My youngest son just turned seven. Watching him play with his birthday Lego, it dawned on me that he has reached my memory lifetime, that is, the age from which I have distinct memories. It was also the age I vividly remember writing my first story.
It was about a little girl who wished for a pair of red shoes. She pestered her mother until her wish came true. Against all her mother’s warnings, she wore the red shoes to go exploring. One shoe got stuck in a muddy puddle and was lost. Slowly, the shoe disintegrated, becoming part of the soil, where it nurtured a lush patch of grass . Along came a cow that ate the grass, and was subsequently killed and her hide turned into a pair of red leather shoes. Strange story for a seven-year-old, but with a satisfyingly circular pattern, and, most importantly, based in fact. Yes, I was the naughty child who’d lost her red shoe.
A baby learns that if you smile at your parent just so, you elicit an instant response, or if you pull the cat’s whiskers, chance are you’ll get scratched. From birth, we build a narrative to make sense of the world around us, based on our interpretation of previous experience.
For a writer, consciously tapping into this memory bank is essential. Storytelling, at its heart, is a thing of memory. When I create a story, I delve into a scrap bag and pull out fragments of places I’ve been, weather I’ve experienced, and characters I’ve met. I stitch together a plot and blend it with sense memories to make it come alive—perhaps the salt and dead fish-laced air of a harbor, the heat shimmering off a city sidewalk, ripe with the scents of hotdogs and car fumes and drains, or the solo chorus of a lark rising high above a peat bog.
When my first grade son writes a story his default mode is a graphic novel: elaborately drawn settings and multiple characters with cryptic little speech bubbles. When prodded he will tell me the complicated and action packed plot. These stories are nothing like the ones I wrote at his age, mostly involving princesses and furry animals, but firmly based in recalled events.
I know that all children, given the right encouragement, will express themselves through art. As soon as my older children could hold a crayon, they spent many hours drawing—dragons, knights, princesses, superheroes. As a toddler, my seven-year-old who is more than a decade younger than his brother and sister, seemed reluctant to pick up art supplies. I didn’t push him. Then, at the age of four, the drawings started to trickle in from preschool—small, lavishly detailed scenes that required much explanation from him before I could grasp what they were about.
Observing him draw at home, I noticed an interesting thing. His drawings were “live action.” He was animating his fantasy world on the page. No wonder it had taken him a while to conceptualize how to do this. He is a 21st century storyteller.
Today, in our screen-centric era, kids move easily between the real world and game worlds, often, at least partially of their own making. These worlds can be so enticing that kids (and adults) feel as though you are present in that fantasy world.
I can’t help wondering what kind of storytellers this makes them? Many of their “memories” are constructed from these fantasy experiences, blended with reality. No doubt the next generation will write extraordinary works of fiction. They will create worlds that we would be hard pushed to conceive of. Storytellers of the mid 21st century will break old molds.
And yet, I believe that nothing can replace the scent of wood smoke on the air that instantly transports me to the moment of arrival at my grandmother’s house. Or the feel of slick pebbles underfoot and ice-cold water stinging my knees as I wade into a lake. Or the shame of facing my mother wearing one red shoe, and one muddy sock.