What I Have Learned About Writing and Life from Lego (and my kids)

Three and a half years ago, after my son Aidan broke his leg on the slippery floor of a Franprix supermarket in Paris, and after the initial shock and pain began to wear off, we had to figure out what on earth we were going to do with a suddenly immobile almost-4 year old. One can only watch so many movies, and I wasn’t at all sure I was ready to introduce him to video games.

So I consulted my Paris guidebook, located the nearest toyshop on the map, and headed over with my mom and Graeme, who was then a 1-year-old cherub with golden curls. I don’t remember what-all was purchased on that day—there may have been some crayons and coloring books, long since consumed—except that this was when we bought our family’s first box of Lego (and one of Duplo, so as not to leave out the cherub.)

We set Aidan up in bed with a tray upon which to build, and build he did—and hasn’t really stopped since.

Within the year he was creating his own designs, based on things we’d see around town, things he saw in books or in movies, cars and trucks he saw driving by, and so on. (And of course, he was making Lego swords and other weapons, too, sigh.) Every birthday and Christmas saw his collection increase, and the vast majority of toys brought to Malawi from home are…Lego, of course.

What I love about Lego is that most Lego bricks—even if they come as part of a kit—are fabulously open-ended. A piece from a castle can become part of a spaceship or part of a digger or part of a scabbard or part of a ship. I love that there is simply no limit to what can be made with them—they have made binoculars and dragons and medical equipment. I love that when they hear a new story or go on a new sort of adventure, they come back to the pile of Lego and recreate what they’ve encountered…in Lego. They are always confident that the exact right piece exists and that they can find it. They’re always tweaking their creations and improving them. And it’s not work for them…it’s pure pleasure.

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When I watch them build, or when they proudly present their creations to me, I feel like I’m encountering something that’s so pure and important, not because of childhood innocence or some such thing, but because they work with the raw materials of their craft with such fearless confidence. They see a Land Rover, determine to recreate one in Lego, gather the pieces, build it, play with it…it might take hours, but they will do it with such focus and seriousness that it’s easy to forget they are children at play.

This is the kind of thing, I think, that most of us are—or were—capable of; that self-forgetfulness, that feverish making-of-things, even if the things we are making are made only (only!) of words. We encounter something that inspires us—on Pinterest, or at the market, on a hike, or in a book—and we are determined to make something of it with whatever it is we have at our disposal: pen and paper, fresh ingredients, fabric and thread, acrylic and canvas. We can use whatever we have and take our time, and we can always take a break to eat some peanut butter and crackers or page through a Tintin book. We end up doing more than just distracting ourselves from boredom and pain and (what feels like immobility.)

We are binding up the broken bits and mapping our way through streets and wildernesses unknown, one brick, one word, one glimpse at a time.

Write It As YOU See It.

My dad will tell you that when I was little, I penned stories that sounded exactly like whatever books I was reading, which is to say that Ann M. Martin could have totally enlisted me as a ghostwriter for her series, The Babysitter’s Club. Yes, I wrote fanfiction before I even knew it was a thing. It’s fun.

Almost any writer, if asked, “how do I improve my writing?” will say two things: 1. write (almost) every day, and 2. READ. Well, of course: anything that one does every day becomes easier over time, and apprenticeship is a time-honored way of learning. Reading is one way of apprenticing yourself to a writer, of learning the craft.

Yet I would add one thing: write as you see it. In a previous version of this post, I rather pointedly took down a particular style of blog-writing that appears to be trendy, then thought of one or two other styles that appear trendy (all following a handful of popular bloggers), then realized that the style’s not exactly the point.

The point is that in a world that rewards the handful of people who are very, very, very successful at their chosen pursuit, it’s hard to imagine that you might find success (or simply satisfaction) merely as yourself, and not as some version of the already-successful star.

And I suspect that for every Ann Voskamp and Rachel Held Evans there are scores of writers striving to be similarly (meditative, gratitude-bathed, syntax-inverting, filtered-photograph-illustrated ) or (funny, provocative, egalitarian, emboldened topic sentence-loving). They have clearly tapped into Something that Readers Want.

As much as I believe that reading improves people’s writing, I’m convinced that good writing comes from someplace else. It comes from writing things down precisely as you (you! you! you!) see them–not from writing them down the way Popular Writer X would nor by writing them down in the style that Today’s Readers Enjoy.

I don’t read many books on writing at all, simply because I would rather read about other things, but one that I keep nearby always is Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. It’s all about silencing the voices in your head that say “you can’t!” and freeing yourself to express what it is you have to express in ways that are fresh and exciting because they come from you–not from who or what you think you should be.

Let other people write as they writefor you to write as they do will never be more than fan(non)fiction. Write it as you see it.

It’s a reminder I need fairly often. Maybe you do, too!

“…so long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources.” ~Marilynne Robinson

There Are Good Reasons We Love Pinterest

(and Etsy, and crafty blogs, and…)

Three years ago, I came upon a popular blog that kind of changed my life. It seemed to have it all–sustainable living, peaceful, joyful family life, relaxed homeschooling, great food, plenty of outdoor time, lots of good books, and abundant handmade crafty goodness–captured in friendly, relaxed prose and appealing, soft-focus photographs.

I bought this blogger’s book. I waited impatiently for every new post. I took up knitting again, this time with a vengeance. I learned to sew (finally, for real this time.) I broke out my sketchbooks and pencils once again. I made my own yogurt and cheese and bread. I set up lovely, natural, seasonal crafty projects for my kids.

Now, I was kind-of sort-of doing all (or at least most) of those things already, or had done them in childhood. But this blogger reminded me of things I’d forgotten I loved; things that, when I took them up again, changed my life because they helped me keep myself much, much better company–knitting and sewing and baking and gardening got me out of my head and into my body and my surroundings somehow, in a way that was really, really good.

Making things feeds something in us. I do think we humans are made to make things. There is a satisfaction that comes from completing a project–however mundane or marvelous–that is about more than just survival; more than just ‘getting by’ and passing along our genes or whatever. The impulse to make beauty and order–whether we’re simply talking about transforming dirty clothes to fresh, folded ones, raw ingredients like flour and butter and salt into puff pastry, or cast-away junk into something usable and pretty–is God-given.

There’s a story about the early years of ‘ready-mix’ type foods that tells about a ‘complete’ cake mix that flopped with consumers: it contained everything–powdered eggs, milk, and fat–and so required only the addition of water. There wasn’t enough creative work to do, so the mixes were re-engineered to require the addition of oil, eggs, and water–simple enough to offer convenience worth paying for, but involved enough to allow the consumer to feel that she was still being creative. Commercial recipes–like the ‘classic’ green bean casserole–involved mixing together convenience foods into novel creations.

Artifacts that seem funny now–like elaborately molded Jell-O salads (“if you made a Jell-O mold, you had made a meal!” a lady who’d been a 50s housewife once told me) and like the Bedazzler speak to the unease with which we’ve entered a world where it’s possible to do very little for our own sustenance. How many of us farm, or make our own clothes, or even our own music and drama and entertainment, as most people have done most places throughout most of history?

If you don’t make your own clothes, Bedazzle them. If you make a dessert from a mix, then put it in a fancy mold with nuts and marshmallows and whatever else. And if you don’t have time to do whatever crafty-foodie-artsy thing you wish you had time/money/energy to do…you could always just hang around Pinterest, or SouleMama, or Martha Stewart.com, or whatever. Even the dream of creating is powerful.

Photo Credit Here.

So, anyway, when I rediscovered making things–something I’d loved as a child–it felt like part of me was awakened. It felt weirdly powerful to have knitting needles and know how to use them. I have to credit rediscovering craftiness with the re-discovery of my love for writing. Making things–from paper and pencil, fabric and fiber, flour and fat–felt powerful. If I could make something worth wearing/seeing/eating, maybe I could write something worth reading/hearing/pondering.

Here’s where it got tricky for me, though: online, the line between what’s inspiring and what’s discouraging can be blurry, and I can only think it’s because of the careful edits. Ann Voskamp surely gets mosquito bites out there in God’s gorgeous creation. The most peaceful, attachment-parenting crunchy mamas get angry, pop in a DVD, and call for take-out, they just don’t write/photograph/blog those stories.

There’s a reason blogs like CakeWrecks and Awkward Family Photos (the anti-Pinterest and anti-Instagram!) are also popular: they bless us with the truth that everyone and everything is sometimes–even often–as messed up as we (and our families, and the stuff we try to make) are. They offer us the promise that even the screwiest of screw-ups can be redeemed into something, even if it’s just the sacrament of laughter.

We love Pinterest and the like because we’re creatures created to create, and creating feeds something in us that demands to be fed. But not all creations–certainly not the most important ones–can be photographed, pinned, blogged, or otherwise ‘sold.’ They are the ones that open us to ourselves, to each other, to God, and to the world, in thousands of visible and invisible ways: the tears dried with a gentle touch, the I’m sorry whispered with sincerity, the love that covers every flaw even if only for a few fleeting seconds.

At the end of it, all of our making strives toward this. Command + C those moments, and pin them in your heart.