Saturday, January 12, 2013

Freedom through Limitations

My Winter Term class is going well so far. We've had a class trip to the Putnam County library for a presentation on what's new in picture books from our terrific children's librarian, Cortina Ziuchkovski. We've worked in small groups to share the picture books that we checked out and to analyze their structure. We did a point of view exercise, retelling "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" in the voice of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear, or Goldilocks, as well as a couple of free writes to excavate childhood memories. And yesterday author-illustrator Troy Cummings came to our class.

Troy lives right here in Greencastle, and it's been one of the joys of my time in Indiana to get to know him as a fellow children's book creator. It was perfect to have him guest-teach my class because he and I are about as different as two people who practice the same profession can be. 

It takes me a long time to come up with a book idea; I'm lucky if I come up with one idea in an entire year. Troy has zillions of ideas; he told my students about a "speed-dating" session he had with his editor in NYC, as he shared some thirty (!) different picture book ideas with her to see which ones might strike her fancy. My books are realistic school and family stories; Troy's are wild imaginative romps. I get my ideas by mining my memories. Troy gets his everywhere from playing horsie with his young children to building on the old trick phone-call joke: "Is your refrigerator running?" 

As when he visited my class last year, Troy did the following creativity-sparking exercise with my students. Each of us received three randomly distributed index cards containing a name, an adjective, and a noun, respectively. Then we had to draw a picture of that character.  Examples included Zak the nervous tugboat, Alice the undercover baby, Julia the elegant snail, Beatrice the dizzy pencil. Last year, I was shocked and shamed to find that I couldn't do these exercises AT ALL - my mind just didn't work that way. But this year I did a tolerably good job with Larry the sad little pinata. And then we had to make a four-page spread of a story about our character - AND use five completely unrelated words taken from a Pictionary card!

Why do this? Because, Troy said, there is a powerful freedom that comes through limitations, whether self-imposed or imposed externally. If I can write a book about anything in the world, if I can create any character at all, I sit paralyzed with the enormity of my options. But if I have to tell a story about a sad little pinata named Larry, while also using the words "matador," "slot machine," and "ripe," well, then at least I have a place to begin. Several of my students left the class with material for a lovely picture book, I would say.

Freedom through limitations: of genre, length, format, reading level, vocabulary, subject matter. It can be quite a wonderful thing, as Troy quite wonderfully showed us in a quite wonderful class yesterday.

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