten rules constrain the Editor from giving heavy criticism that can stop people from writing. The ground rules establish a “syngenetic” workshopþone that focuses on understanding the writer’s primary impulse. The syngenetic workshop supports what each person is doing well, and cultivates each person’s unique strengths.
The practice section gives suggestions for a longer written piece that develops each chapter’s technique. The exercise gives you a quick hit and the practice expands your skill. Often the practice is an extension of the exercise. I will present several alternatives, and you should choose whichever one excites you.
The point of writing a practice piece is to solidify what you have learned before you go on to the next topic. It could take two to three hours. You might write more quickly or you might take ten hours or more. There is nothing wrong with either.
As you write, follow the spirit of the guidelines — whether you choose one of the alternatives or devise something on your own. If you write three to five double-spaced pages or the equivalent, you are doing enough to benefit. More is not harmful.
We need to practice a new skill many times before we can do it well. The human nervous system needs to repeat a technique some two thousand times before the skill can be performed without thought. The practice gives you a start on those two thousand repetitions.
Work Hard and Have Fun
Working with Let the Crazy Child Write! is a win-win situation. No matter how small or immense your writing career becomes, you will benefit from this book. You will discover how very interesting writing can be, and you will learn about creating detail, characters, dialogue, action, and more.
Let the Crazy Child Write! will also help you in writing letters, memoirs for your family, school papers, and even with the writing you do at your job. You will be able to write more clearly and more vividly, and enjoy doing it far more than you did before. You might also discover that you want to make writing an important part of your life.
Since Let the Crazy Child Write! develops basic skills and nourishes your creative source, it gives you a solid foundation for a writing career. You will discover the unique power in your own psyche and body. You will find out how well your Crazy Child can write.