Kids want instructions, lots of them, to be certain they’re doing it right, whatever “it” is, whatever “right” is. Each approached the assignment like baby birds on the edge of the nest. Some watched out of the corners of their eyes to see what other students were doing. Some plunged right in and drew what they thought I wanted. Some frowned and made a sloppy interpretation of the assignment, while others asked for a ruler. A few asked for more directions and flipped their pencils when I refused. During each class, one or two or lots of the kids made a box that broke the rules, writing a word that wasn’t “peace,” drawing a square that was a circle, a squiggly line, or a rectangle. Every once in while, a kid sat and refused to do anything.
As we talked about what each student had drawn (or hadn’t), they realized I wasn’t looking for conformity or for a correct answer, but for them to find a way to begin their own creative process. Someone always got the visual pun – drawing outside the box. Today’s kids aren’t brighter than their grandparents, but they’ve more savvy, exposed to world issues via computer and endless feeds on their devices. They’re experienced at accessing instant information. Still, they want the sure thing.
When I started writing, I wanted a sure thing as well, a well marked path to publication and books on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. Nowadays the path to publication is a circuitous route to a multitude of publishing options. Authors choose one way or another and still must promote their books as if flagging down trains to take them to the closest constellation.
It’s said there are no original stories, only creative mash ups of plots written many times over, of the same few themes that dominate all books, the same-old over and over. Does that mean everything I write lacks any originality at all? That my work, as anyone’s work, falls into a writing formula?
I’ve been thinking about the stories I loved reading and how far out of the box they strayed. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is about a woman deeply in love with a man who can’t stick around in the same era as his wife. Henry blips in and out of different years without warning or control. Clare waits for him until he finds his way back to her. It seemed an extraordinary concept when I read it the first time, love so powerful it can endure any absence, every fracture. Even when one’s lover leaves. Even death. Themes of betrayal and forgiveness inform Time Traveler.
These same themes can be allocated to Ian Mc Ewan’s Atonement, to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, to The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Each book is memorable on its own merits and resembles the others only because I loved them enough to read each more than once. They are stories that broadcast magnetic personalities and unusual circumstances. They capture our imagination.
If we’re thinking about stories that incorporate time travel as a significant element, we must include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Each of these books stands alone, delightful and exceptional on its own merits, each a pleasure to read. If there are similarities, they are more like “apple is to occupation as wheat field is to cathedral.” A long story to make the connection.
When I began to write, I began at the same moment to doubt myself. Unsure about my right to write, my lack of knowledge, insight, experience, craftsmanship. All of it related to how much I knew or didn’t know about life. Many moments I felt a lack of intuition, but sometimes the stories I wrote lifted off the page into a multi-dimensional episode. Sometimes I got it right. The more I work at writing, the more determined I am to stay outside the lines, away from formulae and familiarity. I aim to avoid the “been there” effect.
I gave my art students the box assignment not because I waxed triumphant over their confusion or insecurity, but because I knew how bright the flame could spark for each of them. There was no right answer, no wrong, just the effort to create, to find their own way. Inside the box or out, my students learned that art class was a safe place to experiment, the same way a baby bird learns to fly. It leaps and then spreads its wings, struggling to grasp the draft of the wind. Writing for me has been much the same flight off the edge of the nest.
Inside the box or out, mankind struggles. There lies the story.