I’m at that scary stage of writing. I have just started a new novel. I have envisioned the ending, the flow of the story past the inciting incident and turning points, and it’s time to write that first chapter.
Magic happens when those first words are placed on the page. I welcome them, and like a precious well flowing out of the mountain, thoughts arrive--usually in the middle of the night.
Fear rides on the tail of those ideas, though. What if the story concept isn’t strong enough? What if it collapses halfway through? Each of those early words carries uncertainties.
With these new first pages came the vision and memory of a precious song. More like a children’s fairy tale, it nevertheless took over the music charts when it was released.
It was to become my story.
Puff the Magic Dragon was released in 1963 and made it to #2 of Billboard’s Top 100. In the late 70s, Puff became animated in a series of television specials. Late last year, it was announced that Fox Animation will produce a live-action/animation film based on the song.
When a dragon is this special, it can, indeed, live forever—a picture book adaptation was released in 2007. (A great holiday gift for that special child in your life.)
Per Wikipedia, “The lyrics tell a story of the ageless dragon Puff and his playmate, Jackie Paper, a little boy who grows up and loses interest in the imaginary adventures of childhood and leaves Puff forever. (The line "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" is generally thought to imply only that "little Jackie Paper" grew up.) The story of the song takes place "by the sea" in the fictional land of "Honalee".”
The song was not without controversy. Some said the lyrics were about marijuana, Jackie “Paper” referred to the paper with which to roll marijuana cigarettes, and the “Dragon” referred to dragging on the joint to get high, all of which was vehemently denied by Leonard Lipton, who wrote the poem, and Peter Yarrow of the folk singing group, Peter, Paul and Mary, who put it to music and recorded it.
Back to the shaky beginning of my new novel. Deep in my insecurities during a recent sleepless night, that song came to me. It seemed so sad – how could it have become so popular, I wondered. As memory can sometimes do, I replayed the lyrics in my mind, and amazingly, they all came back to me.
Jackie Paper and his magic dragon traveled on a splendid “boat with billowed sail.” They shared fine adventures and a lifelong friendship, but, on a particularly “grey” day, Jackie outgrows his imaginary friend and moves on with life, leaving Puff alone. Unable to remain brave and continue his adventures, Puff slips sadly back into his cave.
In my midnight state of insomnia, it occurred to me: it’s not just Puff who suffers a “grey” existence when we stop imagining and creating. It’s the creator, and all those who enjoy the products of that creativity—poems, music, games, movies.
I believe “Puff” became so beloved a character because he celebrated the magic of creativity. It's no surprise to me that Jackie's last name is Paper. For me, it's a reminder of the paper on which we as novelists write.
There’s a special video of Peter, Paul and Mary performing the song live, complete with choir and an enthusiastic audience. Unfortunately, the audio breaks up here and there, but the video demonstrates the magic of Puff, and how his story has touched so many people. You can watch it (and sing along) at:
Don't buy into the idea that you can outlive the precious gift you have been given, or that you need to "grow up" and be "real."
You are very real, and beautiful.
Treasure your magic dragon, and may your writing bring you great joy!