When I was a kid I was enthralled by the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. This informed a game that my dad and I would play together. Like the bed in the movie, my bed was a magic bed that could take us anywhere we wanted to go, a bed we used to enter the worlds that lived inside my head.
I don’t have kids of my own, but I remember what it felt like to be a kid. And one thing I know is that if you’re able to gain a kid’s trust, if they’re willing to let you in, you have to trust them, too. You have to let them lead you, which takes patience, generosity and most of all, a willingness to play. For many adults, play doesn’t come easy. We’ve been taught to give up this part of ourselves because it is no longer rewarded. But if you let them, kids will teach you how to get it back.
The book or picture or story is only the evidence of that discovery, not the discovery itself.
My dad knew how to play. He wasn’t just good at playing. He was an authority on the subject. His job was to teach others how to play. He was a psychology professor, and taught a class in creativity. In his class his students would dress up in costumes and improvise and write stream-of-consciousness essays. And they would pretend. I taught him how to play too. We would pretend, and I would tell stories that—if you listened, and only if you listened like my dad knew how to listen—you, too, could explore with me.
But then I got older and I wasn’t supposed to play anymore. So I played in pictures and I played in stories I committed to paper. But this didn’t give me the same satisfaction. It wasn’t as easy as when I was a kid and my dad shared these stories with me so freely. My audience was no longer so generous. They no longer listened, or if they did, they weren’t as willing to invest themselves in what I was trying tell them.
So now I spend much of my time trying to share the worlds inside my head with other people. I’ve since learned that in order to coax people to listen, I have to make these stories entertain and engage in a way that a kid can’t do. That trust must be earned. But I’m my own audience, too, and a no-less-critical and fickle one. There is play in my storytelling, but there is also work—the work of digging up and discovering that joy I felt as a kid—because I’m no longer satisfied with what comes easy. Now the idea has to be massaged and polished and presented, both for me and my audience. I can’t bring my dad or anyone else with me when I do it.
But for as much as I’ve lost, I’ve gained is the ability to share my stories with people who aren’t my dad. Now I do whatever I can to get my audience to trust that my stories are worthy of their time and personal investment. And maybe by extension I’m doing this because I want to recover some part of that love that I shared with my dad when my bed could travel anywhere I wanted it to take us.
But I can’t really. Not really. The book or picture or story is only the evidence of that discovery, not the discovery itself.
There is always a barrier between reader or viewer and artist, no matter how spontaneous the invention. Because the invention—or creation—has already taken place. You can’t know someone from the things they make, however much you think you may. You can’t love a person through a book. You can only have affection for the book. Knowing the person takes time and patience and effort and generosity. The book is only an expression of a life lived and shared. It has no life of its own.
My dad is 90 years old. I don’t have as much time to spend with him as I once did, but I’m going to take in as much of him as I can and share as much as I can, even if what we share has changed over the years. And every moment we spend together is illuminated by that spark of memory from the time when we shared stories together, when he was there beside me, discovering along with me. Me and him and no one else.