Imagination – UPDATED!

I was watching a movie last night, don’t remember the name. But there’s a scene that resonated with me. The Morgan Freeman character, the wheel chair bound and possibly self-destructive writer, tells the young girl who’s decided that he is her mentor to look outside the window and tell him what she doesn’t see. And she does just that.

She imagines.  As if the scene before her is a blank canvas unto which she’s drawing the scene that really resides there…seeing beyond, like people who they say can see jumbie.

When he tells her that she just wrote her first story, she confessed that she borrowed some from reality; and he told her the best writers do.

…as in dreams, reality is there as a sort of reference point, but it bends to the pull of the imagination.

how the starfish

Kids do this instinctively. They imagine because they don’t know the boundaries yet (or, like the boy in the Matrix, they know what adults have forgotten, that in that space where mind, and will and spirit reside there are no boundaries – there is no spoon). And asked to describe what they imagine, they can be quite creative with language because they haven’t yet learned the clichés.

A sleeping leg coming back to life will be described as “I have glitter (or was it sparkles?) in my leg” – a line from one of mines that I still want to use in a story someday.

The desire to run really, really fast translates to becoming an animal that runs really, really fast – I did get a story out of that one, and gave it to him, laminated and everything, because he sort of helped create it.

The point is, kids live in the land of what if which is one of the best ways I think to introduce them to writing their own stories. Not with pen, not with paper, not even with stories (though stories are wonderful for all sorts of reasons) but in those moments when you’re driving them in the car to or from pre school and talking ‘nonsense’ …like what if cartoon characters were real people (because in their minds they are), or what if you didn’t need a plane and a passport to run with the cheetahs in Africa (because you don’t), what if trees could talk (Tolkien already beat them to that one), what if spiders were always up to something (yeah, I’m looking at you, Anansi)…and yeah, what if cows could jump over the moon (because they do). At that very young age, I’ve found, you don’t even have to do a whole lot of prompting; they want to tell you what’s up …it’s only later that it’s all nothing…fine…okay.

Imagine a farm girl who tries to save the pig runt who becomes her best friend and the wise talking spider...and unwilling rat...who helps her. Plus a chocolate factory and a boy wizard...

Imagine a farm girl who tries to save the pig runt who becomes her best friend and the wise talking spider…and unwilling rat…who helps her. Plus a chocolate factory and a boy wizard…

I’m thinking all of this on the heels of this film as I wonder when the bars go up and what if becomes oh that couldn’t really happen, that’s just a story. One of the judges in this year’s Wadadli Pen commented that “I think they suffer from writing too many structured school stories. It is as though they don’t know that they can use their imagination.”

It’s not for nothing that some of the most dramatic flights of fancy usually come from the younger ones – they’re already in the system but they’re still close enough to their essential selves that they can see what isn’t there…and imagine.

They haven’t yet had it hammered into them that “a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end” – as the rep for a now defunct publication once told me, haughty tone and all, in response to a submitted piece…right before we parted ways.

I respect the rules of craft. But I also believe that the best stories aren’t predictable or safe or boxed in by boundaries…they surprise and intrigue, they imagine. Rules and reality are the reference point giving shape to but not tethering the imagination.

from my book Fish Outta Water

from my book Fish Outta Water

And that’s not just good writing sense…. it’s how inventions happen and economies find new buoyancy…the creative adds spark to all areas of life.

10 Years on, thinking on that one judge’s observation, I find myself contemplating how to spark the creative in the stories that find their way to Wadadli Pen and in the ones who write them.

UPDATE! The sentiment of the original post stands but I’d just like to add some additional insights from the judges’ comments after the first round of judging for the literary arts component of the 2014 Wadadli Youth Pen Prize Challenge (read the short list here).

The judges have the task of providing specific feedback to the short listed writers ahead of re-edits and final decision re the overall winners (the category winners would have been decided during the first round of judging); and I must say this year the feedback was more detailed than ever…and the recurring issues with the writing, this year, and others more prevalent.

As one judge noted, “the talent is there but I think they need to be taught a few techniques in story writing.” (sidebar: this is what I tried to do when I introduced the Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project last year…and I live in hope of trying to get a donor who will underwrite either a single workshop, a series of workshops, or a full year of Wadadl Pen to permit me to do more to nurture the talent we all see in these writers, both the young and the young at heart).

Sometimes, all it needs is a little nudging – “the writer has promise … (but missed) a lot of opportunities to show instead of telling”; a little direction – “the end needs a bit of work to strengthen the lesson of the story without stating it so specifically”; a little reminding – “(writers) should be careful to re-check their grammar and spelling. The story is great, but these small errors can be distracting.”

Where the writing worked, it worked beautifully. “Really great descriptions; it pulled me in right away.” But even with the best ones there was room for growth. “The story is extremely powerful…however…” Always a however, a call for “more details” or questions unanswered – e.g. “how did the narrator feel when she woke up the first time?”  Too often, these notes suggest, writers fell into the trap of rushing the moments instead of allowing them to breathe. Things like flow, pacing, “detailed imaginative description”, and careful characterization are sometimes lost though the story may be “interesting…imaginative” and make “good use of vocabulary”.

Opening up the imagination, pinning down the craft…those remain on the wish list as Wadadli Pen works to help Antiguan and Barbudan writers and other young people really tap into their latent potential. As a working writer myself, I can testify that it is (I am) a work in progress. But just imagine how much more we could do.

As with all content (words, images, other) on, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C.
Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, and Oh Gad!), founder and coordinator of the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize. All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about WadadliPen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, are okay, lifting content (words, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright.


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