Thursday, September 6, 2012

"Childish Wonder" by Eli King

This excellent post from showed up in my inbox this morning. It really resonated with me, and Eli graciously gave permission for me to share it...

by Eli King
How old are you? Seventeen? Twelve? Twenty-one? Okay. Now how old do you feel? Seventeen? Twelve? Three?
I first started telling my brother stories at age six, seven or eight (I forget just when), a practice that died temporarily before being revived at age ten or eleven with the addition of one and then several more brothers. This story-telling was the predecessor to my writing, as I didn’t complete my first book until just before I turned fifteen. I can remember many happy hours spent with my brothers, sometimes late into the night, making up stories as I told them. These stories were huge—in written words they would be full novels, and probably very large novels. Most of them were fantasy. My largest story collection consisted of maybe fifteen novel-length stories that I collectively called the “AK stories”, which took me several years to complete. They were about a wild world of dragons, swords, evil villains with armies of monsters, strange little creatures with feisty attitudes and a kingdom of men dedicated to fighting darkness. To keeping the world free of oppressive evil through triumphant honor.
I can’t speak much to the theological ramifications of my stories, but maybe I can get a break since I was all of 10 to 15 or so when I told most of them. The stories weren’t about plot either, and often they would ramble, wander and extend far beyond the reaches of reason or patience. For all that, though, they held my brother’s rapt attention for hours on end. I’m talking about dozens of hours, here. Probably hundreds. My brothers would beg me to come to bed and tell them stories, and then keep me up late into the night, still telling while they begged for more when I got sleepy.
My point in relating all of this is not to brag. To be blunt, the stories were horrid. Embarrassingly clich├ęd, borrowed, ill-plotted and themeless. The point is not what they weren’t, however, but what they were.
Today I write for older teens and young adults. My age group, basically. I’ve moved away from fantasy and more into the thriller/action genre, and I enjoy it. But when I told these stories, I told them for children. Boys between the ages of about two and ten. They grew, and I grew, but we were all still kids and we were engaging in something very kiddish—we were entering worlds beyond adult logic and reason for no other reason than because it delighted something very special about childhood. It delighted our wonder.

If you’re going to write for children, you must understand and appreciate childish wonder. There are few things more amazing in this life than a child. A child is, basically, everything the rest of the world wishes they could be. Think about it. Children think simply, live simply, love simply and enjoy simple fun. They are fascinated by everything and they have almost no stress or worry. Children live the perfect life they don’t realize they have because they’ve seen nothing else. But one of the things that makes a child so special is their wonder. Children are too young to have been tarnished by a world of walls built on the “reality” of logic, reason and (dare I cuss?) common sense. Children are too young to appreciate that a thing is impossible, because as far as they know, nothing is impossible. They’re too innocent to understand the concussions of evil. Too little to be, well…stupid.
No. I’m not calling adults stupid. Reality is and reality remains. People grow up, life moves on, and the world is what it is. I’m not denying any of that. What I’m saying is that there are some parts of a child that were never meant to die. The parts we murder one vicious day at a time as we shove them as fast as we can into the one-size-fits-all jumpsuit of life. Things like imagination, simple faith and wonder. 
To write for a child, you have to be a child. You have to somehow maintain your grip on your imagination. Your wonder. That part of you that wants to believe in Narnia and the Wizard of Oz. The part that’s simple enough to not worry about tomorrow, but to just enjoy the dessert at hand. I’m not talking about immaturity here (certainly children have plenty of this as well). I’m talking about what it means to be alive with fascination and love of God’s creation. Of your own life. I’m talking about what it means to stare wide-eyed at the stars and imaging going to the moon. “But NASA has been shut down,” you say. That’s not the point, though. The point is that it’s wonderful to think of a place like the moon, and being there.
When we grow up, something changes. We get older, get into highschool, start learning about economics, political science and philosophy, and our wonder gets killed. Our imagination—that part of us that wants to sit down with an ice cream cone and a huge, silly grin—becomes smothered by reality. Seriousness. In other words, we’re taught how to stay alive at the expense of knowing how to live.
I believe God put us in this world, and made this world to be enjoyed. With wonder and imagination. Of course, we screwed that up with the fall, but I still believe there is so much here worth being held in wonder. Jesus calls for the faith of a child in His followers. I think there’s something in the fact that children have such a sharp advantage over adults when it comes to something so foundationally essential to life in Christ as faith. Why? Well, I’m no theologian, but could it be because adults, who have lost their wonder, have thereby learned to live by doubt, fear and uncertainty and alienate themselves from their Creator? Maybe. I don’t think that’s for me to say, really.
The point is this. Writing for children means writing with wonder. It means detaching yourself from those constricting elements of adult “common sense” and becoming quite uncommon. Becoming imaginative in order to ignite the simple wonder of a child. I really believe that this can bring readers closer to God—not by teaching them lies that they will later have to unlearn in order to become mature, responsible citizens, but by keeping them in touch with the simple fascination and amazement of what it means to be created in God’s image—to have an imagination. A sense of wonder. To not believe in the lie of impossibility that we built on the foundation of humanistic ideals and science—not faith.
It’s something I’ve fought to admit, but it’s true and I can’t hide from it any longer. I’ve lost a large portion of my sense of wonder. My children’s stories have degraded in quality over the last couple years until the point where my brothers have started to lose interest—particularly the older ones. I can’t connect with the same magic I used to be able to summon with a snap of my fingers. That magic that created worlds so real to me and so full of such amazing impossibilities that ignited such passion in me for stories. For wonder. For life. I think somewhere along the way I did what they call “grow up”. I learned to be “real” about life. I learned that not every hero lives happily ever after. Not every brother sticks by your side through thick and thin. Not every romance ends in roses and sunsets. Not every good conquers over the evil. Not every war ends with a triumphant king standing over a fallen villain.
…but don’t they? What if the simple stories we’ve grown up on are just reflections of an ultimate story? Because in the ultimate story, the Hero does live happily ever after. Sure, He dies. But that was really just a false victory for darkness. In the real story, there is a Brother who sticks by your side regardless. In the real story, the romance takes millions of hits, but in the end the Hero has his bride and they do live forever together with a love that never dies. In the real story, good destroys evil and the King stands on top of a fallen dragon with a bloody sword and takes the last stroke that ends the reign of darkness forever.
Perhaps I’m taking things too far, but what if the childish wonder we all had—and some of you, perhaps, still have—is founded on the deep sense of the Ultimate Story that you were created to be a part of? What if half of the “reality” we’ve discovered as adults is actually just the result of becoming incredibly too nearsighted and having lost connection with the true reality of the ultimate power and plan of God? What if, just maybe, faith is all about rediscovering that childish wonder and complete trust that we lost when we became tainted by the world?
What if stories are a connection to the pathway back to what it means to be a child, to be overcome with simple wonder?
It’s something to think about.

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