Craft: Writing Like a Four-Year-Old

On a recent reread of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which led to a massive reevaluation of my life priorities and six bags of stuff being sent to the thrift store (but that’s another story), I came across an interesting piece of advice. If you’re familiar with the book at all, you know that Kondo doesn’t simply address the physical fact that we have a lot of stuff, but also the metaphysical, even spiritual facts of what stuff means to us.

Before the book even gets into tidying or discarding possessions, however, Kondo explains a process in which she has her clients visualize their” ideal lifestyle,” identifying their goals and motivations for cleaning up their homes in the first place. She encourages people to write down concrete examples of what their ideal day looks like. And then, when we come up with a list of these values or ideals, she tells us to ask why this is something we value. When we answer that question, she again asks why. When we answer that, it’s why again. Kondo recommends asking yourself why you want to live a certain life or value a certain ideal at least three or four times. By finding the why behind our values, we learn what we need to do, practically, to line up our lives with our values. Of course, this usually includes getting rid of stuff.1

Finding the Why

Here’s an example of my own experience in this process, and although this isn’t a house tidying blog, I think it’s interesting for a few reasons.

One of the aspects of my “ideal lifestyle” was that I wanted it to be unhurried.

  • Why? Because I often feel rushed.
  • Why? I feel like I’m not doing enough.
  • Why? I feel like there’s a standard I’m not hitting, or things I should be accomplishing.
  • Why? I feel like I have to account for my own time.
  • Why? I don’t trust my own standards for what is a good use of time.

It took five whys to figure out the reason behind my need to feel unhurried, and I could have probably kept asking myself why even after the final answer, which is of course that I need to feel validated by a source of authority outside myself. But enough about me.

Asking “Why” in Writing

One thing that struck me when I was going through this process, was how perfectly it translated into writing. Not only does the process of clarifying your values to yourself make you a better writer in that your own personal goals are organized, but once you get into the actual work of writing, asking why causes your writing to make more sense. This is especially useful for character development:

Amy is rude to her sister.

  • Why? They have a complicated history and don’t always see eye to eye.
  • Why? Amy is more cynical about the world, while her sister is more trusting.
  • Why? Amy thinks that being cynical will protect her from hardship
  • Why? The times she has trusted people didn’t work out well.

This is just one example of how asking why about a character leads to some pretty deep motivations, something a writer always has to have in mind when writing about a character. As I’ve talked about before, a character’s mental space always dictates their words, actions, and reactions, and motivations live in the mental space.

Cause and Effect

Asking why is also great for exploring cause and effect, something I tell students to always look for, especially when they’re writing about real world problems. If something is an issue, why? What events led to it existing in the first place? How is this problem a symptom of another problem, or a reiteration of a previous problem? Why is it something we deal with, and why can’t we find the solution?

Toddler Technique

Asking why also puts you in a curiosity mindset, where your mind is open to possibilities and you are attuned to all the nuance and detail in the world. This is an important mindset to have as a writer. If we treat events sort of like a four-year-old does, questioning everything and annoying the hell out of the adults in our lives, we can actually start thinking critically, and as a result, we can start writing critically.

How has a curiosity mindset helped in your own writing? In what ways have asking why brought you to a new understanding of yourself and your characters?

  1. Kondo, Marie. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Ten Speed Press, 2014. 36-38.

2 thoughts on “Craft: Writing Like a Four-Year-Old”

  1. Lovely piece. Comprehensive and useful. I’ve been trying to work on my causes and effects, but this ‘why’ method really does help add another angle to tackling it. Love how you connected the dots. Thanks for sharing, Hannah!

    Liked by 1 person

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