Guest Post, Heather Altfeld: Unpacking the Library of Childhood: One Poet’s Fleeting Thoughts

Mokelumne Wilderness“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”

—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

“What a tension of childhoods there must be, held in reserve at the bottom our being, for a poet’s image to make us suddenly relive our memories, reimagining our images by starting from well assembled words.”

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie


I went camping recently in the Mokulumne Wilderness, 8200 feet up in a remote region of Northern California. I had last been there with my three daughters and a boy who was fond of the eldest. He was the first of his kind, the first boy, to be invited on a family trip. His name was Magellan, which elicited no end to the commentary from friends and acquaintances. You let a boy named Magellan near your girls? But Sophie and Magellan were twelve, going steady, so to speak, banned by his parents from even the small gesture of hand-holding, and he was sweet with her, not-holding her hand as she climbed granite boulders six feet high and roasting marshmallows expressly for her as she lazed about in a camp chair by the trickle of late July snowmelt.

As the night grew frosty beneath the stars he began to tell us stories about growing up in Alaska. His father had taken him backpacking several times in the Alaskan wilds. His earliest memory of this was when he was about seven years old. “We didn’t take blankets, so when we got cold, we lay on the ground and covered ourselves really deep with leaves” he told us, with a mixture of apology and pride and embarrassment. He went on to say that he and his father also took very little food, eating what they found for sustenance. What they ate, exactly, he left vague and unspecific. “Sometimes we ate berries if the bears hadn’t gotten there first,” he said. This wasn’t a romanticized account; he was clearly grateful to be in the presence of such amenities as a campfire and not-dogs, to be “roughing it” with four girls who were more suited to the comforts of home.

I spent a good deal of that night imagining his seven-year-old self Christopher McCandlessing his way through the tundra, plucking berries of unknown origin, and I fed him the fare of a farmhand for the rest of the trip, trying to fatten him, I suppose, like a little Hansel. I’ve revisited his stories a number of times since, trying to crawl into his childhood for a while to see how it must have worked. What was the wilderness like to him, in that small body of his? How did its skies look from the spot where only his eyes showed through the autumn foliage, lying awake next to a father who was philosophically opposed to comfort, curled up in a pile of dry leaves? It is not unimaginable, of course; his experience was neither more memorable nor more terrible than the childhoods of Frank McCourt, or Jeanette Winterson, or the countless other orphans and refugees and neglected offspring who have given us their narratives as testimony to the infinitude of ways children can be both deeply vulnerable and deeply resilient. Even poetry seems to have developed a preference for the ‘true,’ the factual—the eyewitness testimony, the documentary footage—in place of the imagined. It is interesting to think about the impulses behind the ascendance of memoir in both prose and poetry, the prevalence of attempts to climb into someone else’s childhood, or back into one’s own, perhaps as a way of learning empathy, especially in an era that simultaneously whines about a lack of such emotion and demands it with a fervor that borders on militancy. Depicting childhood as a largely terrifying enterprise is common. The impulse seems to be to create empathy, and perhaps change, out of the recognition of suffering and grief.

But the imaginative landscape of the non-terrifying childhood, the sort of childhood that is shaped more by curiosity and exploration than by the kind of trauma and abuse that forces one to adopt a defensive posture, is also worth dwelling in. “Childhood is the well of being,” writes Bachelard, in his confounding, intriguing book The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood” does this amazingly well, and watching it with a large audience recently I was intrigued by the reactions to some of the scenes. We are so inured to injury and emergency, both as narrative devices and as existential certainties, that we forget, or else cannot believe, that most of the time life eases on without fanfare or tragedy. At one point in the film the girlfriend of the main character, Mason, passes him the cell phone while he is driving. She wants to show him a photo of a cute furry animal. Everyone in the theatre audibly sucked in their breath; a few people even murmured, “Oh God!” We were prepared for the Accident Narrative, the sudden swerve from the road, the sound of next scene’s ventilator capturing their breath. Earlier in the film Mason’s (second) stepfather, with a can of beer in his hand, volleys with him when he is late for curfew, and we brace ourselves for the Abuse Narrative. Indeed, we have already seen the child at the mercy of one beastly stepfather—it isn’t as if the film pretends such things don’t happen— so it is all too natural to expect more. We wait for the sound of his head to be knocked on the doorframe, and when we don’t hear it, the audible sound of breathing begins again in the theatre. As an audience, we seem most comfortable with the grand mess, the traumatic, than with the ordinary, with actual life.


Much contemporary writing about childhood takes the form of memoir, and sadly, much of it feels like instructions for disaster, apocryphal childhoods that give us the bleakest views of the most painful experiences imaginable. This affords many of us perspective; the toils and griefs we face (my students refer to some of these as “first-world problems,” an expression that seems surprisingly apt) so often pale in comparison to the significant maelstroms known intimately by so many on a daily basis. I grew up in a home and during an era where the barometer of perspective for one’s ailments and sufferings was The Train—the one Train that stood in for what was really many trains, the trains that carried Jews from their homes and lives to the concentration camps. Like many Jewish children of the post-war era, I was instructed in Holocaust studies at a very young age, and learned that nearly any amount of suffering could be endured so long as you were not on the train. (My therapist since tells me that this isn’t a very effective strategy for rearing the young). It’s an interesting way to create endurance and self-reliance in a human being, though. On the other hand it can also be, and often is, a false crust whose main function is to disqualify any sorrow or grief that cannot measure up to the death camps.

When I was taking courses in Waldorf Education, our teacher training taught us to do “child study,” where we would envision a child in their natural “habitat” at night before sleeping, to try to understand their struggles in the classroom in the context of their lives. For a traditional Waldorf teacher, this involves lighting a candle and imagining the child surrounded by light in their home, as they are sleeping, and holding them in your thoughts for a few moments each night. Despite some of the more religious connotations of such experiences (Waldorf schools are founded on anthroposophy, and anthroposophy is described as the study of the soul) it is an amazing way to hear a child, to see a child, to go back into your own childhood, even, into the imagined and lived experiences of the self. I have even taken to doing this on occasion for my college students, whom I learn far less about than third-graders. The practice of noticing them, of being in their worlds, feels critical to the possibility of teaching them anything of magnitude.

Understanding someone’s childhood truly is entering a sort of portal to the lived experience, the locket of individuality. Poetry and film and literature do this for us. We get depth and perspective about our own lives and origins, transcending nostalgia with a kind of inherited memory. But so often we privilege the discourse of anxiety and awfulness over that of pleasure and hope and imagination, memorializing terror and trauma rather than imagining the inverse. This is a sensible reflection of our times in many ways, but privileging what is “true” over what can be imagined may be a miscalculation with grave implications for the poetic imagination. If we cannot envision anything other than what we have, it may seem we have no choice but to accept it, and as a result we actually can become inured to the pain of others. “We must admit there will be music despite everything,” Jack Gilbert tells us in his poem “A Brief for the Defense,”a beautiful piece that demands that the reader hear laughter even “in the terrible streets of Calcutta.” It makes me think of the moment in My Dinner with Andre where theater director Andre Gregory says to the playwright Wallace Shawn,

How does it affect them (an audience) to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and violence and terror? Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? You see, I don’t think so, because I think it’s very likely that the picture of the world you are showing them in a play is exactly the picture of the world that they have already…so the play simply tells them that their impression of the world is correct, that there’s absolutely no way out, there’s nothing they can do. They end up feeling passive and impotent.

This is an argument I never quite stop having with myself, as a writer who works with, writes about, and sometimes writes for children. I do think that it is critical that contemporary writing stretch beyond the lived experience of memoir, and even beyond the ordinary experience of “Boyhood.” It is, for example, through the poetic prose of Joyce that his ordinary childhood is exalted in Portrait of the Artist. And often, the imagined lives of children are both instructive and important for writers and readers. Some of the most memorable childhoods are literary childhoods, lived by imagined children who live at the whims of their creators, imparting experiences and sensitivities that exalt childhood itself. Characters like Fern, in Charlotte’s Web, invoke a child’s ability to spend day after day in a farmyard, depicting the child’s relationship to a world that adults can’t often manage to see. Similarly, the worlds of slightly older books such as The Cricket in Times Square, with a cast of Manhattanite mammals living adjacent to a family’s newsstand, the young Mario privy to their world in ways that can potentially invite even the most cynical residents of New York (myself included, in the days when I used to live there) to revisit the crannies and alcoves of the tunnels with both curiosity and a kind of modest wonder, the sort of wonder that tells us that sometimes our impression of the world is potentially alterable. Many narratives describe the oddly seductive lives of orphans, who move through the world without the wisdom or love of parents and who, thrown thusly back on their own resources, often seem to find treasures the universe hides from others. Some are truly orphaned (the orphans of Narnia, to take one obvious example). Some are self-imagined orphans (for example, in E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). Some are more ambiguously orphaned: think of Pippi Longstocking, in Astrid Lindgren’s stories, whose father exists, but as a pirate in the South Seas, king of a cannibal tribe. The orphans instruct us in worldliness, resourcefulness, thrift, thievery, and lonesomeness: qualities essential for both children and writers living lives scalloped by fear or promise and who are forced to inhabit the terrain in between.


Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom depicts both a true orphan (Sam) and a self-imagined one (Suzy). Sam has lived much of his life in foster homes, while Suzy at least in part aims to evade the bleakness that keeps Bill Murray and Frances McDermott awake at night in their separate beds, idealizing life without a family. “I love you, but you don’t know what you are talking about,” Sam tells Suzy, when she romanticizes his parentless life. He’s right, but so is Suzy: there is something magical about the idea of a childhood uncontaminated by the presence of adult surveillance, a surveillance that so often seems mostly intended to quell their (our) anxieties and to force the spontaneities of innocence into their (our) more rigid conceptual schemes. Some have argued against Anderson’s contrivances, against the almost candied atmosphere of the film. But do we have less to learn about the reverie of childhood from Moonrise Kingdom than from sober and strictly factual accounts? In many ways I believe Anderson has touched the essence of childhood. It is an imagined childhood that is in some ways privileged and idealized, with its lush settings, loving adults, art, music, and the overall sense of a trustworthy, benign universe—but I am unconvinced it is less worthy of attention or any less serious than less idealized accounts that insist on placing children in the underbelly of reality.

“I just imagined that I was a sleeping prince,” Magellan told us by the campfire, as he spoke of his sleeps in the wilderness. “Or someone who had to pretend that they were dead, because the bones of dead people are usually really cold.” Only a child thinks like that, in images that are both wholly metaphoric and entirely literal all at once. “It seems we only languish during maturity in order to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they vanish from our memory before we were able to learn their language,” writes Thoreau. Writing about childhood is trying to learn that language before it vanishes altogether from the conscious ear. It is the revelation of a tender and secret universe, one that teaches a child how to be a child, and reminds a reader how to hear and to see it, wearing those fresh and stinging eyes to look out at these strange lands.

Guest Post, Carrie Chema: The 8 Stages of Art Making

Chema ArtEvery artist has their own individualized workflow and some of them can be pretty strange. Truman Capote and Marcel Proust famously penned their pages while lying down while Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus preferred to write while standing. German poet Friedrich Schiller is said to have kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workspace because their pungent smell motivated him to continue writing. The list of the bizarre routines of creative individuals is a mile long but what about the psychological stages of creating artwork?

Here are the eight distinct stages that I have identified in my own workflow.

  1. Nausea and Terror of a Blank Canvas, Followed by Diversionary Tactics and Despair:

This is the first identifiable stage because it is the first step that involves some kind of action. Indeed, there is almost always a pre-stage where you bask in the glow of your most recent project while you put off starting a new one for days or weeks or months for fear of facing stage one. But when the fanfare (or, more often, self-congratulation) surrounding your latest work dies down, you’re left with the realization that you must start all over again…from the beginning… from scratch. Once you’ve mustered the courage, stage one sets in. Hard.

You sit down, face the blank canvas and, after a half a moment of eye squinting, decide that you should probably make a coffee. Caffeine in tow, you try again but this time the pile of dishes overflowing in the sink catches your eye and, how can you possibly produce your next great masterpiece with last night’s dinner rotting in the sink (you’re no Friedrich Schiller, after all). You complete this ritual sub-phase of stage one only when your bathroom is spotless, all bills are paid, you’ve “exercised”, showered and done the laundry.

Finally, when all known diversionary tactics have been exhausted, you return to the canvas. Panic truly sets in as you think of the wild success of your previous work, in your stage one mind it was an achievement akin to -insert your favorite master work by any dead European artist-. You feel resentful of your past self, cursing that pompous, over-achieving, genius! Overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand, you slither out of your chair, crawl across the living room floor and into your bed where you pull the covers tight over your head. Assuming the fetal position under your down comforter, you remain in what is rapidly becoming a sweat lodge until you fall asleep or have to pee.

  1. The Search for Inspiration.

You finally manage to drag yourself out of bed when you realize the obvious solution to the problem at hand; consult your past self! The past you became such a hero in your mind during stage one that they must have had some valuable insights that your present self can now plunder and take credit for. You consult numerous old, half used moleskine notebooks searching for the genius of your past self. You scour through pieces of poems, old shopping lists and half-hearted doodles before reaching a page with “ideas” scrawled across the top. There are two things on this list:

1) Dog phone solution for interspecies communication?

2) Ask Dad to see his list of ideas.

Instead of being disheartened by this finding, you’re oddly liberated by the realization that your past self really isn’t all they’re cracked up to be, in fact, they’re just like the present you!

Reinvigorated, you consult the Internet to see what insights StumbleUpon or Pinterest can offer. You click a Twitter link to a new show opening at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and BAM…

  1. An Idea Wallops you in the Stomach

It’s all you can think about. You’ve never been more excited in your life but unfortunately, it is now 3 o’clock in the morning and you have to be up at 8. You attempt to quiet your mind (which is doing some kind of wild, flailing interpretive dance inside your skill) telling it “Hush now. You have an idea. Everything is going to be alright.” But, of course, after days or weeks or months of struggling for a new idea, there is no way to turn your brain off now that you’ve found it. You toss and turn as your idea becomes more and more grandiose

Original idea: a life size statue of Paris Hilton dressed in rags.

Evolves to: a four times life size statue of Paris Hilton wearing rags that I will create from the discarded clothing I’ll find in a landfill.

Evolves to: I’ll live in the landfill for a month, all the while constructing clothing out of filthy, discarded rags and then I’ll walk to New York and do a performance as Paris Hilton in the middle of Times Square.

The final, impossible permutation of the idea comes at 6 am when you’re on the brink of sleep. Fortunately, you do not remember the latest version when you wake up.

  1. The Letdown of the Groundwork

After your sleepless night of imagining all the incredible possibilities presented by your new idea you’re invigorated and anxious to begin your new project. Perhaps you spent the entire day at “work” skirting your responsibilities and instead spending your time daydreaming about minute details and embellishments that you’ll add to your project

I’ll rub decaying apples all over the Paris Hilton rag ensemble to channel the late great Friedrich Schiller… how’s that for a conceptual twist?

At five o’clock, you leave a meeting with your boss in mid-sentence to race home and finally begin work on the idea. Only then do you realize that you still need to stretch and size your canvas, or format your document or mix the plaster for your Paris Hilton statue. This is a great letdown when, after hours of fantasizing about your finished project, you begin to understand that you actually have to make it when all you really want to do is rub decaying apples all over it.

  1. Hitting the Wall

After all the frustration of finding an idea, the ecstasy of fantasizing about it and the letdown of having to do the ground work, now you’re elbows deep in your project. All the prerequisite formalities of setting the stage for your masterpiece are done and now all you have to do is fill it with your amazing idea. The only problem is that a few hours in, and nothing is working the way you thought it would. The Paris Hilton mold you cast is coming out way more Wynonna Judd and the supermarket doesn’t even sell rotting apples. You start to feel completely discouraged as you begin to forget what was so compelling about your idea in the first place. After the emotional rollercoaster of the past few days or weeks or months your brain has short circuited and you fall into a trance-like-state. Staring off vacantly into the distance.

  1. The Push

This stage is, in my opinion, the most critical in the entire process and, ironically, it is the one in which you are least involved. Also, I’ll add, it is very tempting to stop at stage five and revert to stage one but DON’T! That path is an endless feedback loop of despair, misery and unrealized dreams and inexplicable miracles are about to happen here in stage six.

As your brain checks out entirely from the creative process, somehow, your hands continue to mindlessly interact with your complete failure of a project. No one knows what exactly happens here at stage six because everyone who experiences it has temporarily become a mindless drone carrying out the initiatives of the Unconscious, or God or the Alien Race of Ant-People. Eventually you snap out of your stupor and begin to see what your body has been doing for the past day or week or month.

You can’t believe your eyes when you notice that the project before you has completely transformed into something that actually has some miniscule flicker of potential. Confused, you look around the room to make sure that no one is playing a joke on you. After you look in all the closets and under the bed, you allow yourself to feel excited about your project again. This quasi-mystical experience had given you back your mojo and you do a little dance to celebrate.

  1. Flow

With the new understanding that you’re on the path laid out by your Unconscious, or God or the Alien Race of Ant-People, you resume your work with a furious sense of purpose and drive. Nothing can distract you from the task at hand.

Afraid of the fervor with which I’m working as my wide bloodshot eyes stare fixed two inches away from the computer screen, my husband says something like: “Sweetie, I made you this French inspired five course meal. Aren’t you hungry? You’ve been in that same position for three days…. Honey…?”

I chuckle and reply vaguely: “That’s funny, dear”

You gain a super human ability to work for hours on end without food, water or rest. You don’t notice the passage of time until….

  1. The Click

Suddenly, the project is finished. You can’t explain why or how you know, but you have an instant realization that if you add one more embellishment then entire thing will collapse in on itself like a dying star. With a great sense of calm you can at last tear your eyes away from your project. The first clue that something is amiss comes when you notice that a faint layer of dust has descended on every surface of your workspace. Only then do you locate a clock and calendar and, with a jolt of shock, realize that days or weeks or months have passed inside the black hole that is stage seven. You make a mental note to ask family and friends what’s been going on in their lives and in the world, but only after you fill them in on the triumph of your most recent project. Turns out, your sister had the baby, the war ended and Coke came out with a new Diet version that uses Stivia instead of Aspertame.

You do leave your workspace eventually but return every few minutes or hours to stare lovingly at your masterpiece, astonished by your naivety in stage one when you thought you’d never be able to top your previous work. That work was terrible, you think, this new piece is the pinnacle of my creativity. And with that one, small, innocent thought your project becomes the property of your genius past self and you stare, horrified, down the barrel of stage one.