Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Old friends and writing lessons

One of the few things I had time to do in Sydney was to catch up with an old friend over dinner the first night. Dinner ended up stretching out over quite a few hours as my lift home was sidetracked by my new niece’s arrival. With my siblings all temporarily home from overseas and living with my parents, their home is like Grand Central Station with no departing trains, down to random overnight guests sleeping on mattresses on the only floor space available in the living room. Washing machine, telephone, fridge and stove are on continuous cycle.

Before descending into/adding to this chaos, I wanted a few moments doing something just for myself, hence the dinner with a friend – let’s call him Knox. I’ve known Knox since I was a gangling teenage uni student, earnestly studying Chinese history and language with a desire to change the world, but no real plan for doing so or even an idea of where to start. I met the future Mr. Blithe around the same time. At the time, Knox was studying genetic anthropology and supplementing his income by the much more lucrative sideline of paediatrics. He, the future Mr Blithe and I became great friends and he was one of our wedding attendants. Over the years we’ve enjoyed many meals, films and long-distance phone discussions. He’s a bit of a Luddite and doesn’t have email so chasing him down can be hard. I think that it’s part of being an emergency consultant – sometimes you just don’t want to be contactable.

Anyway, Knox is a fountain of knowledge and insight on many topics, but especially the topic of children. He has no children of his own, but plenty of opinions and perspectives that come from seeing families in crisis mode. His single most useful piece of advice to me has been not to patronise children as they always sense and resent it. This ties to my mother-in-law’s observation that adults expect children to behave much better than they do themselves.

Maybe it was just being apart from my children, or maybe talking to Knox about children and families, but remembering his advice has helped greatly with my writing. I’ve been struggling a bit with tone and approach. I have a story in my mind that I want to tell, but I was concerned that I might be writing in too “grown-up” a style. What has helped has been to simply focus on writing as honestly and simply as I can. Children don’t need to only have bare narration of adventure and action. They can understand and appreciate emotions and complexity. Great children’s literature deals with big questions and doesn’t patronise the readers. I might end up writing great literature, but I can take these lessons to heart.

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