I love LEGO. I never had any of my own, which only made it that much more exciting when I came across some at other kids’ houses, or the doctor’s office, or wherever else you find the little building bricks.
But every time I sat down to build, I came up blank. Same with Lincoln logs or any other building toy. All I could think to build was a house/castle, and I had no idea how to build one with the pieces in front of me. Drawing was often the same. Give me a sheet of paper and a pencil or some markers, and my image was (okay, still is) some narrow iteration of a house with a tree next to it and a sun in the sky—and, if I’m feeling particularly creative, a grass lawn dotted with some—idk, tulips?
Jump ahead 20 years. I might have been the only kindergarten teacher in my school to not add an imaginative play station into my students’ rotations; I just didn’t understand the value.
And another 10 years on, when I had my own children, I didn’t know how to play with them either. I would draw with them (if there’s some kind of tutorial). I’d push them on the swings or build something out of popsicle sticks (as long as the kit came with instructions). But as soon as the Barbie dolls came out, alarm bells sounded in my mind. I, like, really can’t do it.
My daughters, now tweens, would build a whole world with their friends where they were puppies going to puppy school, and they had to do certain assignments. They followed a precise schedule. There were special voices and a whole set straight out of the drama department. And when they all got called away for dinner, they’d pick right up where they left off next time they all came together.
Good thing they had each other.
But then something happened. Or a lot of things, really, and I find them culminating as I spend time with my two-year-old son. The short version of this is: I became a writer, and I had another baby.
Since college, my writing has always been very Point A→Point B. Clear, direct, cause-and-effect. Clinical and describing something I observed. But then I imagined a scenario and I discovered a question: “What if?” What if there were a cabin in the woods that was the only connection between two dimensions? What if that cabin brought together two people who thought they’d lost each other forever? This is the premise behind my first book, The Space Between, which will eventually be finished…
But since that first seed of an idea, the same thing has happened over and over, and for me, this is where stories are born. After having my son at the beginning of the pandemic and racing against the clock to get a Social Security Number for him, I thought, “What if there was a boy born just before the apocalypse who never existed on paper but became a mercenary after losing his entire family?” When I was thinking about pregnancy monitoring, I thought, “What if artificial wombs become consumer grade?” Of course, if you know anything about When We Were Mothers, you’ll recognize that one.
After that initial question, the “What-if” train builds momentum until I have a full-fledged story on my hands. And, when I get stuck in the construction of that story, I grab a shovel and start heaping coal into that same engine. What happens after X dies? Y pushed Z into a vat of burning oil. Now what?
I am always astonished at my son’s imagination when he plays with his toys. I don’t understand everything he says, but he has so many interesting conversations with his toys as he’s playing with them—often involving digging and transporting dirt and rocks and putting out imaginary fires—and I find the whole thing really fascinating.
I was playing firetrucks with my son the other day, and the LEGO Duplo blocks were out. “Wanna build a fire station?” I said. We had no blueprint for that fire station, but we grabbed some blocks and started building. “What else do we need?” I asked when the basic structure was up. He asked for a dog because of course he did. Do I know how to build a dog out of LEGO Duplo blocks? Nope. But did we figure it out? You bet we did.
I’ve noticed this enhanced in other areas of my life, too, and I’m ready to call it: This little game has been a game changer for me. Next time you’re out and about, look at something you don’t typically contemplate, and come up with a What-if of your own.
You never know what will come of it.