This evening, I participated in a fundraiser entitled “Academics Read Things They Wrote as Kids.”* It was organized by the Graduate English Association, and the rules were simple: fifteen or so professors and graduate students have about 5 minutes each to read something (a card, diary entry, poem, story, play, etc.) that they wrote before age thirteen.
When I signed up to participate, back in December, this all sounded quite straightforward. I knew I’d written quite a bit as a kid; all I had to do was find something moderately amusing (and hopefully not too terribly embarrassing!) and show up with it.
What I failed to take into account was just how much I apparently wrote before age thirteen – with the result that I have spent a fair amount of time in the last week sorting through Appleworks document after Appleworks document and trying to figure out just what on earth I should read. (If you have absolutely no interest in the literary creations of a mildly precocious child Jennifer, the remainder of this may be of no interest. Otherwise, prepared to be entertained?)
There were, for example, the “books” that my younger sister (J) and I wrote when we lived in New Brunswick – “My Violin Story” and “My Ballet Story” and “My Figure Skating Story” and so forth. There were the “essays” that my father tried to teach us how to write when I was six (and J was three – essentially all I remember from that lesson is that I thought hers was silly because she wrote about Barbie dolls.) There were all the assignments I wrote for the writing course I did through Stanford online when I was eleven; there was the account I wrote of the spelling bee after the first year I participated; and there were all sorts of of short tales, like the one about the Shoshoni girl who got caught in a blizzard and ended up saving her village from being attacked.
There were also the “newspapers” that my sister and I periodically created under the name of the Bearville Weekly Register, that generally centred on the imagined activities of the exceptionally large collection of stuffed animals that my mother and sister have amassed over the years. These are at times very lengthy documents, always featuring editorials, opinion pieces, fake advertisements, recipes, and tales of adventure and derring-do on the high seas by my sister’s favourite stuffed dolphin, the pirate Captain Flipper, and his band of ne’er-do-wells:
“So, it’s young master Spots,” said Flipper, peering over his glasses as Spots entered the Captain’s cabin. “With my good mate Midnight. How can I help ye?”
“Well sir,” said Spots slowly – he was somewhat intimidated by the dolphin, who looked about as much at home in the ship cabin as a live lobster looks in a dresser drawer – “I… was wondering if… well, if it’s not too much trouble… I was sort of hoping for… well you see…” he broke off, and turned to Midnight, unsure of how to continue.
“Spots here is hoping that he could get a job on shipboard,” explained Midnight. “He’s itching for a bit of adventure, and thought this might be a good place to find it.”
“Aye, that it is, that it is. As it happens, I’m in need of a few more hands on deck at the moment. My next voyage is planned for down around the Great Coral Reef, and I’ll be needing a few more animals than most of my previous voyages have required. I’ve planned to stop at Donkey Island along the way, and pick up a few extra, but still… I’ll be needing three or four. Can you work hard, Master Spots?”
“And you’re not scared of the water? I certainly don’t need any more crew members who are terrified out of their wits the first time they have to dive overboard after a storm.” Flipper shot a sideways glance at Buddy, the Sea Pearl’s cabin boy, who had entered as Flipper was speaking.
“No sir, I’m not scared!” Spots sounded braver than he looked, but Flipper nodded his head.
“Can you cook? I’ve a good spot for a young part-time assistant cook…”
Occasionally they even featured sappy love poetry – there was the time when we decided that one of the “editors” of the paper, a stuffed black panther named Midnight, should fall in love with another stuffed cat named Amber, and proceeded to attempt to woo her by publishing excessively elaborate, over-the-top sonnets.
Diary entries? Well, it was pretty sporadic, but I did in fact keep a diary when I was younger – but I ruled this out for a few reasons. One, the entires are written in multiple languages, and two, even if they are ostensibly written in English, they’re written in code. (Yes, I spent a very long time obsessed with classical cryptography and codebreaking. The result of which is that I can write fluently in quite a few different systems, several of which I made up.) But three, they’re mostly fairly boring accounts about what I did on any given day, or extended rants about how I didn’t like living in Ottawa and wanted to move back to New Brunswick!
By far, however, the largest group of writings that I have from my pre-teen years falls into two categories: the productions of the JR Theatre Group, and the many, many early manuscript versions of The Golden Crown. These were the two sources that I was primarily looking at, but they also proved to be the most difficult to sort through – somehow I had managed to forget just how much material was involved.
The JR Theatre Group productions were created by four people: myself, my sister, and our two friends (R & R). I was eleven, J was eight, and R & R were ten and twelve. The name came from our initials (J&J, R&R), and we went by a number of names: the JR Band (complete with a logo and T-shirts), the JR Ensemble (when performing at special events), or the JR Theatre Group. All four of us were homeschooled, so we’d get together in the afternoons, after our schoolwork was done, and one of our favourite things to do was create plays and musicals. Between the four of us, we played a very wide variety of instruments and had varying levels of vocal background, so it was not atypical for an ordinary character to suddenly burst into song.
We developed a fairly standard practice: first, we needed a rough plot. We would brainstorm ideas, and if ideas were lacking, each person would go around in a circle and say a random word or name, and with the three or four resulting words, we would construct a plot. (The Golden Crown, though not a theatre production, originated in the same way – from “knife,” “a girl named Janet,” and “a northern land”.) Once the plot took off, we didn’t feel obliged to stick to these words in any way: try to find a notable “knife” or a “northern land” in The Golden Crown, and you may be disappointed!
The next step was to take on roles and improvise the entire play through once. Given that we had four performers and perhaps dozens of roles, these were exceptionally fluid: I might play a character in one scene, and Janet might play the same charater in the next scene, if that character (A) had to talk to another character (B) whom I had also played in a previous scene.
After the script was created, we would rehearse it all the way through, usually only once, with whatever costumes, lights, sounds, music, or other special effects we could concoct. Finally, we would find our very tolerant mothers, who were usually socializing in an entirely different area of the house, and insist that they sit down and watch our performance. From start to finish it was about a three-to-four-hour process, perfect for an afternoon of fun.
The plays were often site-specific, and were created in a fairly wide range of environments: Animals vs. Flowers was done in R’s bedroom; Movie Mix-Up was primarily enacted in the backyard of a church after a guitar group event. Nonetheless, we did have one primary space in which the majority of the plays were performed: the basement of my home.
Our [J’s and mine] basement is usually most notable for the some 4,000 books that line the walls. The room with the books, however, is also quite large, and features a couch at one end, against a half wall separating the space from the rest of the basement. This couch was perfectly positioned to hold our captive audience; the ceiling allowed for the hanging of not one but two curtain rods, so that we had a fine red curtain a couple feet from the audience, and a white curtain about four feet from the back to provide us with a backstage and changing area. If we were feeling particularly diligent, we could cover all the bookshelves and walls with black fabric, to give us in effect a tiny black-box theatre. The half-wall allowed us to set up “spotlights” (anything we could find that would give us a small circular beam counted – including, on occasion, flashlights) on top of it, and operate them from the other side of the wall – behind our audience. The main basement lights were the “house” lights, which were usually turned off during performance. Lighting on stage was then from the lights on the half wall, and the one main light that conveniently had a separate switch and was located in the very centre of the stage.
The result? Well, the result was a great deal of fun and silliness – we weren’t terribly concerned about either historical accuracy or internal logic.
The following opening to The Cinnamon Story is perhaps representative:
Narrator: Once upon a time there was a king and queen who were good and kind and wise, almost the best rulers that you could have. There was only one problem: They were both allergic to cinnamon. Whenever the king smelled cinnamon, his eyes got all red and puffy and he started sneezing.
King: Achooo! Achoo! Achooo! Achoooo! Achooo!
Narrator: And all the babies started crying, and all the mothers started moaning, and all the little sisters started screaming, and all the little brothers started laughing, and the fathers would just shake their heads and groan.
Whenever the queen smelled cinnamon, her eyes got all red, and she started screaming.
Queen: Ahhhhhhh! Ahhhhhh! Cinnamon! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!
Narrator: And all the dogs started barking and the cats started yowling, and the horses neighing, and the lambs bleating, and there was no peace in the kingdom.
Narrator: Finally the king had had enough.
King: I outlaw cinnamon! There shall be no cinnamon for anyone in the kingdom!
Narrator: Now the king and queen had a daughter, Mary. Mary’s favorite food was cinnamon. Whenever she saw cinnamon, she would run to it and eat it all up.
(Mary runs to cinnamon container when Narrator says, “Whenever she saw cinnamon….”)
Narrator: When Mary heard that her father had outlawed cinnamon, she was so sad. She cried all day and all night. She moaned in the morning and wailed in the afternoon. And all the dogs started barking, and the cats started yowling, and the babies started crying, and the little brothers started laughing, and the little sisters started screaming. And there was no peace in the kingdom.
(Mary is screaming and crying on stage in her chair.)
Narrator: As you can guess, the king was not pleased.
King: Mary, what is the matter with you? The whole kingdom’s in an uproar.
Mary: You outlawed cinnamon and it’s my favorite food in the entire world!
Narrator: The king was flabbergasted! How could his daughter like cinnamon when he was so allergic to it?
King: Mary, I had to do it! The kingdom was in an uproar! Will you please stop crying?
Narrator: But the king’s reasonings were to no avail. Mary only screamed the louder.
[Matters go downhill from here. Two orphaned girls, Anne and Marcia, subsequently discover a cure for cinnamon allergies in the library. The king and queen are ‘cured’, the ban on cinnamon is repealed, and the girls are appointed Royal Scientists. Their teacher, the ever-so-creatively-named Mrs. Terrible, is thrown in jail for having sold cinnamon illegally and generally being a horrible person to put in charge of an orphanage. The play concludes with a version of the can-can.]
Other sample titles include Movie Mix-Up, The Girl Who Had Bad Luck Eating Purple Jelly, Lost in the Silmarillion (and Lost in the Silmarillion 2, and Lost in the Silmarillion: Return to Aman), The Crazy Camping Adventure, and The Russian Ballerina.
The copies that I have of these plays exist because, well, if you think I’m organized now, you should have met my eleven-year-old self. After we had created a play, I would go home, sit down at the family computer upstairs, and type out not only a script, but also a complete cast breakdown by scene, and usually costume notes as well. In the same folder, I also kept copies of plays written by two or three members of the group, which were later performed with everyone – R & R, for example, created musical versions of The Princess and the Pea and Cinderella, and my sister and I created scripts for the historical dramas Roman Times and Medieval Times, all of which were later staged by the whole group.
The scripts are, as a whole, pretty revealing – even if I hadn’t recorded all the cast lists, it’s very easy to tell from the lines who was speaking at any given time, and we certainly didn’t mind poking fun at ourselves. For instance, the following is an excerpt from Medieval Times. I was slightly older when this was written – thirteen, I think – and the plot involved two interwoven stories: one concerned the kidnapping of Lady Jane Grey (aka my sister) by the French, and her subsequent rescue by a squire named Galen who had a crush on her; the other involved another squire – Justin – who was actually a girl in disguise, because she’d run away from home to become a knight (me, obviously).
(And yes, I also created/played Ned):
(The squires’ quarters. […] A few squires are onstage.)
Will: New boy?
Dan: Says his name’s Galen. He’s taking Consett’s place. Justin’s been showing him around.
Will: Justin’s been showing him around? Since when did Justin develop social skills?
Ned: That’s not the question. The question is since when would Justin take the time. (Rolls eyes.)
Will: Where’s the boy now?
Ned: Gone to deliver a message for Sir Thorny.
Will: A message boy?
Dan: No, the pages were just all busy.
Will: Where’s he from? (Disdainfully.)
Dan: I think I heard he’s from Somerset. An earl or something. Here he comes – you can ask him yourself if you like.
Galen: Ned, do you know where Justin is? I can’t find him anywhere.
Ned: (Gives a significant look to the others.) Have you tried the archery range yet?
Galen: No, it’s almost evening.
Ned: Check the archery range.
Will: If he’s not there, check the training field.
Galen: The training field? (Perplexed.)
Ned: If he’s not practicing archery, he’s practicing swordplay. If he’s not practicing swordplay, he’s practicing riding. If he’s not practicing riding, then he’s practicing something else he’s dreamed up to help him “improve” his fighting.
Galen: Is that normal?
Will: Normal for Justin.
The next scene opened at the archery range, with an exceptionally long-winded – even for me! – description of Justin practicing archery, landing multiple arrows dead centre, and then becoming frustrated when the last one missed by an inch.
(Perfectionist?? Me? Whatever do you mean?)
Several years ago, I attempted to combine all of these scripts into one document – imagining that this would be a great way to preserve the collective creative endeavours of the JR Theatre Group in one place. The resulting document totalled some 300 pages in MS Word.
I had one final option: The Golden Crown. This sprawling fantasy novel, and its prequels, and assorted poems, and chronicles, and languages, and writing systems … originally opened with the ever-so-dramatic – and now notorious – line: “Janet tiptoed past her mother’s room, trying not to disturb her rest. Her mother needed rest.” Early versions also included many samples of bad poetry – I was firmly convinced, at age ten, that poetry was not poetry if it didn’t rhyme. And of course, there was this ancient and supposedly mysterious Prophecy of the North – which had to be poetry and therefore had to rhyme:
Hark to my words, o mighty ones!
Evil’s doom cometh swift on wing
The realm shall be delivered
Restored shall be the king
The planets halt in their dance
A comet streaks the sky
The stars twinkle with glee
Morcel’s servants soon shall die.
But as it turned out, I did try playing a dozen characters in five minutes – with a slightly shortened rendition of one of the JR plays. Although The Cinnamon Story was never intended to have a moral, the belief underlying it is nonetheless clear: when in doubt, go to the library. When in distress, go to the library. When the kingdom is falling apart and everything is completely chaotic, go to the library. You will find a book with a solution. Everyone will live Happily Ever After.
(No wonder I grew up and became an English major?)
*Inspired by “Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids”: http://www.grownupsreadthingstheywroteaskids.com/
*All excerpts are unedited. Errors of spelling or grammar are entirely the fault of my ten- (or eleven-, or thirteen-) year-old self.