What We Say is Real, Is True
“This thing I tell you is true; but it didn’t always happen to me.” –Dorothy Allison
When I was in elementary school, my sister and I had many, many jobs though we were never paid. We never called it work, and it wasn’t for the money or the fame. We never doubted our competency or complained about working weekends. On any given day we were teachers, radio hosts, business women, zoo keepers, modern dancers, bankers as well as cat and dogs. It was both a game and true life.
While I teach playwriting to 3rd – 5th graders at Sanislo Elementary, I’m more often the ring leader to a group of police officers, secret agents, librarians, ninjas, reporters as well as cats, dogs and gorillas. I may guide them in the craft of playwriting, but their skill in storytelling is instinctive to the characters they invent.
Aran, a 3rd grader, created Keiyome, a Samurai woman born in 1630 who lives in Kyota, Japan and lost a sibling in the war. In class, Aran isn’t playing a character named Keiyome. Aran is Keiyome. When I wave my magic pencil, every student is transformed into a new set of characters with different voices, attitudes, names and jobs. Keiyome has corrected me numerous times on how to pronounce her name. Each character is real—though we know these are lives we’ll never live.
Sometimes my students write to discover their story. Other times the story is discovered before the writing begins. When the characters crafted by Aran, Cyntalia and Ava meet at hotel in Japan, adventure ensues complete with secrets and betrayal. They ask me for feedback on their play, and I ask to look at the script. Aran responds, “Well, it’s not written but we know all our lines, so we could act it out for you.” For these students, writing is the capture tool to record the true lives of their alter-egos.
Morgan: Miku, where’s my dinner?!
Miku: Coming, sir.
Keiyome: Miku, is there a new guest?
Morgan: Is she a wealthy merchant’s daughter?
Keiyome: No, I am a samurai woman!
(a short time passes)
Morgan: Excuse me, do you think you could tell me a little about Japan?
Keiyome: Why yes, but you mustn’t tell any other westerners the secrets of Japan.
Morgan: Yes, yes!
My students believe they are the characters they create. This is a gift. To know a set of characters so intimately gives a playwright full capacity to understand the choices they make. To embody a character also means you know his or her idiosyncrasies, a talent my 5th graders have mastered. Reehan and Ashley write about a singing librarian who is annoying a reader in the library. Ellenor writes about a cat named Pink who decides to color her fur pink. Dustin has developed Shanaynay and Bonqueque as characters with a distinct attitude and flair.
Research, fact-checking and accuracy is irrelevant to the creative spirit of our writing. Our reality is what we say it is. We know it’s a game (so it’s fun)—but it’s also very real.