This Week’s Bit of String: Ghosts and earwax
Last Wednesday I went back to summer camp to do story-making activities with 5- to 11-year-olds. “Do we have to write?” some asked as they came in with oversized tie dye shirts and baseball caps.
“We’re just going to have fun.”
I always start them off silly, with Mad Libs, so we can create wacky stories. I brought outrageous hats borrowed from my sister: a plaid fedora full of nouns, a cowboy sheriff hat full of verbs, a blue-haired pointy witch hat with adjectives. Kids carry on with Mad Libs, or sketch their own versions of video or board games, or make comics around the stickers I have on offer—some just plaster anything and everything with stickers. In each group, a few want to work with me to write a story together.
So we end up with adventures about pig princes, and about a cowboy fighting a banana. With one group we based our protagonists on some very cool stickers from my other sister—a red panda in a turquoise tux and an alligator in polka dot shorts. The kids embellished these even further; the alligator has a ghost named Shawn riding on his back, and they find a haunted castle where a ghost king is having a trampoline party.
While I wrote this out on a big scroll of rolling paper, I overheard a little boy to my right say to his neighbour, “I don’t want your earwax. Just keep your earwax.”
Right! Into the story with that line. The red panda and the alligator with Shawn offer their earwax as a birthday present to the ghost king but are rejected, because he wants a Pikachu instead.
Keeping It Fun
The small fellow who refused the earwax drew a red-curtained stage on his piece of paper, and wrote in the stage space: Once upon a time. The end. I am waiting for applause.
Then he came round to show it to us, his grin riddled with missing baby teeth. Considering how his story lacked plot, the applause demand was a surprise twist.
Not that I’m about to judge. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare my workshops this year, once the busy school term was finally over. I ended up just pulling together the same resources and activities we did last year, and hoping these would still inspire.
I kind of got away with it because the kids remember what they like and I remember what works. I offered more specific suggestions to help get them started. Most people are unprepared to be told, “Sit down and write whatever you want.” Heck, even we writers struggle with that.
Hence the stickers, the Mad Libs, and the hats full of prompts. And why not celebrate the shortcuts, the tricks that make things slightly easier? Yes, even the fun things that aren’t proper stories. Let’s applaud ourselves for actually stopping to have fun and explore what we want to once in a while.
A Personal Pirate
In my final session, a tiny girl with a blond ponytail asked me to tape papers together so she had lots of pages. She used Disney princess stickers and drew a sad pirate on a ship in her book called The Love. The pirate gets to the princesses’ castle, and asks Sleeping Beauty if he can be her pirate.
“How do you spell yes?” the little girl asked. She put it in a speech balloon above the princess.
Who wouldn’t want their own pirate to go and fetch treasure? I believe actual royalty have had them before. This princess wasn’t pining for a prince; it was a pirate she wanted! It would be like having a personal shopper, but way cheaper.
When we’re writing, I think we have to remember not to hold out for princes. A single, heroic solution to our plot holes or character conundrums is probably not going to come charging to the rescue on a metaphorical white horse.
We have more need of pirates, I think. Writing requires a bit of plunder, at least sometimes to get us started or re-started. The nice thing about working with kids is that it reminds me of the basics. Keep things fun and don’t be ashamed of keeping them simple. There’s nothing wrong with raiding the classic tropes for inspiration, or even with being a bit shameless in our quest for positive feedback.
What have you learned in your writing journey this summer? Have you found pirate treasure, or that ever-elusive applause?