Thursday, January 23, 2014

Alumni Voices: Jane O'Reilly

The Meaning of Adventure

I once heard a literature professor and self-proclaimed fairytale expert say humans are wired for story.

But I disagree. 

I believe we are wired for something more basic.

More instinctive.

And far more profound.

Since I graduated from Hamline, I’ve been a little lost without deadlines, packets and institutional

food. I worked for years to create a lifestyle free of full-time work and debt, so I would have more
time to write. But as soon as I had more time, energy waned and the well of ideas started to run dry. Just as it had when I teetered on the edge of adulthood, a great chasm appeared between what I wanted to do and what, it seemed, I could do.

Unlike my younger self who was forever focused forward, I took a look backward.

Where did the creativity go in that child who was always making something from junk found in the garbage? What happened to the spunk in that teenager who had so much to say she had to write 100 times that she would stop talking during class—and volunteered to do it again? And what squelched the daredevil in that college kid, travelling alone, who got into the private, 4-seater Cessna with a complete stranger for an aerial tour of the banana plantations of Honduras?

On a mission in search of my unadulterated self, I attended a lecture on children’s creativity given by Edith Ackerman. Edith is a sociologist who studied under Piaget and consulted for Lego for twenty years. She has both an amazing sense of style and a charming German accent.

She talked about child development and playthings and how we try to create home wherever we go just by bringing our computers or cell phones with us. She said walking toys are essential to a child’s development because they grant the freedom to go places and explore, while holding on to home.

When a man asked why his four-year-old granddaughter liked to play hide and seek, Edith stepped
away from the podium. “I am zo happy you azk me zis question,” she said, fists clenched in enthusiasm. She explained that the moment a child is born it is trying to get away—from the birth itself, to reaching, to crawling, walking, even running. And that’s just the first year of life.

Playing hide and seek is about getting away. About having an adventure. About getting lost.

And there is nothing more thrilling than to venture out,

get lost,

then found, and brought back home.

As a writer I couldn’t help but think, “That’s story in a three-act structure.”

We aren’t wired for story.

We’re wired for adventure.

Because we can speak and write, story is what we do with that adventure once we get home.

Since the dawn of language we have loved to tell our stories. In fact, we often like to tell other people’s stories. We tell them over and over again, recording the details, reliving the event through the emotions, so we can make sense of our world. Because it’s in our basic nature as curious human beings to venture out, explore, experiment— even suffer—and then make our way home, it’s no wonder we know when a story is a good one. A good story satiates on a gut level.

But in order to tell the story, first we must have the adventure. And the adventure must be greater than the story, so the words forever aspire to the story’s truth.

I have decided there is no such thing as writer’s block; there is only a lack of adventure. As writers, we need to put ourselves out on a limb on a regular basis. That limb can be physical, intellectual or spiritual, but it must stir us up inside because emotions are the key to every story; and emotions, like muscles, go weak when they lie fallow. 

With this thought in mind, I signed up for a collage class. It doesn’t sound like much of an adventure when I can still recall the thin plastic bags fluttering like membranes around the reams of Honduran bananas, but I hadn’t made anything with my hands in nearly twenty years, I didn’t know any of the other women, and the idea of an art class ignited a familiar fear of inadequacy.

Funny what can happen on a cloudy, Sunday afternoon, lost in thought, busy with scissors and a glue
stick, and finally taking a turn telling complete strangers the surprisingly deep meaning behind the sequins, falling stars that double as tears (sadness), the faded slide of my brother on his first day of school (pride), and the fortunes on the Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrappers (hope).

With a revived desire to make something out of nothing, “nothing” has become extraordinary. Empty toilet paper rolls, scraps of paper and packing materials suddenly have that same magical draw they did when I was six. As my bin of collage materials fills up, so does my mind—with a new idea  for a short story, the sparks of a YA novel, this essay, and, of all things, an original cartoon about dinosaurs.

The answer to lost creativity isn’t as simple as the more you do the more you can do. It’s the more you venture out, the more ways you see the world, the more you want to know, the more you surge with emotion, the more stories you have to tell.

But you don’t have to climb mountains or jump out of airplanes to find adventure, you just have to step across a threshold to a place—especially an emotional place— you’ve never been before.  Dangerous, risky or merely new, your adventure will not only be a story in itself, it will beget stories. 

Afterward, you simply have to find your way home to write them down.

Jane O'Reilly is a winter 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program.


  1. Jane's voice eloquently states the challenge we all have as story tellers. It reminded me of Mordicai Gerstein's new picture book, "T'he First Drawing." Jane and Mordicai know the importance of adventures, wandering, and sitting down.

  2. Jane, I love this post. I've always balked at the idea that the busier a person is, the more productive. Still, I find that the busier I am, the more productive. Despite this reality, I don't like the idea of driving myself like a crazy person only to have the possibility of finding inspiration. Thinking about busyness in terms of adventure and tapping into true emotion makes so much sense. As I read, I kept thinking... Of course. Yes, adventure makes so much sense. Plus, it's much more fun to go have adventures rather than just filling up our lives with more and more commitments... and much more inspiring! Thanks for sharing your insights with us.

  3. I concur with all of the above. Jane, this is a lovely reminder to unbuckle the restraints we keep on ourselves and go exploring. I think the idea that we are wired for story may be a corollary to being wired for adventure. The book "Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence," by Lisa Cron, bridges what you're saying with the next step, which is to actually write those stories when you return home. Interesting stuff to ponder! Thank you.

  4. Love, love, love this, Jane. Thank you!

  5. Wonderful post, Jane! Thank you!

  6. Jane!!! How delightful to read your words here, to remember your voice on our walks in Pennsylvania, to re-visit you in this essay, which is so aptly timed for my own life exactly at this moment! Only last week I have begun to meet with a small group of women on Thursdays. We are working our way through Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" and I wrote this very morning, before I read your essay, about many of these exact same things. Stepping out. Being afraid. And in so doing, stepping back in, to who we already are. You said it well, as you always do. So glad you shared, so glad I had this unexpected and lovely and extremely well-timed opportunity to reconnect with you!