On Creativity: A Letter to My Children


[She will be miffed at me for saying this, but it would not surprise me at all to find that, in twenty or thirty years time, my singular claim to fame was being friends with Rebecca Reynolds. She is one of the finest writers I have ever read, combining profound intelligence with wizardly worsdmithery, and besides that she’s a real swell gal. The “Letters” series she has been sharing at Story Warren has been priceless, connecting deeply to so many readers. This one, “On Creativity”, seems especially appropriate for The Rabbit Room crowd. —S.D. “Sam” Smith]


There was a bad storm rolling, so we piled in the basement to wait it out. As far as I can remember, I was five, which means it was probably the spring of 1977.

Your grandparents have always been fond of simple, self-driven entertainment. They respected me enough to believe I could find something worthwhile to do in an hour alone, so they handed me a pencil and seven pieces of pink paper. The pages were ripped from a carbon copy stack, fronts scribbled with charts and numbers, backs blank with potential. Mom showed me how to fold them in half and staple the middle to make a binding.

I sat on the cool concrete floor and began to mark out chubby new sentences.

“Once there was a wolf. He did not eat girls. He ate wolf food.”

It was the first time I had ever written a story. I remember distinctly because my life is divided in two by that day. March lightning crashed somewhere distant while a sharp thrill ran through my arms and up into my brain. Stories could be made, and I had the power to guide them.

It should have been a given, I suppose. There’s a certain ontology about the thing, like a watch found on the beach. Yet I remember how strange it was to me in the beginning, because stories didn’t seem like made things. They seemed like things that had always existed.

Baby brothers grew in the swollen belly of my mother, and this was completely logical. I had seen puppies born, and I knew human infants were also barfing, pooping creatures who squawled for milk and chewed their own paws. Progeny was a comic reduction, that was how the thing worked. We giggled and condescended over our creations, for the most precious reflections that we could stir together emerged weak, helpless, and dribbling out mashed peas. Stories, on the other hand, were perfect. Stories seemed better than we were, not lesser. I wouldn’t have been more shocked if someone had handed me a magic wand.

For in fact, a magic wand had been handed to me. Typing this to you now, electricity still runs up and down my arms. I have never recovered from the invitation.

Watch, here. Watch how it works! I might write any word next that I like – any word at all. If I am careful, I can make you remember how your sheets feel cool at the bottom of your bed in the morning or how the ocean wind runs like a woman’s hand through your hair. I can bond us or divide us. I can tend to you, or I can wound you. I can help you see things I have seen. I can show you a dark night on foreign waters, then speak into it, “Let there be light,” for the Maker made me a sort of maker, too.

There is a reverence to it, Child. I felt it from the first moment I saw how the thing worked. A story emerges from the womb of a soul, screaming and sucking in the air of our world, exhaling the air of another.

All my life your grandmother kept a quote taped on our refrigerator. It was a wrinkled bit of paper, clipped from a magazine, hidden between recipes for oatcakes and newspaper pictures. “Give me twenty-six lead soldiers, and I will conquer the world.”

I always knew it was a commission.

And will you, Child? Will you conquer the world? How will you do it?

I have spent sixteen years watching you all grow into such fine, strong things. I listened when you asked Jesus to dwell in your hearts. I have seen you make wise, hard choices and learn from failures. You have gifts beyond what I could have bestowed upon you.

You take up simple things: paper, pencils, clay, wood, string, cans, leather, insects, instruments, and found bits with industry in your eyes and fire in your minds. Beholding you, I have worshiped God with an awe stronger than that which ran through me when I was five, sitting on the cold concrete floor, watching letters make words, watching words make sentences, watching sentences make a book. Here a new story is coming to life. The image of the Creator of creators is alive in you.

The Grand Artist danced glory through the firmament. He established rhythms of science and beauty; then He bestowed upon you also some small bit of His ability to separate land from sea, light from darkness, to organize gardens and medicines, and to grow up food for a world that hungers.

He waits each morning like