Friday, August 21, 2015

Letting Your Kids Help You Get Over Yourself

By Ian Jackson
 A moose and a mouse from a holiday card from - don't worry, you'll see why it's there eventually...

As a child growing up in the UK, I read a lot of comic books. A LOT. Pretty much all Marvel Comics - super hero stuff - X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man... And more obscure series. A California-based b-team headed by Hawkeye, called the West Coast Avengers? Check. A group of teenage X-Men trainees called The New Mutants? Check! A series about a construction company that cleans up and repairs New York after super hero battles, called Damage Control? Double check!

The most appealing part of Marvel Comics to me was that all the characters existed in the same world - or worlds. Characters from one series could show up in - and even join - another series. And things that happened in one story had ramifications on other stories. Like Captain America's speech to Peter Parker/Spider-Man which leads to Spidey switching sides in the Civil War storyline shown below (this storyline is currently being turned into a movie in Marvel's own shared movie universe...).
Full disclosure - this one was not from my childhood, and is mainly here just because I like it
Even in primary school at the age of 9 or 10, I created my own comic books to sell at school. True to my interests, the comic was full of ridiculously obscure characters and titled Secret Wars III, as a sequel to two major crossover events that none of my friends knew anything about. I sold 10 or 15 (xeroxed) copies of each issue and sold them for something like 20p an issue. I thought I would end up drawing or writing comic books as a grown-up, but my interests moved on as I grew up and Marvel went through their own terrible '90s phase. (When talking with a UK editor as a teen about my writing ambitions, he said "you're a little young for that," which undoubtedly had some impact too...)

I've done some creative writing on and off since then, but in phases. At one point, in an effort to support me writing, Angel sent me off to Starbucks one evening a week to write while she took care of all the housework. Over the course of a few weeks, I wrote a series of children's stories from the perspective of our cat, Joy. Life started to get in the way of these regular writing times, but I really loved having that time, and we still occasionally read those stories now, years after Joy herself passed away.

But last year, as my 8 and 4 year old sons got bored of reading books at bedtime and I started telling bedtime stories every night, I thought it would be fun to build in some of the things I enjoyed about Marvel Comics. Not the super heroes, but the shared universe.

So after a series of stories about two brothers called Jerry and Tommy (each a foot tall, and living in a hole in the ground that we regularly pass on walks), and another series about a moose and a mouse who become best friends when they learn they're both called Montgomery and both love chocolate, I started alternating - one night would be Jerry and Tommy, the next night would be Montgomery and Montgomery. And then a story about Roger Racoon. And suddenly, all the characters were in the same place at the same time, and the boys' minds were blown.

But this post isn't really about any of that. It's about the fact that the boys would ask for a new story EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. And each story had to be funny and full of accidental destruction (Montgomery the Moose is particularly clumsy, without any sense of how his size and weight - or his antlers - affect his surroundings). And each story was around 10-15 minutes long. That's a lot of story...

I began to resent the characters I'd created and my sons' intense enjoyment of them. There were nights when I just refused to tell a story and said it was too late at night. I sometimes wouldn't tell a story because their behavior had been poor that night. This was particularly cruel - my 8 year-old in particular let me know he hated that, and that the stories were what he looked forward to most in the evening.

And that's when I realized that the boys' enjoyment of the stories was just like Angel giving me a weekly Starbucks time. It forced me to write. Out loud, maybe, with none of the stories written down (yet), but it forced me to create something new every night.

So I got over myself, took their enjoyment as encouragement, and decided to just go for it. Whether I have an idea for a story or not when they get into bed, I start talking and by the time we've remembered where all the characters are, something pops into my head.

And since then, I've probably told 300 or so stories about Montgomery and Montgomery, Jerry and Tommy and many others - in solo or group stories. They've had adventures based on our own daily experiences, traveled around the world and to magical worlds, as well as into space as far as Pluto (where New Horizons send pictures of them back to Earth, prompting the media to proclaim that aliens look like moose). They've met characters from books we've read, switched bodies with each other, gained super powers... They've met trolls, gnomes, an Unpredictable Horse, and an alien called Bobby who grew up in a baobab tree in Kenya... They've flown around the world in a very chatty solar-powered spaceship (who gets so excited to talk to his passengers that he often runs out of power and crashes)...

Sometimes the stories are just silly. Sometimes they include some kind of commentary on something (which I usually only realize afterwards). Sometimes they are self-contained. Sometimes they're part of a series of 7-10 episodes. Sometimes they're mysteries, sometimes they're adventures, sometimes they're flashbacks. But they're all part of the same universe, and they somehow all fit together.

At the time I'm writing this post, some of the characters just returned from the moon, where they tried to play with Neil Armstrong's golf club, only to lose it and have it fall through Earth's atmosphere, where it landed right next to their friends in the next story. Now many of them are in Japan, where they have ridden on a bullet train, visited an old temple, and thought they were going to meet a giant scary dragon only to find out he's small, purple and friendly (based on Disney's friendly dragon Figment and Marvel's own Lockheed). And at this point I have no idea what tonight's story will be about.

Figment - who now has his own comic book, published by... Marvel!
And the best part is that, just like Marvel Comics, there are different writers. Every now and then my 8 year-old wants to tell the story, and his stories are just as funny and enjoyable as mine. My 4 year-old sometimes wants to tell the story, and with the crazy world we've created together, even stories from his own vivid imagination can be part of it.

Someday we'll get around to writing some of these stories down (the nice thing is that the boys remember every story - even from months ago - while they mostly disappear from my mind the next day). These daily stories have become a part of our family life, all while allowing me a regular outlet for unbridled creativity. And only because my boys forced me to get over myself and just do it.

But I'd love to hear from you about the topic of getting over yourself too:

  • Have you ever resisted something despite your children asking repeatedly?
  • Have you just gone with their prompting?
  • What has happened when you've just gone with it? Have you learned anything about them or about yourself?

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