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Dec 31 / Michael

Donna Summer, baseball, & the strange logic of childhood

So I have the old Donna Summer song She Works Hard for the Money stuck in my head for some reason (and posting this video isn’t going to help). It’s sort of hard to explain this, but a few decades ago this impressively overacted video was one of the first things that allowed me to really consider my mom’s life.

My parents divorced when I was young, and my mom worked as a secretary to raise two boys. It was obviously not easy, except that, for some reason, it wasn’t obvious to my brother and me. You’d think that we would’ve instinctively appreciated all of her hard work, but that was mostly not the case. We wanted more of this and more of that; we complained; we put big-ticket items on our Christmas lists. I think that’s sort of standard operating procedure for kids, for whom work is an abstraction and school seems like some horrible, unrealistic burden. Nonetheless, we were basically little sh*ts.

On some level, though, we knew. When this video came on MTV, I would stop whatever I was doing (or breaking) and sit and watch it. It was a little weird, because this definitely wasn’t the kind of music I normally liked. What was going on, I’m reasonably sure, was that the video allowed me to understand my mom better. I couldn’t, or didn’t, allow myself to notice how hard she was working when she was cleaning up the room four feet away from me, but through the safe distance of a dramatized working mom on TV, it made it in.

I couldn’t turn to my brother and say, “Man, Matt, mom is really making a lot of sacrifices to raise us.” But I could sit there, watching this video and thinking, Yeah, this lady works hard! You better treat her right!, and get a lot more choked up than a video that ends with an over-the-top working woman dance sequence would seem to justify.

This was one of two big epiphanies I had on the subject as a kid (the other involved a six-pack of pepsi and two BB guns). It reminds me (for the purpose of this blog) of just how daunting it is to write for or about children and teens. Capturing this kind of oblique, counter-intuitive psychology is hard. Evasion, self-delusion, emotion by proxy, it’s all there and all important.

It’s something that even the best writers seem to kind of neglect. When dealing with youth, in retrospect or from the outside, there is a huge temptation to impose order and rationality on it. Motivations become straightforward, and the emotional cause and effect of things make sense. This is all amplified within the framework of plot-driven fiction.

People call it “the magic of childhood” but illogic might be a better word. Capturing it is incredibly difficult, because we’re necessarily approaching it from a more realistic, mature, and literal-minded perspective. I think that’s OK, for the most part. It’s sort of like baseball. Just keep swinging away, telling a good story, and if you can connect on one of those more slippery truths from time to time, you’re doing well.

I’m not sure who’s the best at capturing the particular reality-bending illogic of childhood. The best I’ve read might be Günter Grass. (Leave it to a left-wing Nazi to understand misdirection.) But really, what was he, a career .320 hitter? So it’s a challenge. Me, I just try not to swing and miss.


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  1. Melissa / Jan 2 2009

    I loved this post, and I’m tweeting it.

    The only thing I’m angry about is having that song stuck in my head now. But it’s a tribute to your mom, so I’m ok with it.

  2. Kurtis / Jan 2 2009

    Nice post, except for the unwelcome ear worm like Melissa said (I’m resisting the temptation to rick roll here…)

    I think that when writers of kids books do have kids behave sporadically, irrationally, impulsively in books, because it feels true to me, readers are likely to say that the character’s motivations need to be clearer or they need to be more consistent, because they’re worried young readers won’t understand. So maybe it’s easier for grown-up books about kids, like The Tin Drum, to get it right.

  3. Michael / Jan 2 2009

    Sweet, I’ve been tweeted!

    Ear worm is an excellent phrase. It sort of reminds me of that scene from The Wrath of Khan, but then, that was an awesome scene.

    Yeah, I definitely see your point, and I think you’re right that it’s adult readers, i.e. peers and editors, who are liable to say that a character’s motivations need to be clearer. It’s that same urge to impose adult rationality on childhood. It’s a bit like when adults try to imitate a child’s writing. They’ll use short, careful sentences: “My name is Mike. I am 10 years old.” But I used to get hundreds of emails and letters from kids, and they would use these huge, rambling sentences, because they were trying to express something complex and important to them (like why their team deserved more respect). They were more concerned that I wouldn’t get their point than that they would make some grammatical errors along the way.

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