I was reading through some of my very old work recently, the stuff I scribbled in high school comp class and in college, and I was puzzled by it. The old stuff, silly as it was, had zing and verve. My current writing had changed a great deal, gotten better, but there was something missing. What was it?
My subjects tended to be more outlandish than they are now, with stories about vengeful tornadoes, demons, space cowboys–a blatant Star Wars rip-off that never went anywhere–and ghostly, ironic, scary twists, which Roald Dahl did better than I ever could.
My first novel, written in high school, was a crime novel about a rapist. I not only knew nothing about rape but nothing about adults and although I finished the book, it ended up in the proverbial writer’s trunk. There is some good material in there, however. Potential. Next to it sat a rewrite attempted in college that turned the rapist into a vampire, which tanked a few chapters in. I didn’t know any more in college than I did in high school, apparently. An opportunity lost. I cringed as I thought how I could have beaten Stephanie Meyer to the punch, if the story had been better.
There were articles, firmly tongue-in-cheek, essays about whatever topic I chose that day or my English teacher had assigned. I didn’t know then that what Mrs. Burns had us do at the beginning of class was called freewriting. In ten minutes, she would collect the pages and then read them aloud anonymously. Sometimes it was easy to guess who wrote what (like my stories), and other times we were surprised when the author was revealed.
I liked that teacher. Once, when we were studying Poe, she allowed one of the tough, disinterested boys in the class to bring a stereo and play for us The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination album. That is one of my favorite albums now, because my classmate was right; it’s brilliant. What a fantastic way to engage a reluctant student, and a great example of lateral thinking! Wherever you are, Mrs. Burns, I love you and I wish you well.
Eventually I wasn’t a child anymore, and I had responsibilities. Becoming an adult tempered my sense of the absurd, the freedom to allow my mind to roam unfettered. I still write about adventure, but in a more realistic, grown-up way. To get that zing back, I need to let my mind unfurl its wings again.
Maybe I can’t write about demons and spacemen any more. They were the products of a mind that had no boundaries, one that welcomed everything and put it to use in its work. But I can still imagine them. I can try. If it doesn’t work, no problem. There will be another silly idea, and maybe that one WILL work.
I have to allow the experiments.
As we grow, we should stretch. I put that aside for a long while and it showed in my writing. It showed when I couldn’t think of anything to say. It showed when I stopped being creative and used writing only to complete school assignments and business correspondence. Creativity curled up in a little ball inside my brain and threatened to leave me forever.
It’s coming back now. I finally realized that I was stifling my growth by not letting it push my imagination in new directions, by trying to be perfect, trying to be an “adult.” There’s no need to stop playing. And as we get older, we begin to realize other people’s opinions of us matter far less than our own.
Never be afraid to push your artistic boundaries. Let your imagination run free. Those little fantasies you engage in while standing in line at the post office are the phantasms of your creative mind. They are ephemeral; don’t let them get away. You may think you’re too mature to do so, but writers and artists need to hang on to that wondering view of the world with everything they have. If you’re not a writer or artist but you have them in your midst, nurture them as best you can. The rewards will be there for all of us.