I often say that I write non-fiction essays and memoir because I lack imagination. I’ve never been good at making stuff up, and whenever I sit down thinking I’m going to write a short story or embark on writing a novel, I get a few pages in and stop, overwhelmed by the apparently limitless options.
Taylor, my youngest daughter (she’s nearly 20 now), loved to watch SpongeBob SquarePants when she was little. She loved SpongeBob so much that we had a SpongeBob bathroom (The Little Woman painted it SpongeBob blue and yellow with hand drawn and painted replicas of Patrick and SpongeBob on the walls) complete with a SpongeBob shower curtain and SpongeBob toilet seat cover. Taylor’s bedroom was also SpongeBob yellow, and she had SpongeBob posters, blankets, pillows, sheets, Legos . . .
Of all the characters populating childhood during those years, I found SpongeBob endearing and definitely the least objectionable. He was happy, undaunted by failure, cheerful, a good friend, a hard worker, compassionate. But most of all I loved SpongeBob because he had Imagination.
That Taylor loved SpongeBob made sense, because she too had a great Imagination. I could give that kid two sticks and a small rock and she could entertain herself for hours, making up stories, creating characters, playing alone in her own world.
When Taylor was eight, the two of us went on a three-week camping adventure across Washington and Oregon. We set off without much of an agenda, except that we were going to see Grandpa in Bend, OR. Other than that, we were footloose. We started our trip by meeting some friends and floating the Yakima River. I worried a bit that T would be bored, hanging out with three adults and our friends’ high school-aged son, but she proved to be an excellent traveling companion.
As I set up camp, pitching the tent and getting the camp stove ready for dinner, she played in the hammock, creating entire worlds from just leaves and twigs. What amazed me the most, I think, is that on her own T wasn’t much of a reader. She loved for me to read to her, but she wasn’t one to sit in camp (as I would have done as a child) with her nose in a book. Instead she was engaged, making up her own stories. I so admired that quality.
We spent a lot of time at the beach on that trip, and while I went to the beach to read, T went to the beach to play, to create. Every foray was an adventure for her, a chance to create new worlds, to see everything in a new light, with new possibilities. I stopped taking my books with me because I ended up pulled into her world each time, building sand castles, searching for agates, creating new worlds.
When we had fires on the beach at night, they weren’t just for roasting marshmallows or for keeping warm. Each fire presented an opportunity to create, even fleetingly, something new—Taylor delighted in burning sticks and then running to the water to put them out, creating steam. Or, drawing in the sky with the red ember end, writing words for me to guess.
One of our stops, a little town in Northeast Oregon called Shaniko, had been a ghost town and was now just a town stuck in time for tourists to wander through. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but I made a point of walking around with her, reading some of the historic descriptions. I think we got ice cream cones that melted rapidly in the eastern Oregon summer sunshine. I didn’t think it would hold much interest for T, but she still talks about “that town that was just full of old people.” Something there captured her imagination.
Our last stop on our adventure was Manzanita. We pitched the tent at the campground on the beach and walked the shoreline into town to have some dinner. We’d heard about the great pizza place, and found it jammed. We finally got a table, one that could easily seat more, and so when I saw two women come in who wanted to sit down, I invited them to join us.
Taylor started telling these women about our trip. She didn’t leave out a single detail. And when I thought she might run out of material, she started embellishing, sprinkling in details about my personal life, adding a few false statements, entertaining the women who joined us. No one else could get a word in. On our walk back to the campground, I thought I’d take the opportunity to discuss the difference between talking about our adventures and sharing personal and/or made up details.
She looked at me and said, “It’s just imagination, Mom.”
That’s it–just imagination. No need to be overwhelmed or caught up in the details. Find some kelp to turn into palm trees. Make the sticks talk to the leaves. Just put my stick in the fire and write in the sky.