When I was deciding between the graduate program at Iowa and the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, I took a trip to Texas to meet the faculty at Michener and get a feel for the program. While I was there, I sat in on a poetry workshop being led by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. After the workshop, I accompanied her and her class out for drinks.
She and I sat for a while and talked extensively about imagination and the creative process. She asked me about my process, my ideas, stories that I’m working on, themes that I love, my philosophies on creative writing. She asked me where my writing comes from–are my parents writers, perhaps? Big readers? No, I said–but they insisted on reading to me as a child, every night. She marveled at the simplicity of the source.
After that evening, I began to think about the linage of my imagination. I realized that I could very easily trace the development of my imagination and creative energy, from those nights when my father told me his ongoing (and, I think, generally improvised) story of Bosmo, the boy in the woods, and when my mother and great-grandmother would read to us from Black Beauty and The Secret Garden and dozens of other children’s classics.
I remember lying in bed, listening to my mother’s voice, my mind forming pictures as she read the scene where Beauty is saved from the barn fire. The images played out so vividly in my mind, the image of a kerosene lamp striking the wooden floor, and the straw burning like paper. Later, I recreated the scene with my horse figurines, over and over again. One day, Beauty was rescued by a Fisher Price fireman. One day, he got out on his own. One day, he didn’t – but his daughter, a little colt toy with knobbly knees – did. My mother would come into my room and find me in my room, dancing Barbies and horses and Fisher Price people and stuffed animals and dinosaurs and my brother’s GI Joe across the carpet, creating a complicated, epic plot (I was very fond of epic plots), whispering dialogue that was probably unintelligible to adults. Wars broke out. An elephant captured by a circus was rescued by an outcast Skipper doll, and she rode him along the cliffs of some New England coast (the part of the coast played by my toy box) until they were captured by another circus. Until they escaped and got onto a boat, the boat played by a shoebox, the ocean by the bright purple playroom carpet.
My best friend as a child was a girl named Margaret. Margaret and I were incredibly into the game of pretend, in all of its forms. In the beginning, we played hours and hours of Tales of the Crystals, which is sort of like D&D for young children. (Seriously. When I started playing D&D, my immediate reaction was “Wow, this is like Tales of the Crystals for adults!”) As we got older, the storylines and characters that came out of that game took on a life of their own, and often incorporated books and movies that we watched and read. We were travelers on a magical boat (usually her couch) sailing our way to a distant land; we were being pursued by a wicked king who wanted to make us into slaves. When we went to the pool together (we were on the same swim team, and spent our summers permanently tanned and wrinkled and smelling like chlorine), we adapted the play to the water: we were princesses riding our magical dolphins to rescue each other from evil fiends (my dolphin always had the name “Fire Maid”, because I am weird); we were sisters living by a lake house and one of us was drowning and the other sister had to come to her rescue. We would whisper dialog and plot lines to each other in funny little whispers before diving under the water.
As we got older, the play changed. We’d go out to the grocery store or the mall or the park and talk in British accents and pretend that we were sisters whose father was a wealthy aristocrat and see how many people we could convince with our story. We both had American Girl dolls – mine was Sarah, hers, Emily – and we developed an extremely detailed doll hospital, which went along with a storyline in which we were both successful doctors whose daughters (Sarah and Emily) had rare diseases that we were fighting to cure with EKG machines designed from jewelry boxes, Skittle pills and IV drips built out of Ziploc bags, string, and safety pins.
“Pretend” sort of died out between us when we got to high school, though the playfulness of those years endure. But it is that process–that wild, bounding storytelling, the malleability and flexibility of the narrative, the sort of brilliant unspooling of the tale from its inspiration–that makes me write what I write. I am still playing, though no longer with my red haired bosom friend, but rather with my own imagination. When I am sitting on the slick, blue vinyl seats of the 38 bus, watching the woman across from me roll a fat orange from hand to hand, I am playing. When I walk late at night past a darkened cathedral and its quiet, fragrant gardens, I am playing. When I sit at my computer and write, I am playing. I am making up stories. I make them up faster than I can write them down, faster than I can expand on them. I keep a fishbowl full of index cards with images and plots and characters and twists (“Daughter named after father’s mistress; she finds out. SHIT ENSUES.”). The stories just keep coming.
There are other parts, of course, to being a writer. To write seriously, I have to edit and edit and edit and proofread and stories need clarity and good pacing and all of that important, necessary structure and work. But at their cores, my stories are stories that, fifteen years ago, I would have acted out with a chipped mermaid statue, a wooden frog, and a stuffed dragon. Now? I just use my pen.