Friday, May 24, 2013

Jonathan Odell on Living Out of the Imagination

I'm so pleased to have Jon Odell, author of The Healing and The View from Delphi, as guest this week.  Jon shares an unpublished essay that he prepared several years ago when he was working with fifth graders on "keeping their stories alive." He told me,"Kids are the real story experts and taught me more than I taught them. They caused me to re-remember and revise my recollections about writing."
  
In life, you can either LIVE OUT OF your imagination, or you can LIVE OUT OF your history. 

That's what adults do with much of our lives. We live out our history, doing the things that have worked once upon a time, obeying the rules, avoiding the things that didn't work and stubbornly refusing to imagine a new story for ourselves.     


One of my favorite quotes about childhood was written by Graham Greene. He said, "There is always one moment in a child's life when the door opens and lets the future in."

I remember plainly that happening to me when I was about four or five. My father and I are out driving. As always, when he approached the railroad tracks near our home, he comes to a complete stop, even though no train is in sight.

This time I ask him, "Daddy why do you stop?"

He nods up at a big white sign with black writing. "Cause it tells you to."

I didn't hear anybody tell my daddy to do anything. "Who told you? What'd he say?"

He points. "See, it says 'Mississippi Law Stop.'"

Those were the first three words I learned to read. And they held magic. Not because they told my father what to do. But because he did it. Nobody told my dad what to do.

I mean nobody.

But these strange markings called words held a power over my father. I was impressed. It had to be God speaking through those words.
That's when I illogically, insanely and unscientifically fell in love with language.

From then on, when we approached a Stop sign or Yield sign, I begged to get out of the car and for Daddy to hold me up to touch the signs, to let me run my fingers over the raised lettering. In that moment, the door opened and let the future in.

Soon I would forget.  
 
The door didn't shut all at once.  It began in the first grade. Education was about being taught to see things like others have seen them for generations before. About learning the cold, dead facts of the world. Competence, proficiency and performance. Meeting others' expectations.  

Imagination and creativity were not appreciated.

I hung on a few years trying to live out of my imagination, trying to believe in magic. But day-by-day the world became less enchanted. Music was no longer something you spontaneously sang when you were happy. No, it became a dead animal that could be dissected into bars and notes and key signatures.

A flower could be analyzed by its components, without once taking into account its beauty, its fragrance, the way it made you feel loved by God. Everything could be pulled apart, sorted and compartmentalized, pinned down like butterflies in a glass display case.  
  
It was in the 5th grade when the fatal break with my imagined life occurred. My teacher was Mrs. Ainsworth. Her motto was, "A child's learning will never interfere with my lesson plan."

It was close to Easter and Mrs. Ainsworth told us we were going to have an art contest. I was excited. I loved to draw. To a kid, a blank page, like the future, is an invitation to create something totally your own.

I remember exactly what I drew. I put three crosses on a purple hill. Purple was a sad color and I knew God was sad watching his only boy die. So of course the ground had to be purple.

Mrs. Ainsworth chose my picture to use as a bad example of art. She said she had never seen purple grass. She told us real art, art that counted, was about color schemes, geometric shapes and proportion.

I learned, once and for all, enthusiasm, originality and joy did not count for much in life. Keeping your head down and following the rules did.
Your masters didn't care what you loved, only how well you mimicked their thinking.

A door shut. It took another forty years to pry that door open again, reclaim the magic and become a writer.
  
It's taken a lot of work, spiritual and emotional, to recover what little bit of boldness I now possess to imagine a new future. To transcend my history and see new options.

One way I've done it is to give myself "do-overs."  Kids get to do do-overs all the time, when they shout, "That doesn't count! Let me do it again!"

I went back to an old bully in the 7th grade who made my life hell. We met over coffee and I told him what school had been like for me. He listened, apologized. We're now friends.

Last September I had a chance to do a do-over that I hadn't planned. I got a call from a one-of-a-kind schoolteacher. He knew about the work I was doing with story and wondered if there was there anything that could apply to kids.

His students were at an age where they were learning competences like reading and writing, but he wanted make sure they didn't lose their own internal voices--their creativity and imagination. 

I could almost hear their doors creaking shut. "What grades are we talking about?" I asked.

Of course I knew what he was going to say. "Fifth grade."

Talk about returning to the scene of the crime! I was going to get to do the fifth grade over, without Mrs. Ainsworth. 

When I showed up I had 54 children looking up at me. I could see in their eyes that the magic was still there, their willingness to believe the unbelievable. I asked myself, if I were one of them, what would I have loved Mrs. Ainsworth to tell me in the fifth grade? I had the overwhelming urge to shout, "Run for your lives! Don't believe what grown ups tell you! The magic is REAL! If you lose it you'll never get it back."

Instead I slowly looked around the room, taking in the attentive, respectful group.

I noticed they were all wearing their Catholic school uniform. Blue slacks and dresses, white shirts. Then it hit me how to begin.
 
I asked, "How many of you played dress-up when you were a kid?" This quiet, well-behaved group of kids who were trained to raise their hands to speak, spontaneously erupted in laughter and animated chatter. Everybody was telling their story at once.

When I was able to get their attention, I asked, "Now, how many of you had fun getting dressed this morning?"

The energy died. No one moved. The question had returned them to the world of competence, of right and wrong, of denying your uniqueness so you don't stand out. A world in which imagination only gets you in trouble.

I told them that this was like writing.  Writing has a lot of rules that you have to master or you won't get very far. Punctuation, spelling, neatness, grammar. I told them it was like wearing a uniform to school. Sometimes you got to do it.

But I told them OUR story writing was going to be different. "When you write your stories, I want it to feel like playing dress-up.  There are no rules. Spelling doesn't count. Neither does grammar nor neatness. You can write at your desk, on the floor or standing on your head. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. You get to try things on and decide if they fit you or not. Just listen to what makes your heart jump. That is your own personal voice trying to speak. Write that.   
THAT'S what the best writers do."
 
Pulling the curtain back on writing:

1. Writing well has an element of play

2. The best writers are the best re-writers

3. For professional development, writers hang out with other writers not critics or adoring fans.

4. Story is a shared experience. Story begets story.

It's about the story first, second and third: grammar, neatness, form and structure must be learned but the urge to tell a story is innate, fragile, individually unique and must be honored, unconditionally affirmed and protected from the critics of the world.

Your story, your voice is what's going to see you through in a world where most people are living out of their history, rather than their imagination.

Read more about Jonathan Odell's books at www.jon-odell.com.