Writing Your Inner Child
Or how to see with “Salvador Dali Eyes” (an awesome story by Douglas Campbell that you’re going to wish you wrote yourself)
by Leonora Desar
Sometimes (often) being an adult is lame. Not to mention writing about it. By writing from a kid or teenager’s perspective, we get to have more fun. We can tap into a number of cool tools:
-sassiness: I’m not going to take that, Mom!!!
-fragmentation and loose logic. By this I mean, kids often have a system all their own. Often, it makes no sense, on the literal level, but there is a magical and intuitive kind of reason.
often see things others don’t. Case in point:
Grown-up: Here are three boring adults having a boring dinner.
Kid: Why is my dad touching that strange woman (who isn’t Mom)?
A grownup might not see a suggestive tap on the elbow and equate it with flirtation. But kids—they know— and not only do they know, they have fun and innovative ways to describe it. It’s not just: Look, Dad’s getting down with that woman’s elbow!!! It’s: Dad just finished an art project with the Krazy Glue, and now he and this woman are being all sticky, together.
Or maybe: Dad wants to be ketchup in that woman’s mouth.
Or: Dad has a potbelly and he and this woman go in it, to do things. It’s why his stomach makes those freaky noises.
In other words, there’s dreaminess, to it. The chance to blur dreams and life.
I know what you’re thinking: these examples are pretty weird. Well, let me give you a legit one. In one of my favorite pieces, ever, “Salvador Dali Eyes,” the writer talks about a family. It’s a dysfunctional family, same as you’ve probably seen before. Only not. And that’s because of Salvador Dali. His eyes, that is. Instead of merely saying: my family sucks, the narrator describes them through magic and whimsy.
A hard-to-reach sister locks up her breasts—literally. “Getting above yourself” also becomes something literal. The narrator wants to, just like in Dali’s painting. He wants “to go above himself and be a cloud…a white shark cloud with wicked teeth.”
Campbell is doing two, no three, amazing things:
1. He takes a story we’ve seen before—“my family sucks”—and gives us something new. Through dream lingo, he’s giving us the truth, emotionally speaking, that is. Here’s what the Fancy People call “literalized metaphor”—or taking an emotion or a feeling and solidifying it. The angry dad is not just an angry dad. He’s one pissed off dad with a melting neck.
2. It’s funny. Yes, we’ve got this melting dad, yes, there’s this half-naked sister, yes, everything’s going to hell—and fast—but the tone isn’t Violins. It’s not Catastrophe. It’s comic, that sweet blend of funny-sad.
“My father hates dog shit on the lawn. I missed the dog and broke the windshield of my mother’s car. My idea was smart, but my aim was terrible.”
That last sentence!! It’s not funny, lol!! (insert dancing emojis) but it strikes a tone, a wry one. Humor is sadness’ best weapon. It prevents stuff from becoming overwrought.
3. You always need a “3,” so I should put one here: Okay. I love how Campbell does transitions. He’s kind of amazing at this. There’s the “repetitive word transition,” a.k.a. ending graphs with a word and repeating it in the next, often in a new context. This creates fluidity, poetry.
AND, my favorite party trick, which is to forsake transition, period. After having his smart idea and terrible aim, we move on to something new. There’s no repetition, word or otherwise. It just takes off. It’s thematically and emotionally related to what we’ve read before, but this isn’t hammered home. The writer trusts us, and we follow him.
But this is all “getting above ourselves.” We’re not theoretical academics. We shouldn’t think about this stuff too much. The point—I hope—is to have fun, to read lots and let it marinate in our subconscious, working its strange magic.
Homework (the fun kind):
Write about something boring and not-at-all-interesting-to-grown-ups, then, work your magic. How would a kid spin that lame family BBQ, someone say, aged 10? Or maybe 6 and ¾ ? * What would they see beneath the chili fries and pee-smelly beer?
Godzilla beneath the kiddie pool (maybe)
*First sign of growing up (boo): counting age in full, complete sun-cycles.
Leonora Desar still wishes that she were 8. She can often be found at the ice cream parlor, doodling in notebooks. Her handwriting is childish (aka unreadable), which can pose a problem. Find her work in Passages North, River Styx, Mid-American Review, Black Warrior Online, Wigleaf and the Wigleaf Top 50, and others. Her matchbook piece “My Father’s Girlfriend” is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2019. Three of her pieces were chosen for Best Microfiction 2019. When she was 11, she believed Big Words were the secret to impressing teachers. Unfortunately, one overheard her bragging about this. She’s a big believer in the PS.
PS: More great treats from a child (and teenagers’) POV:
Everything by Becky Albertalli, but most famously, This.
PPS: this creepy bit of heartbreaking magic, told from the vantage of retrospection.
PPPS: Anything by Ned Vizzini, who will make you feel less alone