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The wisdom of each age

At 7 a.m. in a quiet hotel room — we were in Savannah over Thanksgiving weekend, and I was trying not to wake Sandy — I finished Leaving Atlanta, then rolled back and re-read the last section. I was struck again with the infusion of the child’s crystalline seeing with the (off-stage, narrative) adult’s wisdom.

Every book has its moment, but I had just been puzzling over a manuscript with a complicated point-of-view problem. Leaving Atlanta was exquisitely timely because this book is so skilfully told from the point of view of three children.

A child’s point of view is hard to do well. Too often, either the children come off sounding like little adults or they are far too much like children. The first is unconvincing and dull, and the second is not compelling; we don’t read literature for the wisdom of six-year-olds (nostrums about what we learned in kindergarten notwithstanding).

Young people have such an uncanny clarity about life; their experience isn’t tempered or filtered through the accretion of experience (which I have described in another essay as having the blinding power of a blizzard). But adulthood brings another kind of clarity — the way, when I’ve been driving through a snowstorm or torrential downpour, I realize I am so acutely aware of the situation. I cannot see, but I can know.

Then Dinty Moore of Creative Nonfiction pops up with a short, delightfully grumpy piece in Inside Higher Ed about the problem with teaching nineteen-year-olds how to “write.”

After sixteen years of pushing that old pedagogical stone up the hill, I sometimes question whether the conventional undergraduate—a nineteen- or twenty-year old American child of the middle class—really wants to see the world clearly. Or if he even has the ability.

This is what I think: it is like being Episcopalian. I have always felt that the virtue of my denomination lay in its ability to train my body to be receptive to the spirit. Sometimes years go by when I feel distant from God and faith, but in those years when I am a practicing Episcopalian (as opposed to now, when I am pretending to be a Congregationalist), I can force my body through the motions — stand, kneel, sit — knowing that when the spirit returns, the body will be there to catch it.

In the same way, it’s not a waste to teach the mechanics of writing to nineteen-year-olds (however exasperating it may be to instructors to read the same stuff year after year). First, some will be wise beyond their years. (I wasn’t, but we’ve all met the nineteen-going-on-forty-year-old.) But more crucially, when the coltish mind matures, the skills will be there, waiting and ready. Not only that, the young writer can bring to the craft a freshness and acuity we lose as in the process of aging we wander into that snowstorm of experience.

I had a similar discussion with a librarian friend yesterday; we sighed over how often we found ourselves uselessly advising younger librarians — useless, because some lessons can only be taught by age and experience. But I think we were also sighing over our former selves, which had their own wisdom. It’s an interesting business, this aging.

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