Mickey’s penis was my first. I was four, maybe five. The book, Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, must have been a gift, as I can’t imagine my parents having paid money for it. (In a home of a physician and child therapist, you might think there’d be lots of easy chatter on anatomy and difference and the mysteries of dreams, but then you have not met my parents.) Before Mickey what I understood to be “male parts” amounted to the smooth tan canvas of my sister’s Ken doll. At bedtime, my literal-minded father – who had no problem subjecting me to biopsy slides and lungs of coal – regressed into his ten-year-old Yeshiva boy self, fixating on Sendak’s storybook drawings, ogling Mickey’s pale knob of a schmekie, even reaching for a magnifying glass to ascertain whether Sendak had bothered to circumcise his cartoon creation. My mother clung nervously to the other end of the spectrum, speeding through the surrealist text as if it were dangerous, as if we all could catch fire, then dismissing its psychology with rapid, soul-crushing disapproval: “Now, that was a silly, stupid story.”
All of which made me love In the Night Kitchen that much more. I was hooked. Sure, I got a preschooler’s kick out of Mickey’s body in its vague doughy glory but that did not begin to explain my adoration for this book. What I felt through Sendak’s pen was a plain, unadorned truth: We are naked beneath our clothes. In a household marked by awkwardness and shame, confused by religion and short on tenderness, there was a pure simplicity to Sendak’s story of wonderment and discovery that arrested me, an innocent rebellion and jubilation that held me captive, that made me oddly protective. The nakedness, neither gratuitous nor exhibitionist, just was, without apology, necessary as Mickey’s admissions ticket to enter the play land of his subconscious.
Here was a place where no parents were allowed. “Past the moon & his mama & papa sleeping tight” the world of Mickey opens up as he falls out of his clothes to face his dream in the light of the night kitchen. No longer did I want my parents steering my reading experience, but sought to claim it for myself. With its whimsical comic book design, limited word count and very large print In the Night Kitchen became one of the first books I read alone, lips inching like worms, in my room, shut out of my older sister’s bedroom, on the cold blue bathroom floor. The narrative itself, a celebration of selfhood and refutation of the influence of others, of grown-ups trying to pour us and shape us into their own sweet cakes, stoked those young independent fires.
It is a story that continues to nourish. Whenever I childishly fear my parents’ reaction to my work I am reminded: I do not write for them. May be this is the stuff of introductory workshops, (it’s what we Girls Write Now mentors urge our high-school mentees from the outset), but it warrants repeating: If any of us ever tried to write what others expected or desired, the censored outcome would be a flimsy cowardly mess. Writers have obligations to themselves alone. Mickey’s battle cry is ours: “I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me!” At 4 and 7, my own kids are already beating their chests.
Since his death there has been an outpouring of all things Sendak. (My son’s class wrote acrostic poems: M agical guy/ A nimal lover…) Famously wary of adults – his iconic wild things inspired by relatives with their big eyes and yellow teeth and reaching, stubby hands – Sendak understood the inherent grotesqueness of exaggerated, insincere behavior. Which is everywhere. We have become a land of monsters, of preening little emperors and sniveling footmen complicit in silence. From politics to publishing, ours is a nation built from angles and trading in favors. These are the givens. I’m not one to lambast the game players or lament the great loss of integrity, or wade too deeply in the swirl of internet criticism. Far better writers have tackled these arguments far more intelligently than I ever could.
Throw me in the pot; I, too, am guilty. However well-intended (Aren’t things bleak enough? Where else can writers get the support they need, if not from their community? Who am I to criticize?) I can get effusive in both casual feedback and formal reviews. Just as it’s reasonable to question people-pleasing pom-pom acts, the same goes for ruthless eviscerations, which can be equally dishonest and ego-driven. Many already recognize with too few places to review, and too many books worthy of attention, it is futile to put forth anything other than honest, uninfluenced and balanced critiques. I aim to do better. Bravo to those of you who inherently understand, and uphold this standard.
Bullshit everywhere we step – but it doesn’t belong on the page. Like the child of The Emperor’s New Clothes, astute readers can distinguish between a writer who plays it phony or safe and the one who lays it bare. I’m not pushing for characters with a nudist fetish, and I don’t mean ramp up the sex scenes, or embrace realism, either. Rather, in any style or genre, it is writing that penetrates, that cuts to that stark startling place without judgment, without any false desire to shock or awe, that will carve out a lasting home in our hearts.
Winter is upon us, and with it, the requisite piling of layers, all the more reason to strip down in our chairs. Revisit that beastly first draft. Is it trying too hard? The dialogue, does it sound stilted, or too glib? Is this scene absolutely necessary? That dazzling analogy, is it merely ornamental? Naked truths don’t always come easy. Like Mickey, we must shed the blankets we hide beneath and take the cold plunge. Imaginary worlds await. Our barest words catch the moonlight. Stories shimmer, take hold.