I was asked to present at the public library camp over the summer, as I did last summer.Couldn’t do it. But it provided the opportunity to introduce the children to the writing of one of our Wadadli Pen Challenge winners (or so I hoped).
Margaret Irish is the winner of the Lead by Example Teachers Prize 2014, and, from the beginning, the idea behind that was encouraging teachers to write, and getting them to get creative in a way that could inspire their students to do the same, inspire them to share their own stories. The teachers were Challenged to submit entries that they could share with their students. Margaret’s The Skipping Rope is a good example of this and that’s why I thought she’d be a good match for the library programme. She readily agreed to do it (thanks to her for doing that) but as she informed me in a subsequent email (shared with permission) she didn’t share her story after all. Instead, she said, “I took them through an exercise in learning to use their imagination” I’m still disappointed she didn’t share her story but adjusting to the circumstances in the field is perfectly reasonable; matter of fact, absolutely essential. Her adjustment was driven by her observation that “students are unable to write creatively, simply because they cannot, they have not developed their imagination.”
As I write this, I remember one of the judges making a similar comment in her review of the 2014 Wadadli Pen Challenge submissions (a comment that echoed the 2005 judges’ report, in which the judge commented about the writers playing it safe, if I’m remembering correctly). The 2014 judge wrote: “The talent is there but I think they need to be taught a few techniques in story writing. I think they suffer from writing too many structured school stories. It is as though they don’t know they can use their imagination.”
This judge’s comment also has me considering another part of Margaret’s email. When she asked the 80 or so students (campers) how many of them liked writing compositions, only five or six raised their hands; when asked how many hated writing compositions “you should have seen the frustrated looks and defiant hands. It was sad.”
Possibly, part the problem is in the phrasing. One of the participants in my summer media training workshop at the Department of Youth Affairs comes to mind. She was distracted and disruptive throughout, but, as our rap sessions revealed, sharp as a tack and quite articulate and opinionated. Like most of them she resisted settling down to the work. I remember when she was required to present her review of the first film we’d watched. She hadn’t written a thing and I know she expected me to skip her but I told her she was still expected to present. And she did; she winged it. Interestingly, she did a pretty good job, there was good recall and clear insights in her ramblings and I couldn’t help thinking she’d have had a pretty good presentation if she’d taken the time to even organize her thoughts into bullet points if she didn’t want to write. I remember my one on one with her to discuss the article that each participant was required to produce at the end of the two weeks. She identified her topic, one of the topics we’d discussed earlier in the week but as I pressed re her action plan, trying to get her to focus and to draw on the tools and techniques I’d been sharing with them, it was clear she had no interest in the assignment or the topic. The assignment I dug in my heels on – I was determined that each person would at least try – but why would you pick a topic you had no interest in? So I threw it out and opened up a conversation with her about her genuine interests; it was a bit like pulling teeth at first but eventually I got her talking about one of her biggest interests and suggested to her how that could be a story. She hadn’t finished by the end of the week, and, frankly, I was doubtful she would, but she’d started. When she showed me her progress, it was primarily structured as responses to the questions I’d thrown out to guide her and I realized she’d need more time learning to structure them into prose. But I counted the baby step of getting her started on something as a win. The connection I’m seeing between that story and Margaret’s observation and the judges’ comments is the way we sometimes get locked into this square way of thinking, everything inside the box. One of the reasons I do Wadadli Pen is to awaken that idea that the stories are right there in their own backyard, in their own lives, not remote from their reality. Sometimes it’s enough to get them thinking and talking about the stuff they actually want to think and talk about, a little difficult to do in a one-off session with 80 people (with anything over, say, 15 – 20 really). Sometimes you have to jump start the conversation with films or songs or really whatever works. And, as I tried to do with the breaks and journaling activities at the DYA workshop, sometimes you need time to just be still within yourself, idle even, let your brain just float.
Because the imagination is key to everything: without the imagination there is no writing, without the imagination there is no creativity, without the imagination there is no visioning, no seeing beyond where you are to the impossible. This is not just about writing now because seeing beyond where we are is something we need as individuals, period, and as a nation; it is this imagining that guides our feet, and lifts a song of promise and possibility in our souls, staving off stagnation and cynicism. So what is it about our environment that has them so uninspired and how can this be addressed not by way of one-off sessions but consistently?
Questions to ponder. Because it’s not that our kids lack imagination. As author Andre Dubois lll said, “We’re all born with an imagination. Everybody gets one.” And it is the font from which writing flows, and not just writing but everything that’s magical in the world.
During her session at the camp, Margaret read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, instead of her own story (and I still, all said, have some issues with that decision because why not do both). She chose that story though I think to reinforce the idea that “when using one’s imagination, the events do not have to make sense.” It opened up the opportunity for her to engage them in an active exercise in which they would make up a story on what one could find on entering a wardrobe. And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t looking for shoes…maybe unless they were ruby red slippers which, clicked three times…conjured up a magic carpet that spirited you away to…Wonderland???
It sounds like she did it as a chain writing exercise, which I do too, as it’s a great way to get everyone involved and a good way to get out of the safe zone as you never know what the person before you is going to add to the story so you can’t over think it, you just have to go with it. Which reminds me of another quote (for you writers still reading this) from the Dubois article: “I love that line from E.L. Doctorow: ‘Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights—‘ but you keep going until you get there. I’ve learned over the years to just report back anything that I see in front of the headlights: Are they yellow stripes or white? What’s on the side of the road? Is there vegetation? What kind? What’s the weather? What are the sounds? If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself. My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is to just follow the headlights.” It’s a good way to get out of that zone of what writing is supposed to be and just letting it be, a good way of just imagining where the story could go. It sometimes takes them a minute to warm up to it, to embrace the freedom inherent in the idea that everything doesn’t have to make sense. At least not the first time around; that’s what revisions are for.
To answer the question headlining this piece, no they don’t lack the ability to imagine, though it sometimes needs to be nudged awake, even as we put to sleep this idea that writing is this daunting, insurmountable, dead, and deadly boring thing.