When I was a child, I had a seriously overactive imagination. I would run back and forth in my house’s backyard and out into the street, telling stories in my head. I would act out these stories all by my lonesome, without any need for dolls or toys or other children to assist me. I wore a track into my parents’ backyard, and I was known throughout the neighborhood for running up and down the street.
It was probably pretty adorable, this little kid so excited about the stories in her head that she had to express herself in feet pounding on the pavement, breathlessly muttering the climaxes of each plot as she ran from one end of the street to the other. Any time my parents took me to see a movie, they knew that I’d need to run around afterward, continuing the plot of the movie in my head.
All little kids tell stories in some way, whether just by themselves like me or while enlisting the help of dolls or other children. But I never shared these stories with other kids. They were just for me, sprawling worlds inside my head that I could visit whenever I wanted. Most of the time the stories weren’t strictly my own, but rather continuations of stories that I had read or seen in other places. I would grow up and realize that this was called fanfiction.
Every recess break during elementary school was an opportunity for me to run around telling another story to myself. I loved recess, as every child does, but for me recess meant that the playground disappeared and I occupied my own world until the bell chimed to return to class.
The problem was that I wasn’t just playing in a vacuum; the other kids noticed what I was doing. They noticed that I never played with them, but instead ran around muttering under my breath like a crazy person.
It took me years to notice that I was being judged for my behavior. I was a very self-involved, self-reliant child, and I don’t remember thinking about other children on the playground one way or another until about 4th grade. By then it was too late: I had cemented a reputation as the weirdo who ran around by herself instead of playing with the other kids.
Once my eyes were open, it became impossible to escape the stares and whispers of the other kids. I tried to change my ways and be sociable during recess instead of doing my own thing, but it didn’t work — the other kids didn’t want me playing with them. I was already the outcast and that role can’t be changed very easily. And to be fair, my heart wasn’t in it. I remember a couple of times when I started out the recess period half-heartedly playing four-square with other kids before wandering off and playing on my own towards the end.
I have one vivid memory of being in 4th grade and having a few other kids come up to me, asking me what it was I did during recess. “I play by myself,” I answered.
“No, but who do you play with?” they asked, tittering. They were trying to get me to say that I played with myself, this masturbation joke being the height of elementary school humor. I blushed and said nothing, refusing to give them the satisfaction. The other kids leered at me and made sure I knew that I was the odd one out, the freak who did her own thing while the other kids had fun playing games with each other.
By the end of elementary school, I had quit running around and had found some other kids to play with, somewhat learning to fit in. But I didn’t stop telling my stories. At home, running around was pretty much all I did. This continued through middle school, my hyper-imaginative phase lasting far later than it lasts for most kids. By high school, I had mostly learned to act out my stories on long walks, an activity viewed as a lot more normal than running around in circles.
When I was a kid, I didn’t associate storytelling with writing. I didn’t think about where the stories had to go or who they might matter to. I just wanted to live inside them for as long as I could. When I did start writing them down in junior high and high school, it was a dual process: I would sit at the family computer and write for a while, then get up and run for a while when I couldn’t sit still any longer, then sit back down and type up what I had just acted out in my head. Writing was an active task for me, something which required movement and expression.
Eventually, the drive to act out what was in my head stopped, and even though this made it easier to fit in with the people around me, I wish it hadn’t. I miss that excitable feeling of being so wrapped up in a story that I simply had to move. Even though this ability of mine came with the price of a weirdo stigma in elementary school, I’m glad that little kid acted out her stories for as long as she did.
If it weren’t for those early days running around during recess, I don’t think I would have grown up with the desire to be a writer. While other kids were learning how to socialize on the playground, I was learning how to use my imagination. I was also developing a habit of telling stories with every spare minute I could. I was telling stories because it was fun, and getting into that habit early on helped me maintain that sense of fun as a part of my writing as an adult.
Now when I write, sometimes I’ll stand up when I type and start dancing when I get really into a story, a habit that I know came from those days of running around in the playground. Movement is a crucial part of my process. And when I get blocked, I know that I can help shake loose the story in my head by walking and seeing where my feet take me.
When I was in high school and worried about fitting in, I would feel angry at my child self who didn’t know any better than to reject the other kids to run around by herself. But now I’m so glad that she did. Figuring out how to tell a good story was a lot more important to my development than sharing recess with the other kids. I know now that the genesis of any writing ability I have is the pounding of my feet and the rhythm of my body as I run.