The children form a circle, legs crossed neat. They are (mostly) quiet, waiting. There’s a flash within their eyes though, a buzz along their skin, a trill within their voices. Some have bags or boxes. Others keep their hands behind their backs. They are guarding treasures, small objects scooped with double palms.
It’s time for show and tell.
First, we meet a Flitter Fairy, a tiny, plastic elf with a bright light on her back to protect the whimsy of her wings. White Beauty is a unicorn who can change into a horse at will. A floppy dog carries comfort, consolation. Miniature stallions have their names, their histories and their pedigrees. A mouse called Cheezer likes to wiggle, so they say. Held by his paws, he gives a demonstration. There are dog-eared books and new bean sprouts. Everything is small. Everything is cherished. These are fragile dreams held close.
Show and tell is theater. As writers, we can’t help but love it. Like children, we harbor indeterminate, odd wonders. The idea that slips inside a pocket. The fringe of inspiration. We collect words like talismans – tessellation, shambolic, caducity – and cup them in our palms. We light the dark with phrases, protect our wings, Flitter Fairy style. We look for treasures in unlikely places, in the dustbins and the shadows. And when we find them, we bring our gifts to show and tell, wrapped inside a story.
In the cross-leg circle, childhood objects have their stories too. They are birthday gifts or yard sale finds. They come from distant aunts or uncles, far-flung friends. They are resonant with memory. They are kept in boxes, under pillows, or in embroidered bags. They bear their marks—the scuffs and smudges, the cracks and tears, the evidence of super glue. The family dog chewed up those wings. That’s how the toy horse got its scars. Every object has its history. Every history is a “tell”.
This is what a writer does: excavate, demolish and rebuild, scavenge, reclaim, dig.
If you find a gem, it usually begins ugly and malformed. Polish it. Cut facets. Sometimes you must smash it down to splinters, gather up the shards, glue them into something else – a bird, a witch, an aortic throb.
Every story bears its history. We gather scenes in birthday party chatter and in the cluttered heaps of yard sales. We collect characters like whimsy, pull their threads, snip and stitch. We have landscapes etched into our bones. Our tales are resonant with memory. They are sometimes rife with scars. They’ve been handed down by grandmothers and fathers. We keep them in electronic boxes, double-saved, or in embroidered journals. They are dog-eared, torn and smudged with the evidence of hard play and a ferocity of love.
Once upon a time . . . my grandmother took me to the five-and-dime on the city bus. She let me choose a souvenir, a tiny doll, two inches high, with a little blue knit sweater.
Once beloved, such treasures come alive – though “alive” means something different to a child. It has elastic boundaries. It doesn’t play by rules. Children make a universe from collected twigs and pebbles, from minute objects that fit inside a wish. There, a stuffed mouse can jig a whirl. A pig can fly. Cats wear capes and dogs have sorrow. For writers and for children, the impossible is real.
This is what a writer does: make it up, invent, fabulate and fib.
“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”.*
Ask “What if?” and make the answer come alive.
We are like children, writers, spending hours in imaginary worlds, with imaginary friends. They poke us during dinner, shake us out of sleep. My kids argue over invisible giraffes and lions, make-believe monkeys and macaws. There is Wa-Wa, a small blue person who lives inside my daughter’s pocket. She has a wild side, a predilection for wrecking cars, which sends my rule-bound, first-born child into shrieks of wayward glee. My six-year-old has a hippopotamus named Henna, who dresses up in polka-dotted bathing suits and pink tutus. Mr. Hoppy, a rabbit made of mischief, eats her dinner carrots, her cucumbers and peppers. These childhood creatures are unbound. They can go anywhere, be anything. They can change to suit a moment. Once upon a time . . .
This is what a writer does: see what isn’t there, conjure maybes, invoke the nonexistent.
And then we make it real.
The kids sit in a circle. They don’t look very young – some have grey hair, wrinkles, and stooped shoulders. They are dressed in business suits and waitress aprons, mommy jeans and jogging pants. They have day jobs as mature adults. After hours, though, there’s a jitter in their eyes, a buzz along their skin, a trill within their voices. Some have their fingers wrapped around a pencil. Others use a keyboard. They are guarding treasures, scooped with double palms. They do not let the superficial trouble them. Like children, they believe in unseen depths.
Like children, writers know: It’s always time for show and tell.
* Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”