A notice came home a few weeks ago: “This year, all third, fourth and fifth graders will become published authors!” My first, and admittedly petty, thought: Oh, great, rub it in, why don’t you? My second thought: What? They want the parents to type out the 8-page stories? But underneath it all, I found the idea sweet, and fun, and creative. The children are to write at least 8 pages (in Word, the notice to parents pointed out rather pointedly) and submit an accompanying 8 pages of illustrations. The books will be printed and bound, many copies made, and there will be an author party. Well, I guess if I can’t quite plan my own yet, I should enjoy my daughter’s!
I’ve watched K agonize over this project for over five weeks now. I supposed “watched” is misleadingly passive a word for what I’ve done. Until today, I tried to limit my involvement to just making sure she paces her work, prodding her a few times a week to work on a page of writing or a drawing. Each time she’s groaned, sighed, reluctantly schlumped or stomped up the stairs after trying to find various lame excuses which don’t fly with a mother who would leap at the suggestion that she hole herself up in her room and work on her story.
The project is due in a few days, and I’ve set an earlier deadline—three days earlier, to be precise—for her to turn over her handwritten pages to me so that I’m not stuck typing them up at the eleventh hour. Some might say I’m projecting my own odd characteristics on my child, forcing her to complete her work faster than required by her teacher. I was, after all, the exceedingly odd college student who turned in her Master’s thesis a full week early so that it wouldn’t ruin my Spring break. Maybe I am projecting, but since I’m the parent overseeing this project, and since it requires my involvement at the end, I believe this is my prerogative.
Yesterday, she seemed to enjoy her writing time, and returned from her room smiling. I decided it was safe to poke a bit. What type of story is it? She looked at me blankly. You know, I continued, you were telling me about different types of books: historical fiction, informational, fantasy, all those categories. What is yours? She shrugged. I dunno. Just a story. Ok, I thought, that’s fine. Spurn categorization. Good for you. It’s all just a marketing gimmick to figure out where on the shelves—assuming there are still shelves– to place your book. I decided against asking if she’d thought about the plot ahead of time, outlined the scenes, developed her characters. Is she an outliner or a pantser? Good grief, I said to myself, she’s 8 years old! Just let her write whatever.
But then today, as she was sitting next to me working on a detailed drawing that involved jellyfish, octopuses and bookshelves, I suggested she hand me the first few page so I could start typing. She did so happily, and I started the transcription.
A fish’s new friend
Once upon a time there was a fish. Her name was Splish. She was blue and she had black fins. She was a very lonely fish. She did not have any friends or siblings.
One day, she went for a little swim. She went to the fish playground. She saw another fish about her age. “Can I play with you?” But the fish ignored her. So she played by herself. When she went home she had a very boring lunch.
The story goes on in this manner. Prominently featured are dinners, snack times and breakfasts, with dutiful clearing of the table by the fish. A potential new dolphin friend. Then there is “open circle” and a discussion, in this underwater class, of “calm bubbling.” There is reading comprehension and math workshop, and another snack, and several recesses, and play dates between the fish and her dolphin friend, and so on, through the week, until we get to Saturday.
K has about two more pages to go, and she’s stuck. “How about introducing a problem?” “Huh?” she asks, with that blank look and way that some third graders have, I’ve discovered, of seemingly turning off their brain. “Well, you know, something that makes the reader think oh no, what’s going to happen?” She informs me that she doesn’t like “books like that.” I say that those are the types of books many people like to read, and besides, I’ve seen her read lots of mysteries, and aren’t there problems and clues and foreshadowing in books like that? “Well, I’m not good at writing,” she says. “I’m not a writer.” “You’re writing, aren’t you?” I say. Helpful, no? She shrugs. “But it’s not my job to be a writer. Like you are.” I stifle the urge to point out that it’s not my job, either, and that I don’t yet earn money from my writing. Because I do like to think of her thinking that it IS my job.
What I do respond is that I don’t want to hear her saying “I’m not good at” something. So you want me to lie? She asks. Sigh. They’re so literal at this age. I said no, I just want you to try to believe it. Well, I don’t, she said, and jabbed her marker at a pink fish. The problem with that attitude, I said as gently as I could, is that you need to believe in yourself so that others believe in you. “You believe in me,” she said. Again with the irrefutable logic. “Yes, of course I do. Because I know you well. I know what you are capable of.”
We had veered off course. I left it at that. I’m back to just trying to make sure she gets the assignment done, to make sure I’m not typing it up at 11 pm the night before it’s due. I don’t want to open that can of worms any wider. Belief in oneself as a writer, and how much it affects others’ belief in us. Giving oneself permission to not do a good job, to write something that is not perfect (as Janet Burroway so artfully expresses in the first chapter of her book Writing Fiction which appears, inexplicably, to be out of print). An eight year old need not trouble herself with these questions. An eight year old should just write her story about a friendship between a fish named Splish and a dolphin named Splash, and their non-adventures in ocean school in between mealtimes and snack times. At least they know to clear the table when they are done.