My Daughter Reminds Me Why I Write (and Why She Doesn’t)


October 20th was National Writing Day, which many teachers celebrated on twitter and blogs by sharing why they write. I couldn’t quite finish this by then, but I’d been thinking about that why-i-write question ever since I had a conversation with my 25-year-old daughter who professes to hate writing.

This doesn’t mean that she can’t write. She wrote a great college application essay that helped get her into every school she applied to, and over the summer she crafted a knock-out cover letter that helped her land a job in Philadelphia as an assistant buyer for Urban Outfitters. But when I reminded her of this, she just shook her head no. “Maybe you’re like Dorothy Parker,” I suggested, “who said, ‘I hate writing. I love having written'” but again she said no. Then she heaved a sigh and said she was sorry if I was disappointed by that.

I rushed in then to assure her I wasn’t. The fact is I’m thrilled she’s found something she loves that she can make a living from, which took me years to do. But I am saddened that she hates writing, especially because she didn’t always. Like me, she wrote stories as a jaguar-girlchild, such as “Jaguar Girl,” about a girl who gets lost in the Amazon and is befriended by a young jaguar who shows her how to live in the jungle. It’s in my basement in a box filled with other stories and drawings by my daughter. But when I mention “Jaguar Girl” to her, she just shrugged in a way that let me know that the story’s more important to me than to her.

I, on the other hand, lovingly recall some of the stories I wrote at that age. One was about a lonely penny that kept being passed from one empty pocket to another, until it was dropped into a child’s Unicef box on Halloween, where it found a home and a purpose. I also vividly remember trying to write a mystery with my best friend who, like me, was a Nancy Drew lover. We began with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” which we didn’t know was considered a cliche. To us, it created just the right mood of suspense and intrigue, especially when we added a dimly lit lamppost beneath which stood a man in a trench coat.

What I remember most from those early forays into writing was the satisfaction it offered: the satisfaction of finding the perfect ending for my poor, lonely penny and of using words to create a dark, sinister mood. In fact, I’m not sure my best friend and I got any further than the opening, nor do I remember if anyone ever read my penny story. The satisfaction was in the creation, not the aftermath. And that’s something I can still feel whenever I give myself permission to play around with language for the sheer delight of pinning down a moment or a sensation in precise, evocative words.

joan-didionAt some point, however, I started craving more than the joy of creation. I wanted what I wrote to be read and, even more than that, admired. Even now, saying that so baldly makes me cringe, as if wanting to be admired is shameful. But I began to recognize what Joan Didion wrote in her own great take on “Why I Write,” that, for me, writing is “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act… an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

What I wanted, in effect, was to have a voice, which I didn’t always feel I had, especially in high school when I entered a new school half-way through ninth grade when groups and cliques had already formed—and seemed, to me, impenetrable. And while I did make friends, I was one of those students who rarely spoke in class but was well-behaved and got good enough grades not to worry about. But when my tenth grade teacher invited anyone who was interested to write a short story for Scholastic’s Writing Award contest, I hunkered down and wrote one.

spin-art-sampleThe story was about two suburban New York girls who had a crush on the man who ran the spin-art booth at the Central Park Zoo. They saw him as a grand, romantic figure, the only real person in a world of phonies and people preoccupied with status—until, that is, they saw him scream at a child who’d knocked over some paint. Then they had to acknowledge that they’d been deluded; he was simply a character they’d created from their own idealistic longings.

My teacher could submit two stories, and she was considering mine. But first she needed to ask me a question: Had I really written it? Seems she couldn’t quite match the voice in the story with the meek, quiet girl in her class. And even after I said I had, she felt compelled to tell me that if she or Scholastic found out I hadn’t, I’d be disqualified and suspended.

I assured her once again that I had, at which point she handed me the contest’s entry form (where she’d already typed in my name, age, and address) and had me sign on the line that attested to the story’s originality. Then she signed it herself and sent the story off. Unfortunately, I didn’t win a prize, but the moment was significant nonetheless. I felt recognized and valued for my take on the world—Didion’s “writer’s sensibility”—which was what I’d wanted. But when I think back to my daughter, I’m not sure that, when it came to writing, she felt that much in school.

By third grade, she had weekly writing homework, which was assigned on Monday but not due till Friday. Most came with a prompt, which in those pre-Common Core days, were mostly about her personal experiences, which she had no interest in. In fact, we both came to dread the Thursday nights before the homework was due, when there often were battles and tears. But occasionally there’d be an open choice week when she could write whatever she wanted, and on those weeks, she’d dive into writing on Monday, creating stories about mermaids and unicorns that rarely made it to the bulletin board.

wild-horsesThen there was fourth grade when she had to write her first research report on an animal of her choice. She picked wild horses and jumped into the research with energy and passion, but the writing itself was painful. She was expected to write in paragraph form, with separate paragraphs about the animal’s habitat, adaptions, reproduction, etc. Perhaps if she’d been writing a booklet, with illustrations on each page, she might have been more engaged. But she found the writing so hard to do that I went to her teacher and asked if she could use a different structure, writing something, say, more like a Byrd Baylor reverie than a Seymour Simon book. The answer was no, and when I asked why, I was told that organization was the most important aspect of writing, and she had to learn it.

It’s no surprise that, by high school, English was her least favorite subject—though she did get an A for creating a playlist for each scene in Euripides’ Medea. And she has found a strong, unique voice in the medium of her choice that people she respects want to hear, which is ultimately what’s important. But still, I’m haunted by that word hate. How many other children, I wonder, might come to hate writing as well because they never experience what made me want to write: not just the pleasure in creating something out of words, but the sense that my perceptions and perspective were valued? I actually shudder to think. So let’s remember why we write: not just to master a set of skills but to give voice to our unique take on a text, a topic, an issue, the world.


26 thoughts on “My Daughter Reminds Me Why I Write (and Why She Doesn’t)

  1. So many children love to tell and write stories and like myself as a child, when I got to school I was told my spelling was terrible, my handwriting was wrong, and I had to do it their way. My writing became something I did secretly, because it wasn’t the way I was told it should be. I hope that we as educators can allow children to love to write, share their voices and not box them into a formula or let spelling interfere with the storyteller within them.

    • I wonder how many secret writers there are out there–and readers, for that matter? Possibly hundreds of thousands. Glad to know, though, that you’re in a district that (from my experience at least) believes children should have a voice and a choice, not only of what they write about, but the structure they use to convey it.

  2. Writing is “not just the pleasure in creating something out of words, but the sense that my perceptions and perspective were valued.” I’ve needed a lot of experiences and reflection around writing to get to that understanding. When I was in school, I only shared my thoughts (on the page or otherwise) when asked. Never by choice. I could do it, but like your daughter, I did not like it. Perhaps I did not have the right audience or means to communicate, but mostly I didn’t think I had much to say. I lacked voice. Children (and adult) writers not only need to have a meanigful audience and way to communicate, but also feel they have a message worthy of commentary and critique. This is big work that takes time and a conscious effort to develop. May our children have that time, so their voices can be heard. If I can grow to want to writing, I have hope for our kids.

    • I feel really fortunate that I had a few teachers and mentors in my life who saw something in me I didn’t, as I was also one of those kids who never raised my hand in class and only shared when I was forced to. But here’s what I’m wondering: I want to think that we all have something to say if we’re given enough time and the right circumstances, which includes being listened too and taken seriously–and perhaps finding the right medium. And I feel myself resisting the idea that you didn’t have much to say but were responding to the circumstances you found yourself in. I guess I want to think that because, if we try, we can change the circumstances–and perhaps shift away from thinking we need to have a worthy message in order to have a voice to thinking that the world needs our voices because we’re all richer for that.

    • And of course as soon as I hit the send key, I found myself thinking of Opal School’s session last year at NCTE where we sat together. They make it about the importance of every voice, without bringing in questions of worthiness–and the kids come to feel like their thinking is worthy because it’s documented and celebrated and taken seriously. But . . . NCTE? Would love to be your session mate again if you’re going!

      • Oh yes, it’s all in the circumstances. The way children see the world is not heard or valued. That in itself Is a loss for everyone. Celebrate their writing and feed the desire. And yes to NCTE!! Can’t wait to see you!

  3. I’ve come to believe that there no children out there who “hate to write”, there are only teachers who make them hate to do so. We take away choice and the option to discover voice…how can writing be fun without either?

    • I agree completely. That doesn’t mean everyone has to love writing or feel like it’s the best way to convey whatever it is they have to convey. But there’s lots of room between and hating and love to feel comfortable (and maybe even enjoy) writing. On another note, just saw you’ll be presenting at NCTE! Will try my best to get to your session!

  4. oh, Vicki!
    I could substitute son for daughter although I can’t name that many writing pieces! I agree with Julieanne about this . . . Writing is “not just the pleasure in creating something out of words, but the sense that my perceptions and perspective were valued.”

    There are so many times when student voices are SILENCED and therefore choice is totally removed. I don’t understand who would REALLY want to read 100 carbon copies of the same idea. What does cookie cutter writing really show? It shows as Tara said that their is no “choice ang the option to discover voice” has been taken away.

    Unfortunately this is happening in more classrooms in more locations than we would ever like to admit! Passionate writing should be a basic civil right! ❤

    • Do you know the book The 9 Rights of Every Writer edited by Vicki Spandel. I love their rights but definitely think passionate writing could be added to make a nice, round ten! And I’m so hoping we hear a lot about passion in the context of advocacy at NCTE!

      • I love that book and it’s one that went right back on the shelf when I was thinking of “weeding”. We so need choice and Joy so that students can write passionately. See you in 2 weeks!

  5. “The satisfaction was in the creation.” Yes! Giving ourselves and our students “permission to play around with language for the sheer delight of pinning down a moment or a sensation in precise, evocative words” is the only way to find that elusive voice. Thank you for this beautiful reminder about our real goal!

    • Thanks, Catherine. This suddenly reminded me of working with a magnificent teacher and writer Isoke Nia (who you might know from the Project years ago) and conferring with one of her students about his personal narrative. He was writing about a trip to the dentist, and Isoke and I who were conferring together, suggested that he really let it rip and try to describe in all the scary and gory detail how awful the visit was. And, oh, what a voice he found! He was brilliantly wicked and funny. And here’s what else is funny: this was almost thirty years ago and I even remember his name, Stanley, as well as his memorable piece.

      • Isn’t it amazing how certain students stay with us for so long? There are several students whose writing I remember vividly. Helping students find their voice is one of the things I love most about teaching writing!

  6. This post will linger with me. It has me thinking again (and worrying) about the long-term consequences of the limitations we impose on our students’ writing. In particular, I worry about the year-long genre restrictions that come along with a set curriculum that must be taught “with fidelity.” New to teaching fourth grade, I have much to learn about that curriculum and about how to nurture passion and choice within it. There has to be a way, right? Your post reminds me that finding this way is work that cannot be postponed until I’m more comfortable and confident within the framework of the curriculum. The idea that a student will leave my class not liking, or even hating, writing horrifies me.

    • I so know the horror you’re talking about. And I so hope we reach a point when the powers that be recognize that we need to teach and be faithful to children and how they best learn, not curriculum and programs. But I love that you’re committed to not waiting until you’re comfortable with the curriculum but are looking to find ways within it to nurture passion and voice. It’s like realizing that we don’t necessarily need to learn the rules of grammar before we break them. We can actually learn through the breaking–sometimes in even more powerful and meaningful ways.

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  8. This post makes my heart ache. I wonder at your love of writing. I’m more a love having written kind of writer. But I am still growing in that regard. My own daughter’s writing life was lifted high by a wide writing teacher (Faynessa!) and then crushed with the critical red pen of a high school English teacher whose comments and pen hit at the writer herself. My heart broke that day as I watched my child – who had been certain her work was her best – had her hopes and confidence dashed at the hand of her teacher.
    What power our pen wields. Had her “perceptions and perspective” been valued, perhaps she’d have been ready for a red pen editor. To be certain neither she nor I will forget how Faynessa and that English teacher made her feel. May we always lift them up! People are what matter. The writing follows.

    • Between NCTE & Iceland (where I was for the long Thanksgiving weekend) I seem to have missed this, Dayna, but your daughter’s story speaks volumes and how aware we have to be of our power as teachers. In my book it’s simply not okay to destroy young writers. It doesn’t build grit or motivation, it simply leaves them demoralized. That doesn’t mean pumping kids up with false praise, which I don’t think is helpful. But I have to believe there were things she did well in what she’d turned in–passion in her topic, belief in her ideas, unique and novel words and phrases–if for no other reason that she felt good about it. So I hope she’s able to channel Faynessa when she sits down to write and hears Faynessa’s voice in her head, not that awful red pen. (And if you see Faynessa these days, please tell her I miss her!)

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  10. Good post. I want my writing to make an impact as well. I have tried writing a few times in the past, and then stopped, came back, stopped, you get the idea. After a while something would still draw me back. I want to keep going this time, but I am in that . . . (oh how should I describe it) . . . meandering, mostly quiet place where I am trying to find my niche and wondering how I can be noticed. It is not about ego. Instead, I want what I write to matter.

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