The Kids Are All Bright

Elizabeth Ames Staudt
August 9, 2010
Comments 4

A favorite teacher of mine tipped me early on that there would be people who would tell you never to write about childhood, especially not from the perspective of a child. She shared a story about how one of her own teachers had told her in graduate school that any story written from the perspective of a child was garbage. I might be mistaken–maybe the word she said he used was worthless. Junk? Maybe I’m misremembering the whole thing. I’m not a child, but nobody ever accused me of being terribly reliable.

She was also the first teacher to share with me the following Flannery O’Connor quote, shared here in big letters since we haven’t yet had a picture:

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.

We both agreed that on this issue, Ms. O’Connor was the one that we believed. But still, precocious narrators get a lot of grief. Luckily, they have Anne Shulock to defend them beautifully on The Millions. Shulock writes of herself:

I was not a 12-year-old cartography genius or pint-sized private eye, but I was an overachieving kid who took a while to figure out how to be smart without being an annoying show-off–a quality of precocious narrators that often bugs readers. I recently re-read the journal that I kept through high school, which was not all that long ago. The content breakdown is approximately 60% about boys, 30% about how lonely I felt, and 10% about how great I was doing on my AP physics tests. I had forgotten about the time I gossiped about how academically stupid my crush’s girlfriend was, and then he confronted me about it via AIM conversation. Which is to say, I really could have used a bookish friend like Alma or Blue. (And like Blue, whose father quizzes her on vocabulary and makes her perform readings of classic plays during long car trips, I had parent-assigned summer homework. I remember writing short reports about the book Cheaper by the Dozen and the sport of diving; homework earned points, which could be redeemed for sodas and CDs.)

I didn’t have parent-assigned homework, but I do have parents with a basement full of my old notebooks, easily 60% of which are devoted to advanced analysis of the various ways dreamy boys say “hey.” Oh how he leans! It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that there were graphs. (Colson Whitehead does make a good point about the critical remove required to make insightful graphs about one’s teenage predilections.)

Do writers want their babies to be writers? I feel like, in the way-too???many-celebrity-profiles I’ve read, most famous people hope their progeny will not head Hollywood-wards, but are quick to add that they will support them unflaggingly should they ultimately choose that dangerously glittery path. Except Britney Spears. I’m pretty sure she was quoted saying that she’d lock her sons in a room until they changed their minds. Okay, she really said she would lock them up until they were thirty. Is it worse that I knew the first part without googling? Or that I spent thirty seconds fact-checking Britney Spears’s parenting policies?

Kurt Vonnegut, in a lecture at Albion College, said: “If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.” But to go into the arts, you first must first have been hurt:

Alex Gregory cartoon in the New Yorker

Or you can tell about the hurt your parents visited on one another.

In searching for a link to the cartoon above, I came across a great post by Austin Kleon (whose funny and lovely Newspaper Blackout should go immediately to the top of your to-read pile. Read it tonight!) on art and parenting (and his post has a rad illustration). Kleon writes: “Chuck Jones spoke fondly of his wonderful mother, and quoted Gertrude Stein, ‘Artists don’t need criticism, they need love.'”

Lucky are those of us who get love from our parents, or from anybody at all. Take note of this tiny onesie (purchased at Ann Arbor’s Robot Supply & Repair Store for a new arrival to the planet, lucky and adorable, and born to two readers, one of them a writer, too):


Doesn’t it just make you want to snuggle? And protect everyone on earth from any kind of hurt?

4 thoughts on “The Kids Are All Bright

  1. Elizabeth,

    Lovely. Flannery had it right, as usual. I know that everything I write has a footprint from my childhood which is blindingly obvious or much more subtle. With my long fiction it\’s usually the latter. My poetry? Well, might as get a purple stamp made that says: \’Childhood memory driven piece\’. Since it is my childhood, it may be obvious to me or those who were close to me as I was growing up. One of the most satisfying things I have happen is when someone comments about my work saying, \"You could have been LIVING at my house, it\’s amazing how much that was like our life.\" This reassures me–I love finding the commonalities, not the differences.
    Perhaps your teacher was influenced by Hollywood. An old saying there, \"Don\’t ever work with a cute kid or a cut dog, you\’ll get upstaged every time.\" Is it the cuteness he objects to? That cuteness has no place in literature?

  2. hmm..started to write you a comment and it disappeared. Just wanted to tell you how touched I was by this. It always staggers me to find out someone was not only listening, but thinking about what I was saying to them. What my prof said was this: “Never write from the point of view of a child; they have nothing to say.” He was including teenage narrators in that. So apparently he’d not been impressed by Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye. He was the kind of teacher who made blanket statements (“Humor has no place in fiction”) that actually proved helpful in that they forced me to articulate arguments as to why he was totally wrong, but also made me try to figure out what it was about my work, where I might be going wrong in the voice, that was triggering these statements. But, yes, yes, Flannery rules. And so do you.

  3. While I now feel much better about the lack of youthful hardship imposed upon you, am I to keep those snippets of paper or toss them?
    Love, PoP

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