Jennifer Trafton is the author of The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, a wonderful tale about a girl named Persimmony Smudge (you love it already, I know). It’s a Smith family favorite and we are eager/impatient for her follow up! Jennifer is also a popular creative writing teacher for children, the vocation from which her guest post draws its inspiration. I believe it will, in turn, inspire your family as you help foster imagination in your little ones. –Sam
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I’ve been in a tempest of lesson planning for summer camps, library workshops, and online classes. Part of the planning has involved looking back over the past year and figuring out which activities have worked well for the kids I’ve taught and which haven’t. I want to share with you one that worked—because it occurred to me that it would be an easy and fun activity for a family to do together. The inspiration came from my favorite book on writing craft (so far), Poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge.
An avid word collector, Wooldridge describes cutting words and phrases out of magazines and taping them onto blank raffle tickets. One day, for fun, she and her kids put these “word tickets” on objects all around the house: abandon boundary on a globe, anger on a burnt-out green candle, answers on a squash, diamonds on a scrub brush. “Suddenly,” she writes, “it seemed the objects could speak. They’d become poems themselves. Their labels changed the way we saw them.”
The object + word-ticket combinations created surprising metaphors—bridges between seemingly unconnected concepts. This appealed to my imagination in a dozen different ways, because of course metaphor is the love language of artists. That is, essentially, what we do—we connect things. We connect words, notes on a scale, strokes of a brush, movements, ideas, outer landscapes of things with inner landscapes of the soul. I began thinking about a further set of connections that I make as a writer of fiction: bridging the bridges, leading the way through the metaphors to a destination. To get from a green candle to anger, or from a squash to an answer, it takes a poem. But to get from the burnt-out wick of fury to a wisdom-dispensing vegetable, it takes a story.
When I was growing up, I turned my bedroom—and my entire house sometimes—into other places. My bed was a mountain or an island. The space under my desk was a witch’s cave where unsuspecting Barbies were held captive and hung upside-down by their pointy toes. The bookshelves were treacherous cliffs. The bathtub was a vast ocean. The sink was a pool where dolphins and humans lived and played in harmony. Every parent knows that the best toy ever invented is a cardboard box, because a box can be anything at all—a bed, a spaceship, a car, a robot, a castle, a dragon’s lair, a pirate ship. You just have to think outside of it and inside of it and under it and over it and through it. Once my bed was an island, my bathtub an ocean, and every available shoebox an adventurer’s hideout, I didn’t stop there. I sent my dolls through these new landscapes on quests. I strung symbols together into epics.
So for a few of my classes this spring I decided to take Poemcrazy’s exercise in metaphor or stretch it a step further into the realm of story.
Before the kids arrived, I wrote dozens of words on slips of paper and taped or laid them all over the space where I was holding the class—in one case this was a living room, in other cases a bare classroom or a church fellowship hall. The more surprising the combination of word and object, the better—vast on a teacup, tickle on a window pane, dinosaur on a coffee maker, mountain on a fuzzy, holey, white bedroom slipper.
When class began, I asked the kids to walk around with their notebooks and pencils. And this is what I told them: This is not the room you thought it was. It’s a landscape—a city, a nation, a planet, a world—that only you can discover. Go explore it. Each time you find an object with a word on it, take those two ideas—slipper and mountain—and knock them together in your imagination. Perhaps in this landscape there is a mountain shaped like a shoe, or a fuzzy mountain with a hole in the middle, or a mountain that can only be approached by stepping on a trail of white marshmallows, or the mountainous bedroom slipper of a giant. Notice. Imagine. What treasure lies here? What danger lurks there? What is this place? Take notes on what you find.
After they had explored the landscape, they took the class on a quest through it—in writing. A quest needs an object, a goal, a destination, so I first gave them a list of possibilities:
· The Beginning of All Adventures
· The Last Dinosaur’s Funny Bone
· The Place Where Dreams Live
· The Island of Lost Socks
· The Silver Key to Happiness
· The Answer to Every Question
· The Upside-Down Moon
· The First Footprint
· The Secret Colors of the Rainbow
· The City of Forgotten Memories
· The Gruesome Pit of Grossness
· The Saddest Smile
· The Place Where Stories are Born
Some chose to come up with their own quests. Then they wrote instructions telling the rest of us how to navigate the mysterious landscape, overcome its dangers, unlock its magic, or appease its inhabitants in order to reach the destination.
The results were hilarious, lovely, and sometimes profound:
Start at the ticklish waterfall and collect a silver wave of frozen air, then hop on one foot to where the dancing snake and the snail with lightning nostrils meet every time a brick falls into the Inky Pit.
To get to the place where stories are born you must first leap through the picture where two worlds meet.
Go over Monarch Mountains and let out the deranged dinosaurs.
Find the Pit of One Thousand Ants and ask the one in the corner where you can find the King of the Trees, who will give you the Stone of Oozing Twist.
Open the door by saying, “Crunch, crunch, crunch,” and you will be on the Upside-Down Moon. But beware! The dragon lurks in the stacked caves.
Hidden in a secret chamber in the waterfall oozing with magic, you will find the Gruesome Pit of Grossness.
Ask the moon monarch for her windswept chair so you can fly over the vast desert and over the silver waves to get to the place where stories are born. When you reach it, ask for Mr. Bartholomew and he will give you the key to where stories are born . . . in your imagination.
So on a rainy day this summer, try this with your family: Fill the kitchen table with small pieces of paper (Post-It notes would work) and have everyone write words on them—any words at all—nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, silly words, beautiful words, dangerous words. Then elect one person to be the Hider of Words. Send everyone else into a separate room to wait until the Hider has put your words on objects all over the living room—or downstairs, or whatever part of the house you choose. Then go be explorers, taking notes and writing Quest Instructions—or entire stories—about this familiar yet utterly new landscape. See how this same room with the same set of words conjures up completely different places and adventures in the imaginations of each family member.
It’s not simply a game. It’s not even about writing at all, or only secondarily so. It’s about making connections. It’s about training our eyes to behold the many layers of reality. Look further. Look deeper. Look inside. This activity reminds me of the region of the seven dimensions in George MacDonald’s novel Lilith, where two things can exist in the same place—the flowers of one world comingle with the piano in the drawing room of another world, giving a “peculiar sweetness” to the music. Once we have flown in the moon monarch’s windswept chair, will we ever look at that old armchair the same way again?
The Romantic poet William Blake talked about “double vision”—seeing another layer of reality and meaning beneath the outward appearance of things. He took it much too far, in my opinion, to the point of devaluing the material world, but I was thinking about this concept of double vision when I stood in front of a hill in England one summer and saw a snoring giant—the seed of a story that grew into my first book. That is one of imagination’s gifts to a child and to an artist: the ability (a fragile one, easily trampled by the literalism of adulthood) to “see a world in a grain of sand” as Blake put it, or an ocean in a bathtub.
How flat the world must be to those who see a chair as just a chair, a hill as just a hill, a box as just six cardboard walls around an empty soul.