by Mike Allegra
My mom has a habit of mixing bad news in with the good.
“Happy anniversary,” she joyously sang into the phone. “Ten years! Congratulations!”
Before I could thank her, Mom followed up her salutation with words that were far less joyous:
“I think it’s high time you got your crap out of my house.”
Ugh. In an instant, my plan to use my parents’ home as a storage locker for the rest of my life was dashed to bits.
It was under these circumstances I found myself alone in my old room facing my childhood closet, mustering up the strength to take a reluctant trip down memory lane.
Inside were stacks of sketch pads filled with primitive drawings; old machines I, once upon a time, had a penchant for hoarding; and lousy souvenirs from equally lousy vacations. Then there were the toys—lots of them.
There was so much stuff to sift through, I was confident the job was gonna be a complete nightmare.
But it wasn’t. Quite the opposite, really.
I both smiled and winced at my homemade comic books. After reading a few, I decided that, with a little bit of tweaking (OK, maybe quite a lot to tweaking), the storylines weren’t a bad jumping off point for a new story.
I marveled at the bigger-than-a-bread-basket adding machine I got from my Great Uncle Bill. By force of habit, I removed the machine’s olive green Bakelite cover to reveal its steampunky guts. It was almost comical just how many moving parts it had. I punched a few numbers and watched the thing spring to life. In that moment, my mind filled with ideas about a kid inventor.
Then I spied my Erector set.
Shortly after this discovery, Mom strolled into the room to check on my progress. What she found was her 30-something-year-old son lying on the floor constructing a racecar of his own design.
She didn’t even blink.
“Good,” Mom said with a sharp nod. “You’re taking that home.”
Indeed I was. The Erector set, the other toys, the machines, and my primitive doodles. I was taking all of it. I had barely begun working on my closet and my brain was already swimming with new ideas.
Toys facilitate play. Play is an essential component of the creative process. There is a reason why social scientists say that The Creative Spirit flourishes in kindergarteners and begins to sputter once those same children head off to middle school. As we grow up, we voluntarily—eagerly—purge the fun stuff from our lives.
That was certainly the case with me. I still remember being a 12-year-old who desperately wanted to be an adult. I gave away most of the stuff that had once given me pleasure and shoved the rest into the far corner of my closet. I thought these actions would speed the growing up process; instead, they just made me a sullen teen with an un-fun room.
With age comes a sort of wisdom, however. Almost in tandem with the launch of my professional writing career, I began to rekindle my interest in toys. I soon noticed that my best ideas occurred when I was horsing around with a hand puppet or had a box of 64 Crayolas within arm’s reach.
Unrestrained, unselfconscious play moves my mind in new directions; moving my mind in new directions helps me to discover new ideas.
I am well aware that a lot of grownups don’t feel comfortable playing with an erector set without a grownup reason for doing so. Fortunately, many of us have children—or if we don’t, we can easily borrow some. Kids need Quality Time, and Quality Times gives us the justification we need to build with Legos, squish Play-Doh, and color Snoopy green.
You couldn’t ask for a better situation. You’re being a good parent and you’re mining for inspiration. You’re multitasking! Well done.
That kind of multitasking was exactly what I had in mind when I loaded up the trunk of my car outside of Mom’s house. I’ll bring this stuff home to my young son, I thought. We’ll play with it together. We’ll pretend together. And, in so doing, my little guy will become my unwitting picture book collaborator.
It doesn’t get more inspiring—or wonderful—than that.
Mike Allegra has earned his living as a writer and editor for the past 17 years. His first picture book, SARAH GIVES THANKS, was released in September 2012 by Albert Whitman & Company. The book has earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, is an Amelia Bloomer List selection, and is now in its second printing.
As a playwright, Mike has had his work read and performed around the U.S. and was the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship. He is also the editor of The Lawrentian, the alumni magazine of The Lawrenceville School (Lawrenceville, NJ). During his tenure, The Lawrentian has won a dozen regional and national awards, including Gold and Silver honors from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Mike also likes waffles.
Visit him at MikeAllegra.com.