Daddy put-up a rope swing in the backyard for my brother and I one summer. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a rope with a board for a seat that we straddled. It was the best toy I ever had. For many summers this rope-swing was a horse. A piece of an old jump rope attached to the board morphed into leather reins. The hard seat transformed into a saddle. The back and forth swinging motion was me galloping across the prairie. I would make up stores while I rode and spoke them out loud. I was always the hero. I always caught the bad guys. Sometimes I actually wore a red-felt dime store cowboy hat and when it flew off my head, I’d swoop down and pick it up; a trick-riding stunt.
I also had a stick-horse growing up. Actually it was an old rake that the head had broken off from. Again, I tied a strip of rope to it and a wild stallion was born. A horse that only I could ride. I’d make up stories while I thundered across the backyard. And as before, I always spoke these adventures out loud. Of course, I kept the stick-horse a secret and when Daddy threw it on the bonfire while cleaning up the backyard, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him no. He’d think I was stupid. Too old to have a stick-horse. But Mama knew. I don’t know how she knew. Perhaps she’d seen and heard me at play, lost in my wild-west fantasy. Did she smile as I loped the steed past the window? Did she chuckle at the whimsy of my make-believe world? Probably, knowing her. She rescued my steed from the flames, telling Daddy it was my horse, sparing me the embarrassment. Mama understood imagination. Daddy? Not so much. The stick was burned black on one end, but that was ok. Now my horse was a dabbled-gray instead of white.
I would play for hours in the back yard, making up characters, locations, and various stories. I talked them all out. Even used an accent here and there. When the weather was too cold to play outside I felt lost until one faithful snowy day, I wrote my make-believe world down on paper. Ahhh! A new obsession was born. The rope swing broke. The stick horse gave way to the pencil. And the “out loud” adventures because short stories.
As a writer, people often ask me, “where do you get your stories from?” Or, more often, “you must have a wonderful imagination.”
But. Is it really imagination or something else?
What is imagination anyway? Webster says imagination is “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” Mental images do pop into my head, and my stories often take place outside the borders of reality. But I don’t dismiss it as simply, imagination. I believe my characters actually lived or still live in a parallel universe. That they seek me out to give them a voice. The stories I write are their lives . . . or my life in another time and space. How else can I write dialogue so real? How else can I describe a sense of place so vivid the reader can smell the dirt, wood, and rot? Could I actually just make-up all this stuff?
I listen to the voices in my head. Voices of people, spirits, or ghosts, past, present, or future. I believe them. I know they are alive. I give their words life. Give a voice to their ideas and adventures. I give them respect. As a result, they never fail me. Writers block doesn’t happen. If I become stuck, I just ask them for guidance. They answer me every time, every where, the shower, in the car, in bed. No matter. They answer. They flash pictures into my head of the actual places they lived or live. They make use of my mere five senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound. And emotion. Don’t forget emotion. Feelings so powerful at times they overwhelm me.
Thus a writer is born.
As an adult we tend to poo-poo this notion of the voices being real. We tell our children their invisible friends are just their imagination and discourage their interactions. I don’t remember having an invisible friend growing up, but if I had one, Mama would never, ever chase them away. Or Grandma either. OMG, Grandma would’ve sat by my side and listen to our conversations!
Never stifle a child’s creativity. A future Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Wright Brother, or Merle Streep may die in the process.
Give your child a rope-swing. A stick-horse. A chance to create.
Imagination or something else?
Something else. Most definitely. Something else.