I’ve been discovering a great many things in the past couple of years as I’ve been getting more and more acquainted with my “inner child.”
For one thing, I believe I’m going to take up drawing again with pencils and pastel chalks for the first time in decades. For another, that inner child seems to have taken the form of a wise-ass mouse.
Ah, the things we don’t see coming when we just drop the reins or the steering wheel and just let life happen!
This unexpected journey to the past began a few years ago, when I set out to write my first children’s chapter book, “Finnigan the Circus Cat.” Up until then, I had done a lot of writing in my life for a lot of different audiences—newspapers, magazine, courts of law ranging from trial courts all the way to SCOTUS, and of course, essays about life for my Running with Stilettos blog and others. The one thing they had in common was that they were all written for grownups.
But the combination of a rescue kitten named Finnigan in the family and a daughter who is a contemporary circus aerialist combined to spark the germ of an idea for the Finnigan book. There were plenty of interruptions after I first put pen to paper, close to two years of them in fact! Most of the interruptions related to putting my empty nest up for sale and then moving, lock, stock and barrel, for the first time in three decades.
When I sat down to write the tale, however, it nearly wrote itself. The book—the series in fact—revolves around the arrival of a foundling kitten at a small-town circus museum, and is told through the voice of one of the two “circus mice” cousins who befriend the kitten and take him under their wing. At the time I didn’t stop to think why it felt so natural. Did I mention that the mouse doing the narrating is something of a wiseacre?
The hard part of the book was something I hadn’t planned on at all, and that was drawing the pictures that start each of the chapters. A lot of crazy last-minute stuff went into that decision, including the strong encouragement of a good friend who’s quite free with the “I know you can do this!” attitude. But after the first 24 hours of pushing back and saying “no, I can’t,” I remembered that I’d drawn horses obsessively—and very well—when I was growing up, and figured that I could likely make it work for drawing a kitten, two mice, and a friendly Golden Retriever. At least just for the first book. Or so I told myself.
Between when the first book was finished and the second book started, yet another trip down memory lane opened some more windows into the dusty recesses of my past. And that happened when a group of folks I had gone through grade school with in Chicago lo these many years ago connected on Facebook, and suddenly an informal class reunion was in the works. We finally gathered at an upscale bowling alley (kind of like the Taj Mahal of the lanes) on the outskirts of Chicago, and spent the next few hours sharing hugs and life stories and drinks and good wishes. Many of us hadn’t seen each other in 45 years. And even if we hadn’t been particularly close friends back in the day, by this age we were so darned happy to still be upright and walking under our own steam that hugs and smiles flowed non-stop.
There was something so wonderfully liberating and simply joyous to reunite with those people who we knew as children. Before the posturing and jostling and stratification of high school roles. Before the race through college and internships and work study programs toward a job or a career. Before the responsibilities of families, or the heartbreaks of divorce or other breakups, or worries about health or livelihoods or mortgage payments, and bills from the veterinarian and the auto repair shop. And so as a result I began to remember more of my childhood, and more of what I had done and what I had enjoyed back when the universe was still relatively new and the horizon relatively uncomplicated.
And then I wrote the second Finnigan book, and drew even more pictures this time, and went all out on some of them, really “upping my game” in terms of complexity and detail that I poured into the sketches.
And when I finally finished the second book, I realized that the distinctive voice telling these stories wasn’t simply a fictional character I’d invented out of thin air, a persona I’d deliberately created as a means to an end. The reality was so much more fun than that!
No, Maximillian the circus mouse, the guy with an answer for everything, the guy with the lightning-quick sense of humor and a sarcastic streak a mile wide, was pretty much me as a ten year old. It just took me a while to remember her.
No wonder the words came out so easily! After a lifetime spent as a “responsible adult,” trying to live up to the virtues (or demands!) of “maturity” and “decorum” and “patience” and “reliability,” it is a thoroughly freeing experience to just crack the door open in my mind, and let that mouse sneak out and say whatever pops into his unfiltered head!
It won’t be long before I start writing the third book in the series. This one will take place in a traveling tent circus, and so I’ll have all the fun of imagining the circus through the eyes of a wiseacre mouse…or a ten year old girl.
And in the meantime, I’ve begun noodling around the idea of taking drawing classes…and then possibly painting classes. After years of branding myself as a photographer in my local arts community, I’d like to finally push the envelope and take a few artistic risks that I was too afraid to take when I was a kid because I never wanted to make any mistakes.
I have so many people and things to thank for this new approach to art and life. Finnigan, of course. My daughter. My friend who pushed and said “yes you can!” when I thought “no I can’t!”
But I’d also like to give a shout-out to Maximillian the “circus mouse.” He may be tiny, and a smartass from the get-go, and thoroughly imaginary, existing only on the printed page. But writing his character has given me the chance to finally remember—and reconnect with—the young girl I once was, and to give us both another chance to grow, and shine.