Why I Hate "The Giving Tree"–But How This Story Makes Us Better Writers
I’m going to say something possibly unpopular and perhaps a bit strange. I hate the children’s book The Giving Tree, even though oddly, it was my favorite book. I remember being five and reading the story and just weeping for the tree, feeling devastated. Understanding what she was feeling. I recall hating the boy and the self-centered narcissist he grew up to be. Taking and taking and never giving.
Why did the narcissist cross the road? Easy. She thought it was a boundary.
As a child I was obsessed with most of Shel Silverstein’s work, memorizing poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends. But maybe my early fascination with Silverstein highlights what good writers do for their audience, no matter the age.
While many people love The Giving Tree and hail it as a wonderful tale of unconditional love, there is also the other camp who finds the tale remarkably disturbing. But look at what this simple story says about its audience.
Point of View
First of all, I wonder if the story is much like those images we see in self-help books. One person sees an old hag and the other a beautiful young woman staring in the mirror. Does the child who comes from a kind and loving family see the maternal tree as a caretaker who loves no matter what? No strings attached? Or is the child seeing a reflection of the dance of codependency and narcissism around them?
Children are very smart. They see with much more honest eyes than most adults.
Reflection of Self
I’ve talked about this before in my post, Drop the Donkey. I honestly believe that stories we gravitate to as children says a lot about our fundamental nature, our strengths and weaknesses.
I always loved the parable of the Tortoise and the Hare, namely because one of my strongest traits is my persistence. I loved the parable of The Crow and the Pitcher because I was always good at finding clever ways to solve seemingly impossible problems. The stories I loved possibly reflected back personality qualities that even at a very young age, I possessed and was even proud of.
But then there was my dark side, a side I noticed even by the tender age of four when I was sounding out the words And the tree was happy. My tendency to people please (Old Man Whickutt’s Donkey) and my seeming inability to set a boundary with those who would take and take until I had nothing left to give (The Giving Tree) and me happily enabling my own self-destruction. The anger I felt toward the tree being a fledgling anger I felt for myself.
Why did the boy feel the need to take all the apples? All her branches? Why couldn’t he just take some? Why did the tree feel the need to offer all her apples and all her branches? Couldn’t he see he was killing her? Did he even care?
When it came to her trunk? Why didn’t she tell him to just go pound sand?
God, how many times have I done the same?
Less is More
As writers we are often guilty of too much brain-holding, of coaching the reader. We want to control every emotion, perception and description yet often less is more. When we leave blank space for the reader to fill in, the fiction can have room to blossom into something unplanned for. The story becomes richer and the experience more visceral because it transforms into an echo of the audience’s self-projection. Thus instead of one fixed interpretation, we get countless.
We end up with a story that is told and retold for generations simply because we all disagree about what it’s even about.
Shel Silverstein didn’t write The Giving Tree with plans that it was a cautionary tale against toxic relationships. He didn’t write it to be some Christ-like example of selfless love. He wasn’t writing a tale of capitalism run amok or misogyny. According to him, he simply wrote a story about the complicated dynamics of human relationships. We, as the reader, assign whether this is a tale of warning or wonder, horror or hope.
Good Stories Make Us Look at Ourselves
One of the reasons humans gravitate to stories is we learn through them. There is even scientific evidence to support that learning becomes far more embedded in memory when it is delivered in the form of story. We are wired for narrative. This said, we all struggle in certain areas and stories are a great way that we can experience cause and effect, trial and failure through others. We have a safe place to learn the hard lessons.
Often if I encounter something that upsets me or makes me angry I know it is because it is something that is bothering me about myself. Instead of avoiding the feeling or dismissing it, I have learned instead to explore it and ask why.
I think this is why good fiction is so vital. Yes there is a place for the fantasy character we all long to be. The market is filled with beautiful tough heroines who know Kung Fu and bake cupcakes the Navy SEAL men who love them.
But then there are the other kinds of stories.
Great fiction will not just tell our story (the one we plotted), but it will tell the story of our readers, too.
Empathy, Injustice and Grief
Our culture is guilty (my POV) of assuming that every child’s story is to serve as a role model. Don’t bully. Be a good friend. This is what happens when you learn to share. But literature serves a higher purpose.
Isn’t the point of being a parent to rear a fully developed person more than simply being an activities director? That we are charged with rearing a grownup with fully developed empathy and a sense of injustice? Doesn’t it say something when a child reads a story like this and is incensed at the injustice of it all?
The children’s movie Inside Out explored how dysfunctional we have become regarding human emotion. We aren’t permitted to be angry, sad, disappointed, jaded or hurt. We can be depressed (because there is a pill for that). Yet these “negative” emotions serve a purpose. It is okay to be angry and sometimes it is downright warranted. It is all right to be afraid.
Our culture has become obsessed with never being offended and yet being offended is vital. There are things that should offend us. That is when real change is possible.
Insulating entire generations from ever experiencing negative emotions is in a word? Psychotic.
Silverstein didn’t believe in happy endings being a necessity. He felt that set children up for failure, that things didn’t always work out. That if every book had an HEA then children would wonder what was so wrong with them. They didn’t always get an HEA in their lives. What were they doing wrong?
Nothing, my Wee One. It is life. Fair is a weather condition.
Good stories also serve as catharsis. We need to watch comedy because we do need to laugh, but you know what? Sometimes what we need is a good cry, too. And maybe we aren’t yet “evolved” enough to cry over what is going wrong in our own lives, but we can cry for a beautiful tree that was rendered a stump.
And that makes us all just a little bit more human.
What are your thoughts? Did you love or hate The Giving Tree? Do you find yourself reflected in that story? Have you, too, struggled with not allowing people to take every single apple and branch? What other works of fiction left blank spaces you were allowed to fill? Or allowed you to be angry or maybe even cry?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter TOMORROW! I have also included new times to accommodate the UK and Australia/NZ folks!
All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.
You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.
Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?
***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.
Good question. We will cover that and more!
But sometimes the query is not enough.
Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.
WEDNESDAY October 5th Your Story in a Sentence–Crafting Your Log-Line
Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.
As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.
If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.
In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.
The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.
Those who miss being in the first ten will get a deeply discounted workshop rate if they would like their log-line showroom ready.
SATURDAY, October 8th Blogging for Authors
Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.
The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.
The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.
This class is going to cover:
- How author blogs work. What’s the difference in a regular blog and an author blog?
- What are the biggest mistakes/wastes of time?
- How can you effectively harness the power of algorithms (no computer science degree required)
- What do you blog about? What topics will engage readers and help create a following?
- How can you harness your author voice using a blog?
- How can a blog can help you write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner?
- How do you keep energized years into your blogging journey?
- How can a blog help you sell more books?
- How can you cultivate a fan base of people who love your genre.
Blogging doesn’t have to be hard. This class will help you simplify your blog and make it one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing career.
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.