My Young Genius is a Mermaid-Boy with Wings

020You know someone’s posed a great question when it ruffles your feathers, makes you feel a little uppity,and demands your attention.

This week’s first #DareToExcel Challenge, issued by wonder-tracker Jeffrey Davis, asks us to bring our nine-year-old selves to work with us on our creative endeavors:

#DareToExcel Challenge – 3:

Take a few minutes to remember a time when you were nine – or around that age – when you felt free to be your best.

Feel an exact moment in time and place. Are you outdoors or indoors? How does the air feel? How do you feel in your body? What are you uniquely doing or making? Who are you with and how are you uniquely relating to others?

Looking back with full compassion toward yourself, what 1-3 adjectives would you use to describe your younger self at her or his best?

These are your 3 Young Genius Qualities.

How can you bring some of those young genius qualities forward to this project?

The nine-year-old genius and her genius sister.
The nine-year-old genius and her genius sister.

As with many good questions, I resisted this one at first. I write fantasy for kids. My young self shows up to work with me every single day. Sometimes she won’t shut up. In fact, lately I’ve been trying to get her to tone it down. Girlfriend is loud, y’all.

My work in progress is a new endeavor for me, my first foray into writing for adults. I’ve often half-joked that I write YA because I haven’t figured out how to be an adult yet. How can I write about people I don’t really understand, about the Land of the Grownups, which still feels like a foreign country?

So on this project, I’ve been trying to get that nine-year-old girl to pipe the heck down.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a child versus an adult. About how our culture privileges youth, idealizes it, even fetishizes it. My WIP, tentatively titled “The Glass Box,” is a huge leap outside my comfort zone. It’s a dark and quirky faerie tale centering around two fortysomething characters, a woman who is trying to remember and a man who is trying to forget. As I’ve been delving into their worlds, I’ve been scrutinizing my own views of childhood and adulthood, and for the first time, I’ve questioned the use of the word “adult” as a verb–as in, “Adulting is hard.” When “adult” is used as a verb, it’s always used this way–to complain that being an adult is difficult, tedious, and banal.To reminisce that childhood was superior, glittering, magical.

Our culture, my generation in particular, has become obsessed with youth–youth in general, but also our own. The resurgence of critters like the My Little Ponies and the Smurfs, along with their waves of merchandise, is a testament to this phenomenon. We are so nostalgic that we’re finding in our childhoods not just warm fuzzies reflected back at us from the days of our endless summers, but a replacement for being adults, here and now. I’ve been annoyed for years by the way our culture stigmatizes aging, by the way we squirrel our old people away in their own separate communities, but I didn’t realize until I embarked on the rewrite of this novel that these things are connected. In fact, they’re inextricable from each other. This short video a friend posted recently was my wake-up call. Frances McDormand talks about aging, appearance, responsibility–it’s powerful medicine, peeps.

So when this prompt arrived in my inbox on Sunday, I felt stymied. I can’t get my nine-year-old self not to show up. This is the danger of a magical childhood. But here’s what I’ve realized over three days of resistance followed by percolation–I can get her to show up in more intentional ways.

I am in my holiest of holies, the hammock in the yard of my grandparents’ home by Parker’s Creek, which flows into the Rappahannock, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, which leads to the Atlantic Ocean. Like this creek, I flow into everything–into possibility and promise, danger and daring, the heart-wide-open-ness of a vast and unimaginably beautiful future. Like the creek, I am too busy being alive to worry about being pure. Fiddler crabs and snowy egrets trail their slender tracks across my heart–I will never really want a tattoo, I think, because I carry these markings within me, invisible ink just under my sunbrowned skin. My sister, constant companion of my childhood, wild dreamer/artist/maker/doer, sometime adversary, always there, is with me, and we rock the hammock as hard as we can, imagining that we can rock it free of its moorings and, like a magic carpet, it will carry us out over the creek, down the river, into the bay and out at last to the ocean. We even make a song about this, about how we will go dancing over the river. Because I am the oldest and I decide such things, there are wood-elves and rock-gnomes in this song, too. Our world is light and air, the brine of brackish water, the oyster-shell path, the acorns that fall from the hammock-oaks, acorns I collect with the intention of grinding them to flour because the American Indians, who are the geniuses of this place, the elves of this New World, did that, and so I will do it, too.

This is my safe place. This is the place where everything and nothing can happen. In this place, I am androgynous, amphibious, amorphous.

I am not a girl. I am a lion-tamer. Obviously.
I am not a girl. I am a lion-tamer. Obviously.

Androgynous……. I sometimes recall my early childhood as the time when I was a boy. I wasn’t, of course, and I didn’t specifically want to be, except when I imagined riding the rails into the America of sunset mesas and tumbleweeds. But sometimes I was a boy. I was both princess and prince, mother and father. When we played house with our neighbor-friends, I was always the dad because I was tall. But I also liked being the dad. And wished I could be the mom. This thread played itself out through high school, where on more than one occasion I got male roles (even though there were guys who’d auditioned and didn’t get cast at all)–the General, the Shakespearian comic relief. There is a freedom in being a boy, because male is the default setting for most of humanity. But there is an even greater freedom in switching between the two, between honoring oneself at the deepest, tiniest biological level of and Y. So sometimes I was a boy. And sometimes I was neither boy nor girl, or both, or some other thing altogether, some unimagined gender that is free of all the baggage.

The Amazing Flying Mermaid Sisters!!!
The Amazing Flying Mermaid Sisters!!!

Amphibious……. When I was a child, I was scaled and feathered, furred and clawed. So, more than amphibious, but I haven’t yet found a word for this kind of all-terrain animal, so “amphibious” will have to do. I was a mermaid, a centaur, a griffin, and a Holy Terror. I was siren and selkie, unicorn and dragon. I inhabited any available body of water with joyful abandon, and I could fly. I climbed pine trees to float on the wind. My mother, at this age, jumped off the toilet in a bid to soar through the bathroom window, convinced that if Peter Pan could do it, she could, too. I am my mother’s child. I dreamed of flying, and when I woke I knew with absolute certainty that if I could believe hard enough, I could make myself levitate, because I remembered the logistics of my dreams, which were unerringly specific.

Amorphous……. I was boy and girl, bird and fish and mammal, and I was more than these things, more than the sum of all of them, because I could shapeshift from one to the next, from the real to the imagined and back a thousand times before supper.

So how do I bring these things to my first decidedly grownup project?

I found the journal I kept when I was a Young Genius.
I found the journal I kept when I was a Young Genius.

Androgynous. The best writers can write as both women and men. The worst ignore one facet or the other, descend into stereotype and cliche, fail to fully inhabit their characters’ skin. To write the book I need to write, the book that needs to be written, I need to invoke my childish ability to gender-hop. I can’t say it better than Virginia Woolf–“It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.”

Amphibious. Amphibians are weirdly adaptable, and so must writers be. There are long dry spells in which we sink deep in the hardening mud. We dive down, beyond light or breath, into the crushing darkness of the abyss where only phosphorescent angels and fanged mysteries glide. And sometimes, beyond probability or reason, we soar. Writing requires its own sort of intrepid flexibility, an all-terrain mentality.

Amorphous. Writing also requires the ability to shift fluidly between these things. To be who we are not. To be who we most truly and purely and secretly are. One of my favorite writing quotes, by Guy de Maupassant, expresses it perfectly–“Whether we are describing a king, an assassin, a thief, an honest man, a prostitute, a nun, a young girl, or a stallholder in a market, it is always ourselves that we are describing.” Like Whitman, one among our vast canon of patron saints, we contain multitudes. We are shapeshifters. We have to be in order to take worlds that don’t exist and make them real, sometimes more real than the one that does.

Clearly I was destined for literary greatness. Ahem.
My nine-year-old genius diary. Clearly I was destined for literary greatness. Ahem.

The best writers are all these things-androgynous, amphibious, amorphous. All Greek-rooted words, like the mythology that fed my nine-year-old imagination. I suspect that all nine year olds are all these things at least in some measure. It’s in drawing these qualities into adulthood, a shining golden thread through the straw of the quotidian, that we breathe into our work the breath of life and write not only for ourselves, but for the ones who will receive our stories.

If you like thinking about this sort of thing, sign up for the challenge! Who is your #YoungGenius?

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4 thoughts on “My Young Genius is a Mermaid-Boy with Wings

  1. Wow Brenna. This is SO rich. I don’t even know where to start because all of it is so beautiful and resonant.

  2. Oh Brenna. Brenna. Brenna. WOW. So much to read and savor in this post. I love how brave you are to share this with your readers. I share with you some of this. Mostly the amphibious part. I have been and am a water girl, love frogs and fish and love water side life…everything about it, smell, touch, taste, the way water runs over rocks. I am with you and Vanessa here. We’d have a really fun camp-out, wouldn’t we?

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