Between the options of reading a book and talking to a person, I usually go page-turner.
This truth has been self-evident since I can remember, or in other words: elementary school.
While all the other boogers bounded off to the crumb rubber for recess, I roamed my mental playground, pondering whatever glossy-covered paperback I’d glommed onto that week, while noting ideas to scratch down in the mucked-up composition notebook I toted around.
This youthful indifference toward socializing powered hours of quiet, private activities —unleashing my creativity through fitting together puzzles, sketching pictures, scribbling in my journal, and most exciting of all… sticking my nose in books. Belle fan from way back.
Indeed, my book love encompassed everything from regular bedtime stories to weekly public library stops. Every brightly colored hardback or cracked-spine softcover promised possibilities undiscovered and unexplored. New friends, new worlds, new ideas.
Hundreds of books at a time would have followed me home, were it not for my mom’s strict “Same number of library books as your age” rule… likely because I often lost said books to the Bermuda Triangle, located conveniently under my bed. Luckily, I double-dipped my checkout privileges with the weekly library day at school — jackpot. (Is it becoming clearer why I never became a ‘popular kid’?)
Back in my single-digit years, I chose books naturally. I’d hear a story on the carpet of our school’s majestic book sanctuary (as I liked to think of it) and would then, with the help of the card catalog (analog search engine, for all the kiddos reading), discover four others just like it, only to get hit with the strict two-book policy at checkout.
(Aside: What is it with limited borrows at the library?! I’m going to write a strongly worded letter to East Elementary, and then my mom.)
Despite the dictatorial rules governing my book checkouts, no one analyzed what my bookmark peeked out of. Read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie approximately nine times in a row? Hell, yes. Tote home the hundredth I Spy? You bet. Devour Mary Kate and Ashley mystery chapter books, and play detective with a steno pad in my pocket for sketching doodles of suspect passersby? Case closed.
And I didn’t get weird stares! At least, none that I noticed.
Without the societal rules lurking behind me, I got to be Gina — quirks, kooks, oddities, and lifetime nerd club membership included. Unhindered by knowing or caring about what others thought, I was free to explore and create.
Free to Create Garbage
Being a kid is a license to indulge your artistic spirit by creating heaps of ugly, stupid crap. Don’t believe me? Consult the glitter-coated, macaroni-glued, misspelled shit artwork you made your parents… that they loved.
Yep, when you’re a kid, no one scoffs or criticizes if you create utter junk — in fact, people are just so jazzed that you created art, they magnet it to their fridge, brag about it to their cronies, and wrap you in a bear hug of parental pride. You’re a goddamn rockstar with a watercolor set. Or stickers and glue.
Or in my case, a pen and paper.
A fangirl poem about Harry Potter got applause at the kids’ poetry slam. A+ marks for the “beautiful bald eagle” video presentation. Not to mention the shock and awe at my based-on-a-true-story tales that accidentally spilled family drama. (Behind the scenes: “When are those parent-teacher conferences, again?”)
All of these really happened.
Even when I didn’t have to write, I wrote, because whatever I read inspired new creations.
Regina’s Big Mistake, a tale about accepting stumbles as part of an imperfect yet beautiful picture, sparked confidence to write and illustrate my stories, while Shel Silverstein made nonsensical poetry an art form to be imitated… and imitate I did. (Here I come, couplets!)
Following the lead of Amelia, the main character in a series of ‘notebooks’ about life as a young girl in California, I started making my journals into scrapbooks — complete with taped-in postcards, ticket stubs, and photos.
Later, with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series, I fumbled through the odd and intriguing challenges of adolescence in my many diary entries of anecdotes, sonnets, and heartfelt declarations of love for my oblivious crushes.
Despite the many transgressions into my privacy by my bitch-ass sisters, who read my journals, writing became this outlet I didn’t even know was an outlet.
I got to indulge in writing from a young age because no strings were attached — nothing I had to prove, or show, or demonstrate. Writing brought me joy… it unleashed the raucous circus of my brain onto a blank page, and there, the world was good.
Then Growing Up Ruined Everything
It’s true what they say about youth being wasted on the young. Standards and rules leave them alone for a little while — but they don’t even know why that’s luxurious.
I don’t recall thinking much — if at all — about shoulds. I created based on my desires, interests, and passions… goofiness, strangeness, and play. I imitated, copied, and created based on what I knew and liked, and I loved it because it was fun, dammit. I included characters from other stories I read, lyrics from boy bands I listened to, and felt a head rush when I created something new.
But like any great thing, it had to end sometime.
Somewhere around the Our Changing Bodies video in health class, all of that changed. The fiery hammer of ‘real-world’ expectations landed with an imagination-crushing thud, and cast a dreary pall over Ginaland.
No exaggeration. The narrative-inducing creative prompts of Power of the Pen, a writing competition for middle schoolers in Ohio (it’s ok to be jealous), got replaced by the five-paragraph essay of structured, supporting-detail death.
By high school, my writing started coming back with a sea of red marks and numbers at the top, and dictated my grades, which to me, a diligent student, was a Big. Damn. Deal.
Later, when desperately attempting to woo university admissions officers with intellectual clout, I thesaurusized my words, when all I wanted to do was make up my own (see: thesaurusized). A robot might as well have written those essays — my voice disappeared entirely.
Fast-forward to college as a journalism major.
Intro news writing classes, red pens slashing and burning my words like they were clear-cutting a forest, and a brief stint at the university newspaper made me hang up my Woodward and Bernstein dreams. Plus, I’m quite certain I have PTSD from writing my senior thesis, where high-pressured academic snobbery and the nitpicking over my incorrect comma usage made me want to set fire to the damn document by year’s end.
Academic hoshposh was the Dementor to all my writing happiness. A cloaked figure, sucking the soul out of the thing I had so loved since childhood.
“You’re being overdramatic. Added rigor and expectations is just a part of growing as a writer.” — Inner Me, talking to Outer Me, as I write this
OK, I get this argument. I don’t propose a total free-for-all, Lisa Frank rainbow world where we tell everyone they’re a pretty, special, unique princess / snowflake / flower / [pick your fragile item that’s also used as a derogatory attack], and I do believe we should set standards.
We should teach young writers grammar rules, give them grades, and at least attempt to impart the proper use of commas, and discourage the overuse of parenthetical asides. (Although I missed those last two days of school, and my life has carried on.)
But doing so with total disregard for the
childhood human desire to freely create through play is a mistake. With overemphasis on right answers and rule-following, we wring the joy out of passionate writing from young creatives by convincing them that there is no place in the world for comma splices, or rambling nonsensical short stories, or expletives.
What. The. Fuck.
When You Grow Old, Your Heart Dies
Chewed up and spit out from the academic rat race, I listened to the career advice of wizened elders: “Succeed in the competitive job market by pushing creative irreverence deep within, and write what employers are looking for. You can write for yourself later.”
In other words, write as if all publications attached to your name would be sneeringly judged by some uptight Judy in human resources, who finds the use of the word “fuck” reprehensible.
I’ll never forget the pained look in the eyes of the Journalism school alum who told me about her great job writing product descriptions for styles of jeans at the Gap headquarters. Despite her positive attitude, I wanted to hold her tight, hand her a box of tissues, and promise her we’d find a way out of this mess.
Indeed, my fellow fledgling wordsmiths and I faced dismal opportunities after graduating.
Fearful of going hungry (or more realistically, moving back in with our parents), many of my cohort of authors, storytellers, and poets took positions as copywriting robots, lured into an army of keyboard-shackled automatons, churning out words that made Google happy and other people money.
In the race to garner the most clicks with the catchiest headlines, freelance writers were the prize ponies — competing to write, not to amuse, delight, or imagine, but to skillfully manipulate others into buying products, download e-books, or take online courses.
The writing job market looks much the same today — a bleak place for this oddball with a laptop, who recoils at most corporate wordplay and would rather be penning narrative essays about her nomadic, hot mess of a life and along the way, trying to help people.
In fact, if I could write anything I wanted, it would probably be a weird cacophony of Inside Out-esque stories about the brain’s secret life, mixed with magical depictions borrowed from Harry Potter, and maybe even a little sexual innuendo thrown in there, set against my dark sense of humor and intermittent rays of optimism.
Unfortunately, no one pays me to write that kind of stuff (yet). Sure, in my elusive downtime, I could scribble such nonsensical compositions in my journal, or in a document entitled Taxes 2015, (so that no Edward Snowden wannabes pull a fast one).
But adulthood pressures have so influenced my choices that being unproductive by ‘playing around’ or writing something that will neither advance my career nor make me money… well, that just seems irresponsible.
The nearby to-do list taunts… “Shouldn’t you be doing something else?”
I’ve often ended up opting to read instead of write, as if reaching out to my familiar book friends would satiate my playful desires, but I’ve turned the tables on myself even there — almost exclusively selecting only books serving a professional or personal purpose. Years have passed since I’ve dedicated myself to devouring pure pleasure fiction, and that used to be my favorite genre.
Now, I have a pages-long reading list of self-help, business, and social issue books, because my carefree childhood self hasn’t had a say at the library since George W. Bush’s first term in office. (That reference, brought to you by adult Gina.)
If young Gina were here, she’d ask me where all the fantasy and dystopian novels went. She would be confused that I haven’t written a short story in years, and would wonder why the pages of my notebooks are so riddled with to-do lists, but so few pictures.
She’d ask me point blank if I’ve given up on my dream to become a famous author like her (our?) hero, J.K. Rowling.
If I’m honest with myself, I know she would be disappointed in me.
The Fun Revolution
Enough is enough.
Who made these rules? Near-retirement-no-fucks-given teachers? Self-indulgent academic bigwigs? The people who trade dollar bills for our words?
Those people don’t inspire trust anyway. So why let them control my writing?
I can’t spend my life only crafting what the world wants to click on, and worrying about whether my comma use is correct. (It’s not.)
I propose a revolution — a return to our childhood values of play, that absolutely have a place in the world of writing adults.
A call to action for those who are just as fed up with silencing the scrappy kid inside struggling to escape from their cage, and wreak wonderful havoc all over Google Docs and notebooks and emails.
What action, you ask?
Well here’s where I respectfully depart from what well-meaning formulaic blog post guidelines would tell me to do. I’m not going to force-feed you a laundry list of ways you can tap into your inner child and revolt against the tyranny of boring.
Instead, let me lay down what I’m gonna do, and you can follow me — or forge your own path. Your call, homie.
Young Gina fangirls the master writers who have found the confluence of play and art, and in so doing, also found success. These are people who recognize that we can break rules and shift norms.
Following these trailblazers is a good place to start. My personal revolution includes committing to reading more of their work: things I want to read, and less of what I think I should.
Back in 2014, I silenced the inner critics telling me that “I don’t do science” and picked up What’s in Your Genes? by Kate McKissick, a book about how our genes work (with pictures, to boot) and even jokes. JOKES, guys.
When was the last time you read a scientific book that included humor and cartoons?
Answer: probably NEVAR.
In her book, Kate did something that I imagine many scientific writers don’t frequently do: she playfully, simply, and hilariously wrote about the topic, and along the way she ignited a love of biology in me that no prior teacher had been able to (no matter how many times we watched Gattaca in class…). She reached me on an instinctual, visceral level using the language that most speaks to my soul — she made me laugh.
She spoke to young Gina.
She isn’t the only one managing to balance humor with information, either. The Hustle is my favorite business newsletter, because I feel like I’m slinging one-liners with my friends about the shit going down on Wall Street at Happy Hour. I bought the book Thug Kitchen because if any book is going to get me to cook, it’s a sweary one. I’ve recently become obsessed with The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, whose descriptions of living with mental illness made me shoot beer through my nose.
These are rule breakers. Fun havers. Youthful spirits. Writers daring to challenge everyone who said you should stop playing around and get serious already if you’re gonna make something of yourself.
When I read their works, a familiar feeling trickles through my muscles and into my hands that makes me itch to write.
I remember it well: it’s the call to play.
Unleash the Child Within
My goofiest, dorkiest, lamest masterpieces I created as a young nerdlet formed the backbone of the juiciest gobbledegook that spills out of my brain today.
Without the opportunity to write with abandon, to laugh at my own jokes, to build up and destroy creations, to become obsessed with and then abandon hobbies, I would have never become a writer in the first place.
While I might not be the one who robbed writing of its creative glory with dreary rulebooks, snobbery, and industry norms, if I continue to accept that the status quo of forced boringness (I think they’re calling it ‘decorum’) is the only way to professionally write, I am just as much a thief of creative joy.
So I will continue unlearning the damaging messages instilled in me by all the sticks-in-the-mud of the world, and remember that creating by playing is good for my goddamn soul.
My hope is that by truly going back to the beginning — returning to my younger days of not giving a fuck about what people thought about what I read or wrote — I will remember the truth my adult self seems to have forgotten:
You will never create anything awesome until you give yourself permission to play.
As so-called adults, we don’t have to sacrifice our childlike wonder, hope, stupidity, and willingness to put our ideas out there.
Whether it’s abandoning the traditional work world, playing on the playground, telling groan-worthy punny jokes, or simply sending the word “butt plugs” in the middle of a workday to one of my best friends, I honor my irreverent younger self, and bring her with me in my journey as a writer.
Luckily, I also have a great professor for when I forget what matters: my seven-year-old niece.
On my last visit home, I showed her how to pretend like you’re going down stairs or rowing a boat when you’re behind a partition.
She loves showing it off to other people, whether or not she’s standing behind anything. It makes me laugh until I cry.
Her jokes don’t make any sense, and she moves like an off-the-beat music video backup dancer.
Did I mention she frequently loses her library books?
I know a role model when I see one.