It’s just a snippet out of context and it won’t mean much to you, but for me, this is like finding a shred of an ancient scroll in a clay pot: Thrilling, but poignantly incomplete.

I love bedtime stories. Listening to the voice of someone I love telling me a story at bedtime carries me along like a gentle river, and the moment of drifting off is exquisitely easy. It’s unburdened by the thornbush of anxious thoughts where we so often find ourselves after turning off the light.  I also love reading bedtime stories. If there was some way that 17 year old Isaac would allow it, I’d be happy doing it now. It’s a very sweet way of being together and sharing a world. I always found it relaxed him into naturally talking about what was happening in his world. This was never the reason for reading, just a very nice side effect. Nothing else allowed him to confide his feelings and concerns so easily. We’d pause the story and explore his situation for a while.

Between the days of reading baby books and the days of reading novels, I nightly made up stories out of thin air. He was very small, but old enough to understand and love a detailed, wide ranging story. He initiated it with a passionate request that I make up a story. I suppose it went on for two or three years ( I didn’t have him full time, but often). If you imagine doing this it feels daunting and doomed to failure. Waiting for a story to collect in your head is useless. The opposite of telling a story is worrying about what story to tell. The secret is to simply begin.  Obviously you need a character or situation as the first domino but you can grab one off the endless racks surrounding us and just jump.

It’s a bit like discovering that you can fly, but like classic flying dreams, if you get distracted by wondering how you do it, or how long you’ll be able to maintain it, you’ll bump down to the ground. Here’s one secret. The story consists of details, not plot landmarks. Explore the details in loving…detail and the story makes itself. Eventually those plot landmarks will appear as the next detail to explore. Move at the speed of the details. You’ll often feel as entertained and surprised as your child does.

I told tons of stand-alone, one-off stories, but our favorites were the ongoing, epic tales of The Sunflower Seed Six. They began as a band of jazz playing, anthropomorphic mice who quickly went on to being adventurers and scientists with cosmic stomping grounds.

The main characters were:

  • Dexter Nibble (hero surrogate for Isaac)
  • and his best friend, Jake Cheesewhiskers, vaguely a surrogate for me.
  • They were joined by Fats, mostly a gentle comedy relief character who was always cooking strange things and obsessed with a mysterious, possibly addictive cereal called “Mousecrunch B”.
  • Also Conrad, obsessed with inventing peculiar devices that failed in entertaining ways, and incredibly intricate time-consuming passion projects, including madly ornate cut paper art.
  • Finally, Melissa and June, extremely wild and playful sisters who were very gung-ho for adventure and good in a fight.

We collected an incredible assortment of associates and side characters including a monstrously powerful robot from a warlike alien culture who was so dangerous because he was an AI who could learn. He was the size and shape of a baseball and looked like a metal encased eyeball. He was capable of deploying frightening, powerful, armlike weapons in an instant. He learned better than his makers intended and came to like us so much that he wanted to join. He chose for himself the name “Friend” because that was who he had learned to be.

So many details and characters. Many of our bad guys eventually became good or at least wobbled between good and bad. But our lasting bad guy was “The Undoer” who removed successes and positive structures. We ended up having adventures in parallel universes and finding out that The Undoer was an alternate universe Dexter Nibble who turned evil. Every story began: “Well, we were just sitting around the clubhouse” before touching base with the gang, then encountering our opening plot point.

Along the way, I got to talk about everything that mattered without ever making it feel teachy preachy. You can’t make lessons the point of the story, and you never stop to ask if they understood the lesson. It’s there in the way things played out. Dexter was Isaac walking around in another world and Isaac DEEPLY identified with Dexter. Dexter was resilient and adventurous, adaptable and forgiving so Isaac could see the power of those things in himself. Dexter struggled sometimes but ultimately arrived where he needed to be.

I never committed any of them to paper but today I came across this letter I was writing to Isaac when he was away with his Mom for a couple of weeks and asked for a story. This is a very brief snippet that ends abruptly but captures the tone. I remember I called him up and told him the story rather than finishing and mailing it.

Dear Isaac,
Well, we were just sitting around the clubhouse.
Conrad was napping in his magnetic hammock, snoring softly. He had finally perfected it after months of trouble. The hammock had had a nasty habit of getting unbalanced and starting to spin like a carnival ride or simply closing up around the napper, trapping them like a chicken in a sack.
Dexter watched him sleeping for a moment and whispered to Jake ‘How can he sleep in that thing? I’d have thought so many bad experiences would make him too nervous.”
Jake smiled “I think he’s just worn out, Paper Cut Magazine is having it’s big competition next week and he’s been up for 2 days making a perfect, tiny scale paper model of Brazil.”
“The entire country of Brazil?’ asked Dexter.
Jake shrugged “He won’t let anyone see it yet.”

Fats was in the kitchen singing to himself the way he did when in the grip of a creative project: Smells of Peanut Butter, pineapple and deep fried onions soon filled the house. Melissa and June were out in the backyard having a Pink-alater/Purple-ater fight. Dozens of the small, hopping spray painting robots were battling for supremacy, the pink ones trying to spray the purple ones pink and of course the purple ones trying to spray the pink ones purple. The backyard was a purple/pink disaster with nearly everything changing color every few seconds. The girls were screaming with laughter. Digby, Dexter’s once evil, now very nice brother made the mistake of stepping into the backyard to ask them to stop, he returned to the house moments later wearing pink and purple stripes from head to toe.
He walked upstairs past Dexter and Jake. “Suddenly I’m in the mood for a nice shower.”

The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it” said Dexter.
“And I think I better check on Fats” said Jake, walking toward the kitchen.

Dexter opened the front door and felt like he was staring into a mirror. Outside looking in was his mirror image, pointing some sort of strange shiny blue thing at him. “It’s the UN…!” Yelled Dex as he was hit by a silvery beam from the blue device and disappeared.

Jake looked back over his shoulder “It’s the what?”
The fake Dexter stepped into the living room. “It’s no one ” he said, walking into the clubhouse.

“DOER!!” Dexter finished yelling. At the door had been The Undo-er, another Dexter Nibble from another parallel universe who sadly had turned out bad but as brilliant as our Dexter and driven to cause trouble as strongly as Dexter was driven to do good.

“Darn it! Darn it, Darn it!!!” shouted Dexter, trying to figure out what had happened to himself. He was tumbling through space slowly, end over end. Instead of darkness and stars though, he was surrounded by a diffuse radiant glow that dazzled his eyes. There was sound but it had an odd quality like a terribly loud sound coming from very far away. Floating all around him were strange things that looked like the remnants of some huge explosion: Bits and pieces of various strange looking materials that he did not recognize. Some looked like rope, others a bit like rock or crystal, some completely unfamiliar. Like him, they floated slowly, without direction.

“OK,” said Dex “I’ve got to get a grip and get some clues about what is going on.”