Many Roads Lead to Rome

True to the name of this blog, we frequently make things as a family. Often I’m part of the process, but when my eldest, 8, came to me the other day, I encountered a new angle that I hadn’t expected.

Trevor, I want to make a craft with you,” she said. “I need your help.”

“Okay, little fish,” I said. “What do you want to make?”

Her eagerness turned into despair. “That’s why I need your help. I don’t know what I want to make.”

This is an experience I find myself struggling to relate to. I generally make stuff because I have so many ideas that to not make them would drive me nuts. Whether it’s a stop-motion movie or a spaceship or whatever it’s usually a mostly-complete idea or plan that then has to be birthed into existence, leaping fully-formed from my head like Athena. I don’t get writer’s block, only traffic jams from an embarrassments of riches — too much inspiration swirling around to actually get something finished. I don’t often have the urge to create without having something waiting, itching, screaming to be created.

Still, it’s not like my inspiration comes from nowhere. Maybe I could share how I pick up new ideas.

“Well, kiddo, sometimes I get ideas about what to make by looking at pieces we have. Want to go see what we’ve got?”

She brightened, nodded. I sent her to get some shoes and we headed down to the workshop.

She tore into the bits box, delighted by what she found. Old computer bits. An old vitamin bottle. A couple of plastic wheels. Some casters. An empty deodorant stick. A little battery-operated LED light. Popsicle sticks. It was purposeful, mindful exploration.

Something’s clicking, I thought, and smiled.

She piled a tray high with her bounty, plopped the hot glue gun triumphantly on top, and marched back upstairs.

“You seem happier. Have you decided what to make yet?”

She ignored me, as she does sometimes when she’s deeply focused. Meticulously, she organized her parts, taking inventory, making sure everything was laid out, aligned, logical. Finally, she took a deep breath, put her hands on her hips, and declared:

“I still don’t know what to make.”

Well then.

What came next can only be described as an exhaustive process. We looked at every piece, every permutation of every possible combination of everything a particular piece could possibly be. But nothing was sticking.

Rather than look at what a piece could be, she was committed to what a piece was. “I don’t know what to do with this plastic circle,” she said. I didn’t say anything; my brain saw a cake tray, part of a space station, the base of a merry-go-round, the water wheel of a mill, recalling Upper Canada Village where we went together at the end of the summer. But this was her build, not mine. I’m a pretty firm believer in not overriding them in the early stages of the project — refining it and helping them execute on their vision, yes, but not to deliver the vision for them. And because my creative process is so different than hers, it was killing me not to suggest idea after idea to her.

Everything was taken at face value. Every piece was just itself, not a part of a possible whole, and I was beginning to see frustration knitting her brows together as she picked up, explored, and dismissed each piece. The one exception was the old computer parts — audio ports and chipboards from an old laptop that we took apart ages ago. They were clearly part of something, a fractional amount of an object that did things.

“I want to make a machine,” she said slowly, turning the chips in her hands. Then, gaining momentum, “something that can bring us chocolates or ice cream whatever we want. Something that can help us.”

“Cool!” I said. “Like a little robot?”

“Yes!”

I thought about the parts I had floating around. Motors, yes, batteries, wires, but nothing that would really do what she was talking about. “A model of a robot?” I ventured, hopefully, making a mental note to start saving up for Lego Mindstorms, or to get my butt in gear and commit to learning Arduino.

She nodded, and I breathed a sigh of relief, because no way were we going to be able to wrangle a robot out of what I had floating around in the shop. “An R2-D2,” she said, holding up the old vitamin bottle and tilting it back, matching R2’s posture when he’s wheeling about. I smiled. There it is.

As it turns out, all we needed was for the seal to be broken. The vision came immediately, and she raced to catch up to her rapidly-forming image of what the droid should look like, breathlessly dashing from one part to the next.

“He needs a head,” she said. I held up a top from an old can of spray paint. She shook her head, selected a plastic Christmas ornament, marked where she wanted it cut. “He needs legs,” she said, drawing the shape of them on a piece of card and cutting it out. I grabbed some old MDF and my littlest traced out two legs. I cut them out with a scroll saw. “These should go on his back – ” she held up two narrow computer chips – “and there should be three.” I helped her cut them and she glued everything in place.

We’ll see what this droid, C8-P3, looks like when he’s done. But in the meantime, he’s been a blast to make.

droid make kids craft hot glueAnd my dear eldest finally figured out what to make. It took a lot of literal, credulous thought to get to the point where she could make a creative leap and break away from the straightforward thought process that was holding her back. But you know what? Many roads lead to Rome, and I think we’ve found hers. Like so many things with my eldest, creativity can be a difficult process, in which her expectations of herself and the world around her don’t necessarily line up with reality. This was a nice low-stakes reminder for her that with patience and persistence, we can come to a place where things actually are as she wants them, if not as she envisioned them in the first place.

We’re more or less frozen indoors this weekend, but with this project on the go, I can’t say I’m particularly disappointed. In 10 minutes, her swimming lesson is over. Not long after that, we’re going to be back in the shop, and I can’t wait.

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