Maybe it’s burnout from the quarantine or the accumulation of years of working or maybe I’m just extra aware these days, but so many people around me are wishing that they could get back to play and to joy, not only in their lives, but in their work.
Back in March for Books Around the Table, I wrote about some of the ideas that children’s author Laurel Snyder shared about how she brought play back into her work. Check it out here.
Here’s a grab bag of some of Snyder’s other suggestions
Back to the toy box
Remember those dolls you loved as a kid? Or the stuffed animals or the Legos or the GI Joe doll? If you’re reading this, you’re probably a storyteller and that’s what your toys were all about. Stories. Adventures. Created worlds. According to Snyder, maybe it’s time to bring them back into your life.
Snyder’s particular love as a child was paper dolls to the point where she made her own. She also loved all kinds of other dolls from the chubby cheeks of Madame Alexander dolls to Barbie’s sculpted cheekbones. In her grown-up office, she has a doll house where she routinely creates different scenarios. I couldn’t quite determine if the scenarios always related to a book she was working on or if the dolls were having a life of their own in that house. Either way, childhoods toys can bring back pure play into the art of storytelling.
Remember how it felt to be called to the front of the class to give a report? Or when your best friend was suddenly with someone else at recess? Or the first time someone you actually knew actually died?
Some people can readily put themselves back into their childhoods. Some of us think we can, but maybe we’ve forgotten the real intensity of what we felt or the questions and worries that flooded our minds.
One way to get back the feelings of childhood is to put yourself back there. You can dream yourself back there through thoughtful remembering. But even better, how about getting down on the ground and back into a childhood perspective? What comes back if you sit under the dining room table? What happens to time if you lie on the grass and study that scrambling ant all the way back to the nest? What’s it like to sit on your kitchen floor and stare up at that glass on the counter? What would it feel like to reach for it with the very tips of your fingers?
Once in awhile I get back to my hometown of Wenatchee and drive by the house I grew up in. I’m lucky. My neighborhood was declared an historic district and there is an effort to preserve the houses there, so it looks much the same as it did when I was a child. So much comes flooding back on those visits. How long has it been since your visited a place from your childhood or looked at those old report cards or took out that crumbling prom corsage?
Keep a story box
JK Rowling did this for her first Harry Potter book. She kept a box (eventually a pretty big box) full of writing—random thoughts, inspirations, scenes, details on scraps of paper. It included hundreds of ideas about the world she was creating–the look of a character, the rules of magic, major plot turns, interesting names. This is what she turned to when she started work on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
For your story box, Snyder suggests mementos. A stone from the beach that your character lives on or an oddity that simply, for now, just intrigues you or a button that might go on the great-aunt’s dress. The idea is another way to get at what it is you’re trying to do with your story, through the fun of simply collecting interesting things.
Enter your world through its small details
I loved this bit of advice from Snyder. We can spend a lot of our time picturing the castle, the mountain pass, the monsters and the maps of our world, but maybe we can enter it even more fully through the knickknack on the Queen’s bedside table.
The details are so much fun to dream about. They don’t require quite the same effort as setting up a tricky plot turn. E.B. White devoted entire lovely paragraphs to the details of Charlotte’s world. I just have to believe it was his love of that sleeping barn and the smells and the sounds that really informed the entire story of Charlotte’s Web from the wonderful characters of Templeton or the geese to Wilbur’s love of slops and leisure to the general sense of love and affection that infused the entire tone and voice of the book. I bet it all began with the smell of manure and hay, and the warmth of that patch of sunlight on the broad back of a pig.
There comes a time in most creative lives when the joy gets lost. The doing of your art—your poetry, your books, your drawings, your cooking, your sewing, your teaching—becomes a chore.
I’ve gone through this cycle a number of times—the loss and the rediscovery of the spark that set me on my journey to be a writer. In a recent Zoom presentation for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), author Laurel Snyder had some great observations about this same process for her.
She discovered that as the publishing of her work became easier, the writing became harder. As an eight-year-old, she had loved to create stories for no other reason than it was fun; it was exciting. It was play. I remember feeling like that, too, at eight and nine and ten. I loved inhabiting my imaginary world; I loved playing with it; I loved changing things to my exact desires.
But, as I did, Snyder found she lost the joyful need to tell a story somewhere in developing her ability to crank out a book.
“I needed to find the play again,” she said.
For the first step, she suggested a really difficult thing:
Step Away from Rewards
“We do the things we’re good at which are typically some version of the things we’ve been good at for a long time because we will gain respect or appreciation, because we get a boost when somebody compliments us.”
Often that thing we get good at, becomes the thing we need to do to make a living “otherwise they come and take away the house or the car or there’s no food in the fridge.”
Bottom line is we end up avoiding activities that don’t seem to advance the thing we’ve learned to do well and that we now need to do to make a living.
To get back to play, “you need to step away from the idea of utility and you need to step away from the idea of external appreciation, compliments and rewards”.
She acknowledged that this was the hardest thing we can do. “It’s a gigantic emotional leap.” But without it we won’t really get into true play.
“You aren’t going to do [these] things…because they will help your book…you’re going to do them because they feel good. And it will be awesome if your book improves…but you [want to] find a way to enjoy them so much that it doesn’t matter what happens to the book.”
“Learning to disconnect from rewards won’t get your book written, but it will help you make a better book and keep you writing for life.”
Notice that important qualifier at the end—keep you writing for life. Because if you can’t keep the joy, if what once was play is now a chore, you’ll stall out. Maybe you can slog along if there’s a sure paycheck or retirement account at the end, but that’s rarely the case with your creative outlet.
So if you want to keep doing that thing you love, how do you get back to that feeling of joy and fun?
Turn off the lights
Not to sleep but to daydream, to muse, to imagine, to dwell in the world you’re building in your book (or painting or poem or classroom). What Snyder started doing was to go into her room, turn out the lights and daydream about her book world for about an hour.
Mostly, she said, she moved around inside the world she was creating and imagined the details. You’re not going to record any of this, Snyder said. You’re not going to write it down or add it to your notes on your phone. But a lot of the things you imagine will probably make it into your book and your story world will come alive.
I remember so well how I did exactly this as a child. How much I simply adored lying there and pretending that I was in whatever magical land I wanted to be in. I remember how I lovingly crafted the details–going over and over exactly how my princess bedroom would be furnished, how that dragonfly carriage looked, exactly what my flower petal fairy dress looked like. Usually the plot of the story I was imagining wouldn’t advance one mote, but I knew in my heart what the dungeon looked like.
I don’t think I can do this for an hour, but I’d like to try 15-20 minutes where I simply daydream and allow myself to explore what my world looks like and feels like. I want to enjoy the sheer imagining of the beauty or the devastation I’m creating.
Develop the other side of your brain
For those of us who are primarily writers that means drawing, painting, sketching our story world.
“It’s been without question the most successful tool for my own purposes and yet it took me decades to discover, largely because I was stuck, as most of us are, in a grown-up mindset.”
Since she wasn’t any good at drawing, Snyder started with something that didn’t require a lot of skill. A map. In this case it was a map of an island she was imagining—an island where only orphaned children lived—which became the basis of her book, Orphan Island–A National Book Award Longlist title, recipient of starred reviews and, now, a future movie.
Of course, it’s rather ironic to mention that success up against the dictum to step away from rewards. But regardless of any external success allowing yourself to play creatively should give you a better book. You will have given your world the love and attention it deserves to truly come alive for you and the reader.
For those who already use the right (drawing) side of the brain (supposedly, since it’s turning out it’s not really as simple as that), maybe you could discover some way to play more with words that expand your story world for you: poems about your world, rhymes, skip-rope songs, bits of dialog, bits of dialect. Even if they won’t end up in the work, you will know better how that character moves, looks, expresses themselves.
What else might spark you that you rarely do now that you’re a mature creator. Dance out a character, a scene? Make up a song? Play with your kids stuffed animals or action toys? Make a paper mâché model of something in your book?
It doesn’t have to be any good!
What you do doesn’t have to be presentable at all. No one is grading you, no one is looking over your shoulder, no one ever has to see it. No one expects you to be any good. You’re a kid. You’re only playing.
In all, Snyder offered 8 different steps that helped her get back to play. I’ll list a few more of them in a future blog.
Laurel Snyder is the author of six novels for children, “Orphan Island,” “Bigger than a Bread Box,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Any Which Wall,” “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess,” and “Seven Stories Up.” She has also written many picture books, including “Charlie and Mouse,” “The Forever Garden,” “The King of Too Many Things,” “Swan, the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” “Inside the Slidy Diner,” Good night, laila tov,” “Nosh, Schlep, Schluff,” “The Longest Night,” “Camp Wonderful Wild,” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.”
Snyder has published work in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, and she teaches in the MFAC program at Hamline University, and also in the creative writing department at Emory University.
The last two weeks have been doozies (since I was born in 1906, I get to say that… jk which is a newer bit of slang). Anyway, I’m not feeling like being very serious right now. So let’s escape. In my collection of images about books and reading there are lots of repeating motifs and themes–books and cats, reading and cafes, books and beds, books and birds, reading and women, etc.–but probably the overwhelming theme is escape into another world, into self, into peace.
In a year of great doing, and the sometimes even harder task of not doing, we thought we’d pause and share our appreciation of the things that give us joy, purpose and meaning no matter what is happening in the world around us.
Julie let what she loves–creating images and writing–speak for itself.
Flourish and Grow by Julie Paschkis
Planting Thoughts by Laura Kvasnovsky
Here you are again, on your knees in the dirt.
Close your eyes and feel the sun warm on your back and the dry papery husks of the bulbs in your hand: Muscari armeniacum.
Breathe in the sharp scent of sandy soil and the darker fragrance of compost and leaf mulch, and hear the birds, if they chirp, and the rustle of the breeze.
The earth waits. Dig in and settle the bulbs, grateful for that ancient impulse to grow, to bloom, to go to seed, to fade.
And grateful for the turning of the seasons that finds you here again, on your knees in the dirt.
Mending by Margaret Chodos-Irvine
Close your eyes and think about the clothes you are wearing.
Think about everything that went into making them:
The people who put them together, somewhere in the world,
the plants and animals and energy that were used in making them.
We mend in gratitude for all these things.
We practice patience. We practice acceptance.
We embrace imperfection as part of what makes everything unique.
Words Full of Promise by Julie Larios
I’m a poet. To me, being a poet means using words – individual words – words made of evocative letters. How can letters evoke feelings? Well, when I see the letter “j,” I love the dip it takes below the line, the little hook that feels rebellious, non-conformist. I love the letter “z” in a word, because it feels (and even sounds) strange; it’s a letter that can’t decide if it wants to go forward or backward. When you write it, it reverses direction. It’s a letter full of doubt, and I prefer doubt to certainty. The letter “k” is a bit aggressive, very certain, the Genghis Khan of letters. Each letter of the alphabet has a unique personality, yet together they cooperate, they cohere, they form little societies called words.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for each letter of the alphabet, and for the way letters make words and words make poems, and poems are, by nature, inclusive, they invite people of differing experiences to contemplate shared feelings – they help us share a spot at the Thanksgiving table.
I invite you to think about the shapes of letters. Rebellious, uncertain, bold, shy – you’ll find their nature if you look. String some together into a word, two words, three. Don’t worry about grammar yet. Build a poem with one-syllable words. Right now I’m thinking of the word “thirst.” Begins with a “t,” ends with a “t.” That word feels suspended in time -something hangs in the balance, makes a growl. Then I consider the word “juice.” Playful. Generous. Put them together for a two-word poem, full of promise – “Thirst? Juice!”
So, I bought a few things during the quarantine this spring. Items that seemed to make great sense at the time, but now, I’m not so sure…
Several were grounded in good intentions:
I know! I’ll make agua fresca like they do in Mexico! You see the jugs and jars and pitchers of water and sugar mixed with fruits, flowers or seeds everywhere. Such a good idea. So much better than the sodas we drink in the U.S.
I’ll drink more water and, somehow vaguely in my mind, was a picture of how pleasant it would be at get-togethers in my home to use this handsome water dispenser. Never mind that nobody was getting together for anything anymore.
I was pretty good for about three weeks trying to find just the right blend of lemon or lime or cucumber for my water. Doesn’t this look refreshing?
Disclaimer: item never looked like this in my home.
Here is my actual dispenser, looking as it has looked for about three months now.
My daughter kindly tries not to smirk when she sees it still here on my counter. I haven’t given up, it will rise again!
Then there was the idea to do intermittent fasting to lose weight. My regimen called for no food for 16 hours (which will kick your body into fat-burning ketosis) then an 8 hour window for all the eating you can cram in. It’s simple: stop food at 8 in the evening and then nothing but water or black coffee until noon the next day.
But I really like to start my day with a latte. But its cream and sugar will kick me out of ketosis. But I can’t start my day without something. What to do?
Butter coffee! A blend of coffee, grass-fed butter—a lot of people use ghee—and coconut oil which “produces a delicious latte-like drink complete with foamy top” that doesn’t involve the type of carbs that stop ketosis.
Is it truly a delicious latte-like drink complete with foamy top? I have no idea. As you can see from this unopened jar of ghee, I haven’t managed either the intermittent fasting or the butter coffee. It turns out it’s fairly complicated to fix butter coffee. It’s been easier to just stay fat.
See this unopened box?
It’s an altar. A meditation altar. Someday, any day now, it will be adorned with things that represent the four elements and a fifth component: spirit.
Incense or feathers or a photo of clouds for air. Some pretty rocks and minerals for earth. Candles for fire. A chalice or maybe a tiny little fountain to represent water. For spirit: a picture of a loved one or a spiritual master or a copy of an inspiring quote or a Hubble deep field image.
The possibilities for imagination, beauty and inspiration are endless. Any day now I will have an altar perfectly set up to gather dust just as this box has for the last three months.
Several of my quarantine purchases were more sensible, supporting vital research for my mystery novel in progress.
For example, this lock picking kit.
Yes, it’s surprising easy to pick locks—at least in principle. It takes only a few simple tools and techniques, but, of course, in practice it’s quite hard as you have to develop just the right feel for it. I have managed to get the padlock open several times, but that’s the only lock I’ve had success with. I messed around with various locks around my house for awhile until it dawned on me that maybe all my scraping and poking wasn’t doing my locks any good.
I watched numerous videos by lock picking masters. Then I watched one by the supposed masters of breaking in and mostly they didn’t bother with picking a lock at all, it was usually easier to simply remove the door.
Here’s my most expensive purchase of the quarantine. Creepy, right?
It’s a fake baby bump. One of the characters in my novel is pregnant but it’s been 30 years since I was pregnant and I’ve forgotten a lot of the little details of hauling what amounts to at least a 20 pound backpack in front of you.
But before I got around to putting it on for research, I had a brilliant idea for a gag. A small family get-together was in the works (yes, all Covid precautions in place). We hadn’t seen each other in person for nearly four months. My plan was to put on my “bump,” walk into the gathering without saying a word, and then casually mention that I’d put on a bit of weight during the lock-down.
It was mostly aimed at seeing how my brother would react. I mean, here I was looking fat as hell and I sure was past baby carrying age. How many people have fake baby bumps lying around. At the least, it would flummox said brother for one delicious minute, wouldn’t it? Heh, heh. But, sadly, on the day of the party, it suddenly felt too mean. I renounced my prank. Sigh.
So the first time I’ve actually worn my baby bump was a day ago when I put it on for this photo. Is it uncomfortable, hot, heavy, bulky, clumsy? Yes. Being pregnant did indeed come rushing back.
Now I come to my pièce de résistance. My most unlikely-to-be used purchase of the season. One gloomy day in April, maybe six weeks, into quarantine. This suddenly seemed like a great idea:
What is it? It’s a puzzle isn’t it? But, of course, it’s an acupressure mat and neck pillow set. Yes, it’s bristling with “acupressure points,” otherwise known as a bed of nails. (Life time guarantee! And lightweight design makes it convenient for travel!)
Does it provide back and neck pain relief, headache and stress relief? Does it relax your body and mind? Does it improve circulation?
I couldn’t say for sure. I tried it for the first and only time this morning. But it’s actually not that uncomfortable. I haven’t progressed to the stage where I lie on it on a hardwood floor, yet. But I can nap on it as I consider all the good intentions I’ve purchased and failed to accomplish during quarantine.
P.S. anyone looking for a very slightly used baby bump?
The young man was bumping like a pinball through the crowded sidewalk on Greenwood Ave—the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, OK. Suddenly he was hit by two bullets. One hit his shoulder; one traveled around his skull and landed near his nose, a few centimeters from his brain.
To operate presented terrible odds–50/50 odds of survival and even if he lived, he might end up insane at best. He decided to leave the bullet there and lived the rest of his life with it. The man was the father of children’s illustrator Floyd Cooper, shot by a white man in the long-hidden 1921 race massacre in Tulsa.
Cooper told this story as part of a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators panel featuring ten best-selling, award-winning (from Newberys to Caldecotts) children’s writers and illustrators of color. In five-minute segments, each creators shared their experiences with racism and racist assumptions, and how that informs their work.
It wasn’t a lecture; it was a sharing of coming to the creative life from many different places.
Author Crystal Allen began her career in middle-grades as any serious writer would with research into the kind of books she wanted to write–African American middle-grade books. But she couldn’t find any on the shelves of her local bookstore. When she asked about it, she was told she wouldn’t find anything on those shelves. Instead she followed the store clerk for “what felt like six days” to the African American section.
In a small dusty room, the clerk pointed to a spindle with a smattering of middle-grade books. The clerk left and Allen says she followed right behind. Later, she was told by an instructor that the reason she couldn’t find any African American middle grades is that publishers wouldn’t publish them. They aren’t marketable she was told.
“Hopefully, you brought something else you can work on,” the instructor said. Allen left that workshop, too.
She wondered if she’d heard the voice of truth.
As a college student, illustrator Rafael Lopez lived on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, but traveled to the U.S. for his classes. He would get up at 3:30 to 4:00 every morning, in order to cross the busy border in time to get to his 8:30 class. Usually he’d arrive 5 to 10 minutes late.
One morning as he entered the classroom, his professor announced, “There he is. Mr. L-o-p-e-z.” The prof said his last name slowly. “Late as usual.”
“That really stung,” Lopez said. “He didn’t know my story, but he judged.”
In the beginning of what he hoped would be a career in advertising, he was offered a job that would have meant creating a demeaning stereotype of Latino “peasants”. The man who wanted to hire him thought his idea for the ad was wonderfully clever and funny. Desperate for money, Lopez considered it, but ultimately turned the job down.
Lisa Yee, third-generation Chinese, was accustomed to living in a very diverse community in West Hollywood. But driving across country to a job a Florida, she found herself the only Asian American around. Most people were very nice, she said, complimenting her on her English, especially her accent.
Yee was more amused, than offended. But one day as she and a friend wended their way along winding roads through small towns, she was intrigued to see that there was some sort of festival or parade happening in the town ahead of them. How interesting it looked. And everyone was dressed in white, a kind of cool costume parade! Then suddenly she realized she as looking at a Klan rally. Still, intrigued, she urged her friend to drive closer.
It was like a movie as she looked out her car window at the crowd. Then suddenly people were turning to look at her and the terror kicked in. She ducked down and told her friend “Get out of here!” It didn’t feel like entertainment any more.
These are just a few of the stories the creators shared. Each had different experiences of being “other.” And yet each also described how they found a haven–a welcoming place, a valid space–in the world of children’s books. And each told how such experiences drive them to make sure their cultures and characters and stories are out in the world.
So maybe no more thin spindles in dusty rooms for diverse books?
You can’t make a story out of a single thing. A “one” thing. A lone thing. Story comes from that lone thing in relationship to something, anything else. That’s where it all begins.
If you’re starting to think of the story of Dot, it’s because your brain has already added a second element. The dot is trying to escape the square? The dot is lonely? Your brain is already adding something else for Dot to be in relationship with.
I love this idea that all it takes is two images to prompt story. Using this kind of prompt could be a fun activity for yourself or for any of your at-home kids who can “never think of anything to write about.”
Of course, you can come up a story with just one image.
A lot of writers start with just that–character. But look what happens to your story-making brain if you add just one other element.
Is this Bulldog’s dream self, a goal, an unlikely friend, his mortal foe?
Just about any pairing can suggest a story, but I’m always looking for contrast, contradiction and the unlikely:
Putting two things in relationship almost inherently suggests goals or dreams or conflict… plot:
You could put almost any of the images on this page together and start to get story ideas.
Of course, the more unlikely the juxtaposition, the harder it can be to create a logical story. But, especially with picture books, it’s exactly the unlikely, the unexpected that can make your book jump off the shelves
So it’s great to play with all kinds of juxtapositions. Watch what happens to your story-telling brain as you run through the possibilities:
There’s this adorable kid. And then this:
And, of course, our very unlikely crocodile.
Every one of these stories would be very different. So which do you tell? For me, it comes down to a gut feeling about where my heart and energy want to go.
If you find yourself stuck for story and would like to get out of your own head for awhile, pull some images from the Internet or from magazines or even your own photo albums and put them together. There’s a story in there!
If any of these prompt a story in your household, I’d love to hear about it or to have you share images you might have found that sparked story for you.
Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?
It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.
No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.
Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories. It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:
And then this.
Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.
And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?
Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?
Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.
The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.