It’s been months since my last column because for a while now at bedtime we’ve been working on my son’s reading. My son just finished kindergarten and in kindergarten it’s all about reading in the way kindergarten used to be all about blocks and coloring and free play. My son is a bright kid and although he is one of the youngest in his class we never thought twice, assuming when it came time for reading he’d pick it up, as if all the storytelling we’d been doing since his birth would somehow translate to an effortless ability to “explode the code,” as his teacher calls it – and fall in love with words on the page.
It’s heartbreaking to watch your kid struggle. When things don’t come easily to him my son either gets defeated or defensive, hurling his body around or weaving some elaborate yarn or feigning exhaustion or otherwise trying to distract us from the task at hand – the book in front of him. He’s no dummy, he’s a Lego whiz, and it’s hard for him to watch other kids zoom through books thick asHarry Potter while he’s stuck slogging through flimsy I-Can-Reads. Unlike Legos, which can suck him into its colorful vortex for hours, reading does not come with a set list of instructions. Sure, there are rules to follow about digraph sounds and silent e’s, but they are not mapped out in a cheerful manual – plus, there are pesky exceptions. Instead, reading demands the delicate mental juggling of sight words with phonetics and punctuation while trying to make sense of it all: a tall order when you’re five.
I am not five and while I read okay, it’s the writing that still bogs me down. It, too, is not Lego building; rather, it is the kind of building that comes without a box or pictures or handy assembly guide. When nothing is definite and the imagination is infinite, when there are no steps to follow for the flawless construction of a water rescue helicopter, this uncertainty mixed with endless possibility is what’s thrilling and overwhelming and ultimately irresistible about the craft. I look at my son – sensitive, afraid of failure, leaning on his strengths instead of exercising weaknesses – and I see myself. How many manuscripts have I abandoned? Sure, most belong there in a drawer; however, some of them I left behind as soon as I began to flounder.
Both – learning to read and writing longer fiction – require some good self-wrangling ala The Monster at the End of This Book. For those unfamiliar with the classic Sesame Street meta-fiction, furry ol’ Grover is paralyzed by the prospect of facing what he fears will be a monster at the end of his story, so he rigs up all sorts of roadblocks involving bricks and glue and nails to try to prevent readers from drawing closer to the inevitable end, whereupon he discovers no one other than his vulnerable, true-blue self.
I have Grover strength anxiety about my writing. Sure, there are moments when I get lucky and lost in the process and don’t lift my head until it’s time to get the kids. Often, however, I am busy, very busy, constructing distance between this looming work and me. Checking email becomes researching the mating behaviors of sea horses. Lunchtime provides an opportunity to reorganize the fridge. The phone rings and it’s my mother, my sister, an editor – all with questions. While I’m at it I chop onions, load up the slow cooker, justify accordingly: leftovers for a week.
Another day I wake to Grover’s all-caps squawking: Don’t fill another page! Who do you think you are? Stop now, before more time is wasted! You are no spring chicken! If you keep writing – I told you to stop writing! – you will only discover how dreadful you are! Protect yourself from the pain and punishment! Have I mentioned that you’re no good?
It is a real winning attitude.
Thankfully, when it comes to my son I’m able to cheer him on like he’s The Little Engine That Could, assuring him that while it’s natural to want to jump ship or throw in the towel or any other number of empty clichés that doesn’t mean we do it. What we do is keep going. Practice. Every day this year he has practiced. Every day he has confronted his fears – of stumbling, failing, of all that’s unknown – and stuck out his grubby index finger and read. Sure, he bops on knees, karate-chops the couch, but then he returns to his book. For a while he’d plod through a page then throw up his arms and say, I have no idea what I’m saying. But lately, he’ll laugh or comment or ask a question. Words, sentences, paragraphs are coming together. We have an arrangement: after he reads for a spell we read longer books to him – right now, it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and it’s pure delight to watch a child fall into the rich embrace of narrative. He may not be reading it on his own yet but he is sleeping with it under his pillow and waking up in the morning crazed to know what will happen next to Charlie Bucket. Story has taken root.
Summer is here – a time for water balloons and bike rides – which means despite the long hours of daylight there will be fewer hours for writing. Which means it’s that much more important to follow my kid. To huff and puff and keep at it, keep turning pages, to not indulge the noisy voices of self-defeat. In a workshop Jennifer Egan recently said, “Give yourself permission to write badly.” We’ve all been there. Sooner or later we’ll see that our monsters, right, are no worse than whatever lies in the mirror.