Friday, June 29, 2018

Permission to Imagine

 I teach creative writing to kids. You'd think I am surrounded by junior Weltys and
Me, one happy camper!
Hemingways. I am, most of the time.

A couple of years ago, I got a call from a total stranger who heard I tutored. I do occasionally mentor high school students with Important Writing Projects--college essays, a fantasy novel they are self-publishing, a contest entry. A call from a dad about his 8th grade son was not a surprise.

His request was.

"Can you tutor my son in creativity?" he asked.

My hearing isn't what it used to be, especially over the phone. I asked him to repeat what he'd said. He did.

He wanted me to teach his son "to be creative."

I am not a phone person. I have a hard time making myself understood if I can't see who I'm talking to. The dad, son and I made an appointment "to discuss" at Starbucks.

When I first moved to my North Atlanta suburb 17 years ago, I joked that I was really living in Lake Wobegon--"Where all the children are above average." Every kid was either in the Talented-and-Gifted Program, or a prodigy in some other field. I had never seen such a cut-throat bunch of students and parents. I'm not talking high school juniors, aiming for Harvard Early Admission; these were fourth graders.
The Carriage House-Young Writers HQ

Now here I was at Starbucks with a dad insisting I "teach" his son creativity. Cautiously, I asked what he expected from "creativity lessons."

"He must be able to write an excellent college essay. His grammar and form are very good, but he has no ideas. Very dull. I don't understand. He is an A students, but no imagination." Dad spoke rapidly, thrumming his fingers on the table, obviously annoyed with my stupid questions. "He is going to be Ivy League."

I sipped my soy latte, trying to figure out a nice way to say it was a little early to obsess over Ivy League admission, and that you can't "teach" creativity.

I asked if his son liked to read. No, he did not. He was "too busy" to read. Busy with what?
Extracurricular science classes, violin lessons, learning a FOURTH language.

"He sounds busy all right," I agreed. "But what does he do in his free time? Does he like to read?"

I thought Dad was going to pound the table, so I grabbed my latte. "Free time? There is no free time. He must work at subjects that will get him into an Ivy League college."

The dad called to the boy who had been banished to a corner table.  He was the most arrogant 14-year-old I have ever met. He had always excelled at everything...until he hit the wall with his lack of creativity. I could tell he thought that since he wasn't creative, it must not be very important.When the son started interviewing me as to my credentials, that was it. I told Dad I didn't think his son and I would work well together. And got the heck out of Starbucks.

I chalked that up to one of those weird things that happen sometimes. I spent a few moments regretting that an intelligent boy had never had the chance to be creative, and therefore dismissed it as unimportant. Then I forgot about Dad-and-Son.

Until Young Writer's Camp the following summer. Since I have to get know my students in the first hour of a one week camp, I have question cards with the basics--name, age, last school attended. Then the not so usual--how many books have you read for fun in the last school year? What's your favorite book? My last question is"What is the most important thing I need to know about you?" I started asking this after I had a hearing impaired camper, and no one thought to tell me.

 I get goofy answers ("I love Minecraft. Can I just do that on my phone?) or heartbreaking ("My best friend died last month and I am really sad.").                                      
Sssh! Writers at work.

For the last three years, at least one student every session writes "I have no imagination"--or some variation of that.

That floored me. I subscribe to Pablo Picasso's philosophy. "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." I substitute "writer" for "artist" and "once he grows up" to "once he leaves middle school."  These kids are 10 and11.

Why on earth would any child that young think they had no imagination?

"How do you know this?" I ask, and get the same answer every time. "My teacher said so." Or, "My parents say so."

How depressing. A fourth grader who believed himself incapable of original thought

As I talked to these campers, a profile emerged. They were incredibly over scheduled, starting in toddlerhood. When I asked what they did for fun, they gave me a blank look. Free time? Fun? Something that did not involve winning and losing? This was a new concept for them.

Up a tree, imagining.
Enriching children's lives with extracurricular activities can be a good thing. My own Young Writer's Camp falls in that category...the difference being there are no awards or winners at camp. The reward is having fun and using your imagination to do and be whatever you want.

Imagining takes time. Time that appears "unproductive" to a task-oriented parent or teacher. Even adult writers have a hard time explaining to others (OK, spouses) that lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling with Beethoven's 9th blasting is "writing." Characters are living and dying in my head, to a Beethoven soundtrack. They have to live in my head awhile before they make it to the page.

As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone. An only child with chronic respiratory infections. I missed so many school days through fourth grade, that by today's attendance policies, I would still be in second grade. Home alone, I read, drew, wrote and imagined whole towns full of people, all of which resembled Mayberry. If you've ever read Harriet the Spy, it was a lot like her game of Town.

Any number of authors have had long spells of illness when they had to entertain themselves with books and their own minds. I am not recommending chronic illness as a way of nurturing creativity. What I am advocating is down time. Time to stare at ants on the side walk, gaze at the shapes of clouds, invent imaginary friends and pets. Time to slop around with paints without a teacher's direction, to put on music and make up your own dance without worrying about posture or precision. It's not about perfection; it's about the freedom to create. The freedom to fail without repercussions or shaming.

Take my own daughter (please! Rim shot!) She too is an only child who spent a lot of time alone.  Like me, she learned to entertain herself with crayons and paper. In school, her artwork did not win praise because she "did not produce representational images." In other words, she preferred colors and shapes to drawing a horse or a house. She just stared down her teacher and continued to draw her own way.

Her artistic epiphany came on a day when I was trying to finish book edits. Desperate for quiet, and an activity that didn't require my supervision, I gave her a bag of ancient disposable cameras. By the end of the week, she had used them all up. This was at my parent's house, and when we went home, I saw no reason to drag the cameras with us. I mean, she was five. I wasn't going to waste money developing pictures that were probably shots of her feet or the ceiling.
From one of the disposable cameras. Lily's grandmother.

Weeks later, a package arrived from my parents. Mom, ever-the-doting grandmother, had developed the pictures. And...hey, these pictures were good. They were carefully composed, centered, and focused. One roll was nothing but shots of my mother's antique collection, one vase, one statue, on piece of porcelain at a time, like an auction catalog. Another roll I had watched her shoot...walking around the yard, snapping pictures of the ground. Or so I thought. These were pictures of dead leaves and roots, with interesting shadows and shades of brown. Beautiful. There were closeups of household items--a doormat, an electric fan. How did a five-year-old, whose teachers had labeled as "lacking in artistic skill" learn to do that?
Lily's 1st award winner. 3rd grade

I still don't know.  She continued to photograph, first with my old school Nikon, (which she still prefers) and finally her own digital Canon. As a result of a bored five-year-old messing around with disposable cameras, was that at high school graduation, her portfolio was recognized as one of 10 "AP Photography Profiles of Merit" from across the country.

Is she the next Ansel Adams? No. She's an education major in college. But she has a love of photography, something that gives her the satisfaction of creating. She has a photographers eye. She had the time to explore the world through her lens. Even though at the same time she fell in love with figure skating (another creative outlet) she always had time for her camera, taking it with her to classes and competitions.

Do I expect any of my writing campers to become the next JK Rowling or John Grisham? That would be great, but I don't expect it. I expect them to explore their imaginations and have fun. I hope that some will continue to write. I know they do, because they return year after year for the advanced camps.

I've been a public school librarian and I know the strong and weak points of American education. The one thing the most curriculum lack is the one thing that cannot be tested or taught, but without which, all other subjects are just words on a page.

Imagination. We have scheduled imagination out of our kids' lives. This summer, as you scurry around, trying to keep your kids busy, schedule a little time to do nothing. Give them the chance, as my mom used to say, to use their heads for something besides a hat rack.

Have a great summer everyone. Now I need to go prepare for my returning advanced camp writers.  I can't wait!


Carmela Martino said...

Terrific post, MA! I agree 100%. And I loved seeing the photos Lily took. ❤

Bobbi Miller said...

An EXCELLENT discussion on the importance of imagination. Thank you!

Sandra Stiles said...

I grew up in the country. We had cousins and imaginations. My love of stories grew from those times. I remember asking my students to close their eyes and imagine... I was interrupted and asked, "How do you do that?" We need to give students time to imagine or be creative because now a days they don't get much opportunity to do that,

**D!ZzY** said...

I first read this post the day u released it, and immediately I wanted to chime in with my own words strewn together about how I wish u would have crawled up and down that dad's rearend in the coffee shop by telling him that just maybe it was his own fault that his 14 year old, snooty, know-it-all son may not be creative because he isn't given the chance, nor the direction or motivation to do so, by those around him....but..instead of me commenting at that time, I thought to myself: "self?(rimshot)U have a know-it-all 14 year old son creative is he?", I followed ur lead, I went to walmart and bought him a disposable camera and gave it to him with the sole instruction that he use it up however he wants but that I want it on the Monday I go back to work. Well, that was today. As he was giving it to me this evening he was all smiles, asking twice when I was getting them developed. He is eager beyond belief. Usually this boy is nonchalant, today he seems enlightened. Now I don't have a clue yet what's on this film, he could be pranking his ole man for all I know, hence his anxiety, but if even so, his creative juices were flowing. I will find out soon enough..but what it all comes down to is, creativity comes in many forms, everyone has it in them, It just rears it's head in different ways. I wasn't too creative myself when I stole ur idea about the camera. And I may regret it in the long run considering my scheming little mini-me is always trying to pull a fast one on me..but nonetheless, during that time he took to either punk me with some prank or perhaps amaze me with some unique vision..either / or, he was being Creative. And I thank u for that. I did it yes, but ur words here set it in motion. Ur writings are always so influential to others...Know that! U truly are a Teaching Author.
*I'll update u to what was on the camera when I know*

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Thank you all for your comments, and affirmation that I am not alone in my observation on creativity and imagination. DiZzY, I am beyond thrilled that you gave your son that disposable camera (I honestly didn't know if they were still being made!). Please let me know what turns up on that film. I did not mention in my post that my daughter is severely dyslexic, so she is restricted to audio books, or having me read to her. (She is the "star" of three of my books...and at the time they were published, she couldn't read well enough to make sense of them. There are so many forms of daughter found hers in skating (although figure skating and college are not a good blend)and photography. She is an extremely observant, visual person, noticing the tiniest detail, seeing how it becomes a part of a picture, or not. (My dad, who was an FBI agent, said she had the best eye of anyone he had ever encountered as an investigator.)
To be creative, a child has to have the freedom to exercise their imagination,without judgement or being graded. If my daughter hadn't had an indulgent grandmother, none of us would have ever known about my daughter's truly special skill. Did all of those first photos turn out? No. But there were so many that were SO good. I honestly think the fact that we never expected anything, one way or the other from those cameras, she felt free to do whatever. Now I always ask her why she decided to photograph a particular object(She has eclectic taste for sure!) I hope your son surprises and delights you as well.
As for the father and son team from Starbucks, the son should be a senior now. I wonder how his admission essays went. I wonder if her "learned" to be creative. Sigh.