This afternoon I spoke at a conference run by Unilever and the ESRC called:
"Cardboard boxes, storybooks and games: Imaginative play in middle childhood"
It was only a 15 minute presentation, so I thought I'd type up what I said while it was still fresh in my mind. Here it is:
What a treat and a privilege to be here. It's been a fascinating day so far; thank you for letting me play my part.
I write books mainly for the 8-13 crowd. It means I get to play every day - with ideas, stories, possibilities... I also do a lot of work in schools talking about creativity, writing and generating ideas.
I suppose I'm a case study of what happens when instead of a toy or a console you give a child...
I grew up with lots of boxes. I think my parents realised pretty quickly that a box is cheaper than a toy. My sisters and I had so many cardboard boxes that we needed a bigger box to put the boxes in, and then that got full so we found the biggest box in the world and put all the boxes into it and we called it the Box Box.
Our other way of playing was to act out stories that we made up as we went along. Epic adventures. Rich and complex worlds in which we would be completely immersed for hours. Thrilling dramas with twists that
were later used for a show called 'Game of Thrones'. If you've heard of that, well... that was us.
I saw my role as rearranging the furniture as much as possible. My older sister saw her role as organising me as much as possible. She was very good at it.
We sometimes played with such dedication to realism that we didn't break to go to the loo. There was one Amazon adventure when I really needed to go. But we would never disrupt the world we'd created or the story. So, "It's OK," I said. "Don't worry, Wandering Chieftan. I'll be right back. I'm just going to... make arrows."
That is still the euphemism we use in my family for going to toilet. "Excuse me a moment, I'm going to make arrows," or "It's a long drive - have you made arrows?"
My younger sister had a very special role in the games. Well, one of two roles. She created them both and she chose which character she was going to be in that particular game. On special occasions she combined them. One was 'Yaps the Dog'. That was when she wanted to be a dog. The other was a kidnap victim or some kind of hostage.
Either part could appear at any moment, no matter what the
context. We could be digging for stolen space-jewels on Saturn and suddenly: "It's OK, Commander Wandering Chieftan - Yaps the Dog is here!"
Her being taken hostage would always lead to an elaborate, swashbuckling rescue from a cage I built around her. Then when we finally released her from captivity she'd always - every single time - say, "Umm, no not yet. I'm still kidnapped."
By the way, my older sister is now a top business strategist
& consultant. An actual, real-life wandering chieftan. She made it. And my younger sister is a hostage.
No, it's OK, she's a writer.
These games - the boxes, the adventures - trained 2
things into me that I rely on every day in any creative projects.
The first is that to create anything you need to be wrong most of the time. You need to seek out new ways to be wrong. Spectacular ways. Pursue them. Explore them. See how wrong you can go.
There was no problem with going on the 'wrong' track with our childhood games because the game - and the fun - would always continue. We could try things out and carry on. There are so many games where you can't do that. If you try something different or go 'wrong', the game ends. Fun over.
I see it in schools too, especially secondary schools. When I'm getting kids to come up with ideas, they have such a strong sense of some contributions being 'right' and some 'wrong'. It stops them saying anything that isn't dull or at least predictable. I've even seen teachers tell certain pupils to put their hands down because it's time for "sensible ideas only please". That's no way to come up with anything. A writer needs to go through a hundred silly, outrageous, ridiculous, unworkable ideas to get to the one gem.
The second tool I developed was this:
Coming up with something out of nothing. The blank slate. Overcoming the inertia of that first creative step - the beginnings of an idea where there was only a void. I will sit at my desk tomorrow and I will turn to the next
page in my notebook and it will be blank. I will have to fill it. With something - anything. I will face a blank page every
day for the rest of my working life.
Creating something from nothing relies on a muscle that needs training. Very few forms of
play develop that. And I don't think schools teach it, either. How often are students given the task, "Write something." - with no guide, or prompt, or framework?
I worry about that dying even in toys. My Lego
had no picture on the box of what I was 'supposed' to make. Or if it did, I ignored it. I made whatever I
wanted. Or I experimented without knowing what I was making. I went wrong a thousand ways, each one more fun than the last.
I didn't limit myself to the Lego, either. I incorporated blu-tak, string, cutlery and once (only once) my dad's reading glasses. (That was for a yacht. It didn't float.)
And, of course, the box went into Box Box.
The unstructured, unsupervised play was the perfect training for a creative life. And the time to play in that way led directly to me writing my first songs, my first musical and then, eventually, my first book.
Which is why I'm still playing every day. Now go and make up something ridiculous.