(It struck me the other night, after my current band of short-story students had handed in their first drafts, that I’d forgotten to impart the following bit of wisdom. So here it is, back for a return engagement after two years in the 317am archives.)
Back when my kids were in the 3rd grade, I used to invite myself into their classrooms to deliver the Kaze Distinguished Fiction Lecture. You can keep your PEN/Faulkner types; give me a roomful of 8-year-olds and the opportunity to get a word in before the public school system pounds into them the strategic advantages of doing and thinking as they’re told.
A semi-domesticated tribe, these 3rd-graders, but still ready for anything.
“Okay,” I’d begin, “Somebody tell me the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Four Bears.’”
“There are three bears!” they’d shout, rolling their eyes, barely concealing their disbelief that anybody would let such a dope come talk to them.
“I know, I know,” I’d say. “But we’re adding a bear.”
So, they did.
We got the predictable appearances by Smokey the Bear, and Yogi Bear, and Maurice Sendak’s incomparable Little Bear, and the doltish and inexplicably popular Berenstain Bears. But when the well of well-known bears ran dry, the kids started doing what I hoped they’d do: They became storytellers.
We got the Pizza Delivery Bear, on hand because the bear family had finally gotten sick of porridge—too hot, too cold, or even just right. We got Mama Bear on the phone with Mattress Warehouse Bear, asking how she could order three identical beds and get one that was too hard and one that was too soft. We got an awkward visit from Teenage Bear, Papa Bear’s son from a previous marriage. And we saw Goldilocks fall hard for Teenage Bear, which led to an unseemly confrontation when Teenage Bear’s former squeeze, Jealous Girlfriend Bear, showed up unexpectedly.
“This is great,” I’d say. Then I’d lower my voice, confidingly. “You guys are eight. When you’re eight, there’s lots of people bossing you around.” This was invariably met with knowing head nods and other rueful gestures. “But when you’re writing a story, you’re the boss. You can do anything.”
I tell the same thing these days, of course, to writers who are not 8, but 28 or 58. When I say tell them you can do anything, I don’t just mean that you have some kind of license. What you have is bigger than that. You have power.
How’s that? Simply this: In a story, it’s your world to make. Where else in this life do you control the tides? Move time at your pace? Spin planets backwards? The boy gets the girl if you let him, that cough becomes fatal if you allow it, the father on his death bed reveals his secret if you decide he should.
And that’s just the start of it. This world you’re making will be informed by your own moral seriousness or lack of it, your eye for beauty or lack of it, your sympathy for others or lack of it. Your laughter. Or not. Your cynicism. Or not. Your—you get it.
Your problem now is the problem that always comes when they remove the conventional rules and restraints. Now you’ve got to decide what’s true north. And whether you’ve lived up to your own best self. And whether you’ve done right by your talent and your vision.
Which means, of course, that you can’t settle for just three bears. That’s how many they handed everybody. You can do better. The conventional way of seeing things—or, for that matter, your own customary way of seeing things—is the starting point, not the ending point. If the fourth bear doesn’t show up on his own, do as those 3rd-graders always did for me and go find him.
The photo above is no trick. A while back, some British kids put bears in space. I couldn’t find a better illustration of unfettered imagination.