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 child, 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.
At 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.
The 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.
Then 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.