Monday, January 23, 2012

Outside My Comfort Zone

On Friday I decided to up the coolness quotient of my Writing Children's Book winter term course, as well as providing a huge surge of creative energy, by having Greencastle illustrator/author/animator Troy Cummings come to visit us. Troy is the author/illustrator of The Eensy Weensy Spider Freaks Out! (Big Time!), as well as the illustrator of the mega-fun read aloud More Bears! by Kenn Nesbitt.

Troy read Eensy to us, as well as giving a world premiere read-aloud of his forthcoming picture book about a dad who plays horsey so convincingly that he is captured by horse rustlers and then escapes to star in a rodeo, walk the tightrope in a circus, and win the Kentucky Derby.

Then Troy did drawing exercises with us. The first one involved making character sketches by combining a name, an adjective, and a noun. I got Billy/clumsy/waffle. I was the only one in the class who misunderstood the assignment. I tried to draw a boy named Billy who demonstrates his clumsiness by dropping a waffle. I couldn't even draw that: I had to cheat by making dialogue come out of Billy's mouth: "Oops! There goes my waffle!" But that wasn't the assignment. I was supposed to draw Billy the Clumsy Waffle. Billy WAS the waffle.

Then we had to use pictionary cards to make up a dummy page or spread for a picture book. I couldn't do that one either. I could stick-figure draw a couple of the items on my card: a scarf, a man wearing sideburns, and a fruitcake. But I couldn't come up with any story line connecting them, let alone draw a scene relying on that story line.

The final assignment even Troy admitted was impossible. We each got a slip of paper with something literally impossible listed on it: mine was to draw someone opening a lid and releasing an entirely new COLOR. Needless to say, I couldn't do that one, either.

Here is the humbling thing. Lots of my students COULD do these exercises. Lots of them did them BRILLIANTLY. I would say that out of the group of sixteen of us, there were only three who had visible trouble with the exercises, and I was one of the three. Oh, and I had to show my failed attempts to the class, going FIRST, to show what a good sport I was.

What should I conclude from this? Several things, I'd say.

One is that I've always had trouble with this kind of spontaneous exercise, so my failure here really comes as no surprise. When my boys were small, people often said to me, "I bet YOU make up wonderful bedtime stories!" But I didn't. I can think of a story only if I brainstorm ideas for a month or so, then laboriously work the chosen idea over many more months into its final form.

Two, this makes me a LOT more sensitive to why some of my students feel shy about sharing their writing exercises with the class.

Three, different people have different creative processes. Some of the students who were not shining in the writing exercises I assigned shone here. Different people create in different ways. This is to be celebrated.

Finally, my creative goal this year, you may remember, is to write a book that surprises me, to try something new and different. And so, hey, on Friday I did try something new and different. I found out that it's hard to do this. Maybe I'll try this exercise again sometime in the privacy of my own home just to limber up my creative brain a little bit. Maybe not. But it was a good thing to shake myself up a bit. Scary, yes. Embarrassing, very. But probably on balance, good.

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