In many ways I had a strange childhood. I was born with heart defects, was kept largely immobile for my early years, operated on when I was four, started school at seven, and, in some respects, was years ahead of my age group as a small child. I wasn’t allowed to play with many kids because of the risk of infection. I was never allowed to go to someone’s place and only one kid was ever allowed to mine. Fiona. She lived next door and she was three months older than me. We played “Snow White and Rose Red” and I was red because she was a brunette and Fiona was white, because she was a blonde. I don’t remember this but apparently I used to tell her where to stand and what to say. Then I’d say my lines and then I’d tell her what to do and what to say back. I can’t imagine it was much fun for her and yet she kept coming back. Years later I had a friend called Belinda and she was a heart patient like me and we used to sit in a tree and talk. But she died.
I am reminded of Fiona and the “Snow white and Rose red” game on a daily basis when Lucas tells me to “pretend you need to say” or “you’re a plant eater, go and be over there and you don’t know I’m a T Rex and I’m going to sneak up on you and eat you.” Yesterday at one stage he was a Prince and I was his slave. The thing I love about Lucas is his vast imagination. He’s five and all things are possible. We hardly played with toys at all yesterday, we had the eight cushions off the two large four-seater sofas and a big duvet for a roof, and in turn we had a wolf lair, a cheetah den, a pirate ship, a racing car, a throne, a hammock, a cave…then we made a long bridge and had to cross over a sea of snakes and crocodiles.
What happens to imagination? How do boys who play at superheroes with towels pinned to their backs grow up to be accountants and financial planners? Do we learn that it’s wrong to dream of what we could be or do we just stop day dreaming? Not everyone, of course, creative people sometimes imagine all sorts of worlds and shapes and tunes. There are plenty of books about harnessing your inner creativity. Years ago I taught creative writing at a tertiary institution in Auckland for a little while and the class doubled every week until we couldn’t take any more. Can you teach people to be creative? To a point. You can teach technique, the same way you can learn through hard work how to craft something out of nothing. But there needs to be a spark of something that is instinctive, a gift that just ‘is’. In the mid 1980s a very wise copywriter, who could write brilliant copy about a company who sold ballpoint pens, taught me that I must always trust the gift, refine the craft, but at the end of the day, just start writing and trust the gift. Don’t be afraid to write real crap because anything is better than nothing and eventually the gift is the filter.
I have no idea where Fiona is now, she’s had two failed marriages and some kids, but I sometimes wonder if she remembers our play days and if she ever just wanted to stamp her foot and say, “for goodness sake, just shut up and let me think up some lines of my own.” I suspect she would be delighted to see the way Lucas and I delegate authority.