Me, My Boy, and the Words on the Page

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I wrote my first story in the fourth grade, in the back seat of the “new bus” (at that time, my rural Catholic school had two bus routes; I was on number 2) with my second cousin. We knelt on the floor and used the vinyl seats as a desk. We were writing fan fiction. Mine was on Annie and hers, E.T.

Once I got started, I never stopped. Poetry, journal entries, essays, and stories. Stories about princesses and ice skaters, even (during my first journey through the Lord of the Rings) cough-cough epic fantasy. Not until I was out of grad school did I realize the epic length of these so-called “stories” meant I was actually writing novels. Very bad novels, with head hopping and “telling” and immature, annoying characters and pages upon pages of clichés. But novels nonetheless.

I started learning the rules, and then I set out to write a brand new story, something not a derivative of earlier ideas. I learned a lot with that novel. The next was a complete reworking of an older work. That became The Wine Widow, which placed third in the Rising Star contest last year. But there are some problems with that manuscript, too, and while the problems percolate in my mind (for months…and months) I started a new book.

Writing this book has been exhilarating and terrifying. In the past, my novels have evolved from a simple plot to something nuanced and layered. When the structure’s already in place, it’s fun to play with it and weave the new layers in. This time, though, I have all those nuances in mind at the start. Let me tell you, that kind of novel drafting is a much different beast. Really, really intimidating.

Especially when you have half a dozen other deadlines–ones that actually pay–hanging over your head. I’d all but abandoned the novel for the first part of January, and when I was grocery shopping a couple of weeks ago I spent the drive thinking about how I could possibly get it all done. The answer came in a whisper: Half an hour a day. Take half an hour a day for the novel.

So I did. And it is amazing. Late last week, things coalesced and I fell in love with my characters. It was amazing.

Miscellaneous July 018 smallWhat does this have to do with “my boy”?

Well, Alex brought home an essay assignment from school over the weekend. Now, Alex can play for hours, coming up with scenarios for superhero characters. He’s endlessly creative with building Lego constructions and showing us what characters might be able to do using them. He designs starships, and the child can make paper sculptures like nothing I’ve ever seen before. At the moment, he wants to be a priest, a Lego designer, or do something with the movies, like art.

But you ask him to take any of what he sees in his mind and put it on paper, and he shuts down.

Now, I’m fully aware that art and words are separate charisms, but for me all creative ventures have always been bound together. Not so for Alex, my mini-me. He spent forty-five minutes sitting in front of the computer on Sunday afternoon, and he came away with three sentences. Three really terrible, awful, horrible, no-good sentences, filled with generalities and platitudes.

By far NOT his most elaborate or impressive paper sculpture work, but the one I have a picture of.

By far NOT his most elaborate or impressive paper sculpture work, but the one I have a picture of.

And as the words churned and screamed in mad circles in my brain, such that I kept having to abandon tasks in process to get the ideas down into Scrivener, I felt so bad for him. And I knew I had zero ability to help him bridge the gap. Because I just don’t get it.

I did try, but in the end it took Christian—who says he’s always struggled with writing—to guide Alex through the transformation of thoughts to sentences and the transfer of sentences to paper. (It’s worth a public acknowledgment that Christian is far, far better at helping Julianna with math homework than I am, too. Apparently he’s the one with the “helping with homework” charism.)

I feel bad for my boy, because I know there is more than a decade of writing to come for him. Writing for assignments was frequently boring and uninspiring, but still, it was writing. Poor Alex…because the way he inflects that italics is quite different.

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