Committing to creative work requires courage. Tell people you spend the day doing eye surgery or installing HVAC systems, and they will understand and approve. Tell them you spend any time at all—let alone days, weeks, months—thinking about anthropomorphized ants, and the best you can hope for is bewilderment.
Yet just about everyone enjoys and consumes the work of creative people. They listen to music. Hang pictures on their walls. Read bedtime stories to their kids. There is a disconnect here that troubles me, especially if it influences how young people value their own creative work.
As soon as they acquire some hand-eye coordination, children yearn to make and do, to fashion a cave out of a few blocks or slap a mudpie into shape. That’s accepted and encouraged when they are little, but as they grow, the rules change. Time becomes more constrained. Other, more practical accomplishments are prioritized. If the desire to engage in creative work is gradually made to feel less worthy than other pursuits, it can go dormant. Sometimes forever.
When I tell a child that I’m a writer, they light up. Unlike adults, they don’t ask how many books I’ve written or which publishers are involved. Kids want me to know that they have stories too, and they stand ready to tell me their stories RIGHT NOW. I find this creative confidence reassuring, and it deserves to be protected and nurtured.
My elementary school art teacher was a wild woman. As I look back, I realize the classroom teachers must have dreaded her visits. Papier-mâché, preferably of monumental proportions, was her delight. She made art—and by extension, all creative work—feel alive, vibrant, necessary. Most importantly, she made it feel possible. I learned from her that it was possible to make something spectacular out of crumpled newspaper and floury paste. To squish and wish it into existence.
As writers, we strive to make something spectacular out of nothing too. Out of willpower and words, we create books. But we also illuminate the path to a creative life. When young people watch adults courageously claim time and space for this important and satisfying work, when they watch us fan the flicker of imagination, the possibility of a richly creative life of their own becomes possible.
I still hope to thank my art teacher, but I was a kid when I knew her and can’t remember how she spelled her name. (Miss Whetl? Or was it Miss Whettle?) Even if I never connect with her again, I hope she knows that her fearless approach to creativity is with me still.
I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My debut picture book, BABYMOON, is coming from Candlewick Press. Come hang out with me on Twitter @hayleybwrites, Facebook, or in the meadow: http://hayleybarrettwrites.wordpress.com.