Earlier this month I was the author guest for Literacy Night at a local grade school. My presentation (repeated three times–though never the same) was half an hour to kindergarteners through fourth graders and the adults they had in tow, about how to take an idea to the point of being an actual story.
It was great. The kids were great. At one point we ended up with a dragon riding a roller coaster with a robot yeti and fleeing a wendigo–and that was all one kid. The parents were also great, with one dad postulating a unipotamus (a hippopotamus with a unicorn head), both envying and envied by a dragon, each learning to be themselves.
The thing I focused on was learning to ask questions, learning to ask the right questions, which is to say, the kind of questions that result in a story. “Where do you get your ideas?” is the cliched question, the question that interviewers seem to simultaneously want to ask and want to avoid asking. But I think that behind the cliche there can be a genuine desire to know about a skillset the interviewer does not have, and that’s even more the case the younger the person asking the question. Sometimes what they’re really asking is: how do you do this thing, in specific, concrete terms so that I can do this thing too. Or at least so that I can see whether I can.
I think that one of the major aspects of keeping childhood creativity–or even a fraction of it–into adulthood is learning to direct your questions rather than stifling them. Learning which questions are the ones that suit you, that take you where you want to go. Learning when to break out of that pattern and try some new questions. So I tried to give these kids a sense of what kind of questions you can ask yourself about a story you want to tell.
If they keep up with questions, if they practice asking questions, most of them will discover that the questions that interest them most are not a fiction writer’s questions. They will look at the same birds on a half-frozen pond as a storyteller, and they will find that they have questions about how to make water look wet and ice look slick on paper, how those particular birds behave in summertime, what things we don’t already know about helping someone see at a distance. That’s okay. It’s actually great. But I think it’s fair to start giving kids some ideas of what kind of questions you can ask, how this actually works, where those questions lead you.