Pretend Games

After my last post, I tried to remember the pretend games I played when I was a child.

There were a lot of them. As yet, there had been no trip to the moon so space wasn’t that important to any of us, although I do remember Flash Gordon movies and I swear to this day my third grade teacher told me there were flowers on Jupiter. The rugged West formed the landscape for most of our adventures.

Photo by Victoriabernal from her mother's napkin collection. Flickr.

Of course, I lived in the West and knew firsthand what sagebrush looked and felt like. I favored Hopalong Cassidy and some guy named Whip Wilson. (He used a whip to snap the guns from the bad guys’ hands, and I rode around on my bicycle examining willows, looking for a good equivalent.)

In those days, we galloped around all the time, whinnying like horses when we were horses and making shooting sounds when we were cowboys. Not cowgirls. They never did anything but get rescued and it was difficult to make a lively game out of that. I asked my partner what sound she made when she was a kid and shot her imaginary pistol. It was the same sound as we used to make, a hard one to write down, full of explosive spittle. How did we all learn to do the same thing, even though we were separated by thousands of miles? I’ve never heard a real gun that sounded like that.

I was a tomboy and my dolls spent more time in contests than hugged. Among my favorite toys were a small silver car and a scooter, also silver. Silver meant I could fly. I don’t know why, there’s just something about it. And then, of course, there was all that space if you grew up in the West. It stayed with you in your games and your dreams. And, I suspect, later in your art.

The books I began to write, and planned to write, at age nine sounded an awful lot like the games I played, as did the theater pieces I made, and forced my little sister to star in. The impulse to make was certainly there from an early age. I think it’s probably there in all of us, whether or not we grow up to make art.

In a way, it’s hard to examine pretend games. What is there to say really? Many commentators write that they help prepare young people for the roles they will play as adults. But not one of the people I pretended to be bore the slightest resemblance to any adult I knew. The pretend world was a fantasy of what should be, like Gaylee Aiken’s. It wasn’t like reality; there was never a tragic ending. If you got shot, you might pretend to be dead, but you always got up again.

In pretend games real things – toys, objects, other kids – and things that were entirely imaginary intermingled freely. You could have almost anything you wanted if you imagined it – like flowers whose seeds produced plants the height of redwoods or taller, like the proverbial beanstalk.

How is the pretend game like art? Both have possibilities that are nearly without limits. You make them out of the things around you, and of the yearnings in your own heart. In both you’re a writer, an actor, the limner of your life, a composer of the score. Of course, even a pretend game has its limitations and its frustrations – usually in the shape of the kids who play with you, but who, on the other hand, may prove to be the greatest stimulus of all to your creativity.

And what happens to all that when you grow old?

Have you ever heard of May Wilson? Next time.

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