Christina Baker Kline, author of the recent New York Times bestseller ORPHAN TRAIN, was cleaning out her parents’ bookshelf when she found volumes of books she had made throughout her childhood. Her mother used to sew blank pages together and encourage her to fill them out with whatever she desired. Over time, Christina learned how to structure her stories --- “to navigate the freeform chaos of her imagination” --- and now feels she owes her mom an invaluable debt for the creative confidence that was instilled in her.
I am five years old, watching my mother thread a large needle with orange yarn. She has assembled a dozen pieces of white paper between two thick pieces of blue construction paper and folded them all in half, then punched perfect circles with a small metal hole punch in a neat line down the folded side. After tying the strands of yarn together in a double knot, she sews up the side and down again, making the binding secure.
“Here you go,” she says, handing me the blank book. “Now fill these pages.”
Several months ago, just after my mother’s death, I discovered a cache of these “books” on a shelf in my parents’ house. The early stories are spidery pictures with a few words, mostly exclamations, coming out of people’s mouths in bubbles. Soon enough, there are lines of text with stick-figure illustrations. The later volumes --- as slim as the early ones --- are full-blown narratives, divided into chapters with headings like “The Black Cat Disappears” and “The Black Cat Returns.”
I knew, from the books my father read to my little sister and me each night, that in the first part of the story I should introduce characters and establish their place in the world. There had to be some kind of adventure, and something had to go wrong, and the hero would need to figure out a way to get herself out of a dicey predicament. The ending had to be satisfying enough that you were glad you’d read the whole thing.
But it took me a while to master the form. I wrapped up my stories too soon, leaving pages blank at the end. Or I’d get to the end without having reached the climax of the story; more than one book ends with words scrunched on the final page and crawling up the margin. As time went on, though, I learned to count out the pages, numbering them carefully, and mapped out my stories in advance.
You might think that writing to fill a form would inhibit a child’s creativity, but in fact the opposite was true. It was a form of creative calisthenics; I became a stronger writer by experimenting with pacing and plot and resolution. To fill a book was to give shape to a world, to impose order on the freeform chaos of my imagination. Much of what I discovered about writing when I was filling in those blank books that my mother made still holds true for me today.
These many years later, as a mother of three children myself, I realize that my mom --- a busy political activist and professor with two young children --- was genius at creating ways to occupy us that gave her some well-deserved breathing room. I remember sitting beside her at our round oak dining room table, writing a story while she worked on a petition to save a historic mill. We were both, I felt, doing important work. In giving me books to fill, my mother gave me the confidence to believe that my imagination could stretch to fill a book. What a legacy to leave a daughter.