Michelle and Robert Root-Bernstein — he’s a physiologist and she’s an independent scholar in creativity studies — first came to my attention in 2009, when they were part of an interdisciplinary group studying creativity at Michigan State University. This research shed light on children and early creativity.
Who were these people?
- Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer
- Dian Fossey
- Leonardo da Vinci
Most people would peg Dr. Oppenheimer as a scientist, or mention his connection with atomic bomb research. But it would be equally correct to say that he was a student of Greek architecture and classic civilization, art, and literature.
Before Dian Fossey studied gorillas, she was an occupational therapist.
Leonardo is hardest to pin down. Scientist? Mathematician? Engineer? Inventor? Anatomist? Painter? Sculptor? Architect? Botanist? Musician? Writer? Let’s call him a polymath, which describes a person knowledgeable in many areas.
What the Root-Bernsteins and their group discovered was that the degree to which children create the details of imaginary worlds can be an early clue to which of them will become polymaths as adults. Polymaths tend to become very, very good at what they do.
All children create imaginary worlds and unseen friends, but not all do it to the degree of J. R. R. Tolkein. He began practicing the creation of Middle Earth as a very young child. He was reading by age four, writing by five, and before he had begun his formal schooling, his mother taught him botany, Latin, and foreign languages. Throughout his childhood he took notes on all the places he visited; drew maps; invented flora, fauna, and languages; and probably spent more time in Middle Earth than he did at home.
Looking back, one thing I value from my childhood is that my mother believed in classes, even if she and I didn’t always agree on what the class should be. I wanted tap-dancing; she put me in ballet because it was more lady-like. China painting was a disaster, we won’t even go there, but I did manage to wangle a few ceramics classes. And no matter how much I pleaded, never, ever music because she’d had a horrible experience taking piano lessons as a child.
What these classes had in common is that I was forced to face the empty dance floor, the pristine china plate, or the amorphous clay lump. I learned at an early age to start anywhere because the first few attempts would go by the wayside as the real work began to emerge.
Those classes also fed the imaginary worlds that constantly spun out of my head. The garden creatures who lived in our back yard, under the fig tree, danced ballets in the moonlight, even if a few of them remained miffed that they weren’t allowed to tap dance. Drawing class turned into maps. Other classes segued—often by very complicated and tortuous journeys— into codes, ciphers, secret messages, puppet-kings, costumes, hand-decorated menus for special celebrations, high drama, and low comedy. Never a hand-painted china set, though. People in my imaginary kingdom were forced to content themselves with lop-sided ceramic bowls.
Later in life I learned I could go back and pick up those missed things from childhood. I took my first music lesson at age 30. I was never accomplished at music, but I had a devil of a good time and even wrote one small original composition, about 3 lines long. The instrument I took up was the bagpipe. Maybe there is something to be said for getting what you want to do out of your system before turning 30 because goodness knows what decisions you’ll make for yourself when you’re old enough to decide for yourself.
I recommend that every writer sign up for classes, preferably ones where the students start with a blank something. A empty stage. A clean piece of paper. A length of cloth. A chunk of wood. An untuned instrument. Something where you can start with the most basic of skills and build from there. It will do wonders for your writing. And if you’d like to come to my place for show-and-tell, the garden creatures and I usually have tea about four in the afternoon. Bring your tap shoes.
Michelle Root-Bernstein has a new book out this year, Inventing Imaginary Worlds, from Childhood to Adult Creativity Across the Arts and Sciences. Check out that book and her website about imaginary worlds.