What Toddlers Can Teach Us About Writing Better
How the curious life of toddlers imparts solid lessons for first-time writers
Forget the phrase, “spirited child,” when it comes to describing toddlers. Let’s not hide behind euphemisms when we know that toddlers can be tiny tyrants and straight up a-holes. Witness their apoplectic rage if you helpfully suggest that they shouldn’t wear underwear as a hat or when they discover there is, in fact, cheese in their grilled cheese sandwich.
But bear with me when I insist that a 2 ft. kid who has to be told not to lick the family dog has anything in common with someone who wants to pursue a serious writing career. The business of being a toddler has a lot of salient takeaways that we can apply to writing, especially if you’re a new kid on the playground.
Make a mess
The North American toddler species thrive in their natural habitat of glitter, slime, tiny Lego death traps, and markers that DECEIVE you with their advertised impermanence. Writing should be just as messy. The writing process is a scratched out, scribbled over, delete-delete-delete type of process that undergoes outlines, drafts, numerous revisions, and then a final version if we’re lucky.
Rarely is writing prim, pretty, or proper. A solid brainstorming session is a veritable dump of every conceivable idea percolating in your head. Forget about following a linear chronology when it comes to crafting narratives. It should be random, haphazard, non sequitur. There should be hard-to-look-at, mismatched pieces cobbled together and tossed aside in equal measure. So dig in, get your hands dirty, embrace the messy process, and clean it up later.
The notorious picky toddler diet is a developmental staple. Forget walking; we know our kids are hitting their milestones when they decide a steady stream of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets is the nutritional hill they want to die on. Be as discerning with your writing opportunities. Allow yourself to be selective in what you write and for whom. Not every job will be worth it and it’s okay to say no. Don’t stray from why you’re pursuing writing in the first place — to do what you love on your own terms. Make sure the writing is worth your time and your talent. You’re building a niche that is buttressed by your knowledge/credibility and supported by a following that expects just that. Make sure your writing jobs have a natural and logical place in your professional arc.
Exercise sensory awareness
Give a toddler a plastic bin filled with 6 million popcorn kernels and just watch the sensory magic unfold. Toddlers learn that the big, wide world is a tactile world, as well as a place where there are sights on which to feast our eyes and curious scents to follow. Mind you, sensory awareness is also strategic training where toddlers acquire the ninja-like hearing that detects the barely audible strains of the ice cream truck MILES AWAY. The takeaway here is that writing is about paying attention to the everyday things. This “learning by doing” approach is not unlike experiential writing, which is about immersive experiences and being constantly observant about what we see, how words sound to our ears, and whether a moment moved us. Be open to the texture of daily life, be mindful of how to extract meaning, and then distill that into your writing.
Find happiness with cupcakes and unicorns
One of the redemptive aspects of raising these tiny people is their unbridled joy. And these tots are onto something with this upbeat optimism that we can apply to life and writing. While it can be easier to write about the things that pain us, don’t dismiss that there can be joyful writing, as well. We tend to overlook the good things in favor of writing effortlessly about struggles and challenges. People want to read about the levity and lightness, too. You can also refer to this cupcake + unicorn approach when it comes to dealing with the lows of writing professionally. There’s also a lot of rejection and discouragement in store for a writer. Steel yourself against it by reminding yourself to let the upside temper the sting and to always let the positive offer perspective.
Learn from others
Parallel play is something that toddlers learn to do after they turn one. They’re playing side by side and carefully observing each other. This helps with social skills and confidence building because little kids are paying attention to each other, likely picking up some new words and knowledge. The writing community flourishes on a special brand of supportive, peer-heavy culture. We find writers we admire and emulate. We are quietly taking notes and seeing their journeys as inspirational, maybe even one day attainable. Be open to learning and seeing how others are attending to the craft. But don’t lose sight of yourself in the process.
Toddler life offers a host of other lessons we can apply to writing. Take a cue from the predictable toddler routines (bath/book/bed) executed with military precision: set a writing routine and regular schedule for yourself. What about pretend play? Kids learn about their world by dressing up as princesses, cooking up plastic pizza, and resuscitating an ailing teddy bear. Be just as imaginative with your writing and don’t suspend the creativity.
These are formative times for both little people coming into their own or emerging writers also finding their way.
Get out there and play.