Your Job As a Writer: Think Like a Child Again, Make People See the Fish

With the 90th Anniversary 2010 issue of WD shipping to subscribers as we speak and hitting newsstands Dec. 15, we’re nearing the end of the Top 20 Tips from WD in 2009 series. (Who will nab No. 1? Will it be shocking, incredible or anti-climactic? Will it dazzle or dismay? Stay tuned for Friday!)

At No. 2, here is a ponder-worthy duo from Joshua Henkin.

No. 2: See the World With New Eyes
A friend of mine in college wrote her psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how children group objects. Adults group the apple with the banana, and children group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults. One of my jobs as a writer, and as a professor of writing, is to teach myself and others how to think like children again—albeit like smart, sophisticated children.
—Writer and teacher Joshua Henkin, from the September 2009 issue of WD (Check it out here).

And, because I couldn’t choose between the two:

John Cheever once said he would never use three words in a row that he’d seen used in a row before, which is why he called a bruise “blue and black” instead of “black and blue.” The first time someone used the phrase “like a fish out of water,” you saw the fish. Now no one sees the fish. And one of the purposes of writing is to make people see the fish.

Also, a shout-out to Promptly heroes Mark James and Martha W., who took on a challenge to respond to every November prompt. Check out their eclectic stories (alongside those of other writers) in the Comments section of the posts below. Thanks for writing here, Mark and Martha!


Feel free to take the following prompts home or post your responses (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

“This cab ride isn’t over.”
“But it is?”
Nearby, a man treads water and the full moon rises.

Bonus Prompt (to make up for the Thanksgiving tech blackout):

Their tan lines spelled out an unexpected—and unparalleled—message.

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0 thoughts on “Your Job As a Writer: Think Like a Child Again, Make People See the Fish

  1. Mark James

    And the bonus prompt. . .

    Before the plague, I was just another trucker who fell too deep in the bottle. Now, I’m an Early Bird Special waiting to happen.

    I could see the letters flowing across my green lawn clearer than noon after a hangover.

    Their tan lines spelled out an unexpected—and unparalleled—message.

    Aldon was standing at the bottom of my driveway with his sister, Rianna.

    I kept my voice even, but it was a struggle. “How’d you dye the lawn brown?”

    “We didn’t,” Aldon said.

    Rianna said, “We killed each blade of grass, until it was just right.”

    It drove me crazy how they finished each other’s sentences. “And you want me to do what?”

    They looked at each other, then nodded, like they’d said something and they both thought it was okay. “May we approach you?” Aldon said.

    “We mean no harm.” That was Rianna.

    I never thought I’d see the sun rise on a day when I was scared of two kids not even half my size. But since the plague, I’d seen more things than I wanted to remember. “Yeah. Sure. Come on.”

    Rianna came first, walking around the tan lines of the letters like a ballerina. Her brother watched, then came after her.

    They both stared at me like I was supposed to do something. “What?”

    “We would like to come in your house, please,” Rianna said.

    A drop of sweat rolled down the back of neck, into my shirt. When the Swine Flu turned into a Pandemic, nobody counted on ninety eight percent of the population over the age of twelve dying.

    Kids got the flu, but they survived, turned into super genius freaks, little freaks with a taste for Mommy and Daddy.

    I stepped back, let them in.

    They shut the door behind them. “We need a grown body to do this task,” Rianna said.

    I didn’t like how she called me a body.

    “Planes will be flying over,” Aldon said, “in just over two hours. We need you to drive your truck to the airport.”

    “Our feet don’t reach the pedals,” Rianna said.

    “Who’s in the planes?”

    “Cargo,” Aldon said. “Fresh meat.”

    “What if I don’t?”

    I knew the answer, but I wanted to make them say it. They were changing. I wanted to know how much.

    “We’ll eat you,” Rianna said. “Meat is – -”

    “I know about the cows, alright?” I rubbed my hand over my face, raking over my two day stubble. “Airport’s forty minutes if the roads are good,” I said. “What time?”

    “One hour, please,” Aldon said.

    “Mr. Luret?”

    I looked down at Rianna. Her black on black eyes gave me the creeps. “Yeah?”

    “I hope you’re eating well. It would be a shame if you became too lean.”

    I watched them leave, their careful steps avoiding the words they’d spelled out. Four foot high letters across my lawn said, “Meat Town”.

    I went upstairs to get ready. As long I stayed useful, I’d stay off the menu. As I shaved, a single thought haunted me. In a couple years, their feet would reach the pedals just fine.

  2. Mark James

    Zac: These tips were awesome. We hear all the time about avoiding cliches in our writing, but John Cheever’s take on it finally gave me a fast way to think around them. Dorraine: The story about your daughter inspired this story.

    Martha: Two down, zero to go. Now. . . let’s see. . . what to write about in tomorrow’s blog? . . . So many words, so many people . . . It’s been fun.

    Wendy rubbed her shoulders. But it was no use. Her folded wings itched terribly. “This cab ride isn’t over. I wasn’t talking about that.”

    “But it is?” Peter said.

    “Our marriage was over when you signed up to go to the moon.”

    “It’s a commuter job.”

    The cab filled with Wendy’s light. Peter shaded his eyes from his wife’s fury. “I won’t miss a single cow.”

    Wendy turned her back on him, slapped Peter with a wing.

    “Hey,” the cabby said, “you’re getting fairy dust every place. That stuff’s impossible to shake off.”

    “And what when the moon’s full, and the cows can’t jump over it?” Wendy said.

    “Don’t cry.” Peter waved at the cloud of gold dust that was gathering around Wendy. “I’ll catch a spoon. They didn’t all run away.”

    Wendy’s fairy dust tears turned into the mournful sound of tiny bells ringing sad notes.

    His wife’s sobbing went through Peter like knives. “We need the money.”

    She balled her little fists. Her wings fluttered free, made a tornado of fairy dust in the cab. “We didn’t need it on Never Land.”

    They fell into each other’s arms as the cab screeched, and dove for the ground.

    “That’s it, I had it with you two.” They landed with a thud. The stork turned its long neck, glittering with gold dust, and glared at them. “I thought I had it bad delivering babies. This cab business is for the birds.” It poked its long beak at them, unlocking the cage on its back. “It’ll take me weeks to get all the dust off my feathers. Get out.”

    When Peter didn’t move fast enough, the stork snapped at him, its long beak barely missing his arm.

    “Alright,” he said. “We’re going.”

    The stork took off, dust falling from its wings.

    Peter and Wendy passed ginger bread houses in silence. They saw Humpty Dumpty in his lake, treading water, his delicate shell keeping him afloat.

    “Hey kids,” he said. “Water’s nice. How about a swim?”

    They sat on his little bench, at opposite ends.

    “You two stop taking baths?” Humpty said.

    “No,” Wendy said.

    “Stars over at Straight On ‘Til Midnight, they’re outsourcing wish fulfillment.” Peter swept fairy dust off the bench. “She’s mad at me for taking a job on the moon.”

    “I’m not mad, I’m upset.”

    The egg in the water rolled ‘til he was upright, facing them. “Upset, huh? I can work with that. Going back to Never Land?”

    “You know we can’t.” Wendy’s wings quivered. “People lost their happy thoughts. We’ve only the children to keep us alive.”

    They all watched the full moon rise.

    “He’s fat tonight,” Wendy said.

    “Must have really loaded up over at All You Can Wish buffet.” Peter turned to his wife. “We don’t have to stay in Nursery Land. We can – -”

    Wendy pressed her delicate fingers to her husband’s lips. “The moon job isn’t forever. And the nights you’re gone, I’ll visit with Mother Goose.”

    “But – -”

    “This is our home now, Peter. And if we can’t keep our happy thoughts here, where else is there?”

    Humpty Dumpty clasped his small hands over his round belly. “Is it me, or is there magic in the air tonight?”

  3. Martha W

    Zac: I forgot to say thanks for the awesome prompts (even the ones that hurt a little). You’re good for my creativity level! *grin*

    ****************Prompt #2************************

    Bonus Prompt (to make up for the Thanksgiving tech blackout):

    Their tan lines spelled out an unexpected—and unparalleled—message.

    I stared. I couldn’t help it.

    The two girls lay on their bellies, stretched out on similar blue lounge chairs. One had blond hair, the other a brunette.

    The blond had on a fire engine red bikini and a sparkly ankle bracelet to match. Her companion wore a blue one-piece with a tattoo of moons and stars circling her lower calf. I’d take bets that one would be open and perky, the other quiet and dangerously appealing.

    But everything I discerned about the girls told me nothing. Who would want that message inscribed on their skin? Even if it would be temporary. I could see the way others were staring open-mouthed and disbelieving. It was only a matter of time before someone brought it to their attention.

    And not in a good way.

    Slowly I sank into a chair not too far from them, smoothing back my pale white hair, wishing for a day when the vibrant red mass shifted against my shoulders. There was a time when I bore a resemblance to these girls with their hourglass figures and beautiful hair. Though they must be from the north, vacationing here in Florida, their skin was paler than mine.

    Gently I tapped a foot on the brunette’s chair, for she reminded me the most of my youth. Tattoos and all. She peeked through her lashes then raised her head an inch. "Yes?"

    "How long have you lovely girls been out here?" I tilted my head to the side, curiosity getting the better of me.

    She covered a large yawn, finally starting to pull out of her slumber. Stretching, she winced as her delicate skin pulled tight with the burn. "Ouch." She had yet to notice the words. "Oh, man. We’ve been out here a few hours."

    I’d figured as much. I wasn’t so old that I didn’t remember the days of laying around the pool. Now they only happened in my dreams. "Who put your lotion on?"

    She smiled big now. "There were these two hot guys, wow- they were really hot."

    "Hhm." I pursed my lips. "Well, they didn’t do you a favor, darling."

    Sitting up now, her manicured eyebrows drew together. "What do you mean?"

    I cleared my throat just as the blond opened her eyes. "Holy crap, Lizzy!"

    "Emma, watch your mouth."

    Her friend shook her head though. "What is on your back?"

    Once again, I cleared my throat, drawing their attention. "It’s worse than you think."

    Lizzy’s gaze narrowed. "How so?"

    "Well, look at Emma’s back." As I spoke, Liz turned and confusion clouded her pretty hazel eyes. I tapped my fingers on the chair. "They left you a message, it appears."

    Both girls jumped up, on-lookers trying not to gawk. They spun in circles attempting to catch a glimpse. Finally Lizzy stopped, wobbling slightly. She turned a hurt filled gaze to me, "What does it say?"

    I bit my lip for a brief moment. Emma’s hands dropped from her hips, "It’s okay. Tell us."

    "Buy One. Get One."

  4. Martha W

    Zac: I love the fish analogy. What a great way to look at the way we write. While we might not hit it out of the park every time, if we strive to make it different – to make others see it for the first time, at least we’ve created something new.

    Dorraine: Thanks so much! and I love the story about your daughter. I lol’d enough that hubby had to know what I read. He loved it too!

    ***********Prompt #1******************

    “This cab ride isn’t over.”

    “But it is?”

    Nearby, a man tread water and the full moon rose.

    I hated these dreams. They were always so damn cryptic. Who could figure out what they meant? My mom was good at this stuff but she had passed away last year before she could teach me the nuances of dream visions.

    Invariably I would figure it out when whatever I was supposed to know about happened. I sighed, even in my dream. The driver glances back at me with his black hair akimbo across his forehead, his dark blue eyes shining in the moonlight.

    He shook his head, "You never try."

    My eyes narrowed, how had he known what I was thinking? "Try what?"

    "To focus."

    "On what?"

    He snorted. "See? You always want the easy way."

    Frustration boiled up inside me. "Easy way? Easy way? I’m seventeen and living on my own. My mother died a year ago, leaving me with no one. How is that the easy way?" Frustration always crested into anger when I thought of my home life. Every day dodging the authorities, home schooling myself so I wouldn’t be a complete idiot. One day I’d take my GED. Just not today.

    Today I had to figure out these stupid dreams.

    He chuckled. "Now you’re getting it."

    Just to be obtuse, "Getting what?"

    The man rolled his eyes, "Look again."

    I did. A man tread water close to my window, silhouetted in silver from the moon hanging high in the sky. His blond hair shimmered, his muscles rippled with the effort. His turned haunted gray eyes to me, "Help me." His head dipped below the surface for a moment before he splashed up for air again.

    Panicked, I grabbed the handle for the window, determined to pull him in.

    "Don’t bother." The low rumble reverberated through the cab.

    "Why?" I couldn’t just leave the man. He was growing weaker.

    My driver heaved a sigh, "It isn’t that type of dream, Cassy."

    Sadness swamped me, filling every nook and cranny of my heart. "Okay." I watched as the man sank, not reappearing this time. My heart broke.

    The bell for class rang, jerking me out of my sleep in the library. I took long deep breaths to calm my racing heart. I’d gotten farther that time but I still didn’t know what it meant.
    "Miss? Time to head for your next class."

    I turned at the voice, searching for the source.

    Haunted gray eyes met my stare.

  5. Dorraine

    As always, good stuff,Zac.

    Yes, I think as writers we should always take the water out of the fish. Solid advice by John Cheever.

    Also enjoyed reading "See the World With New Eyes." It reminded me of an evening long ago with my then three-year-old daughter. We were outside, staring at the sky, and I said, "Look at that full moon."

    She looked and grinned. "Oh, it must have ate too much."

    Well, yes, I suppose so. It pays to look at the world through a child’s eyes. Reminders are good.

    I’ve enjoyed reading, Mark and Martha’s stories. Great entertainment!