The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bird by Bird

I have entered a very painful time in my relationship with my son. I knew it would happen someday, but I thought I had until he was at least 13 before I was totally annoyed with him and he hated me. Apparently, with the right impetus, the schism can happen when your child is as young as six. And that impetus for us is writing stories together.

It's not like we are sitting down and engaging in fun and free writing where anything is possible and the entire English language is at our service (or not if we don't want it). Rather, every week, he has ten disparate spelling words that he must weave into a coherent narrative. Couple that task with shaky handwriting skills at best and a patchy knowledge of English conventions and you have a definite challenge for any six-year-old.

The challenge for me is not letting him know just how thin my patience gets when we are doing this part of his homework. That's not easy: he's freaking annoying as hell.

Composing a narrative should be easy for him. He can tell stories like no one's business--most beginning with "When I was three"--yet when it comes to actually writing these stories down, he's suddenly pen-tied (oh no, not tongue-tied because even as he whines that he has nothing to say, he manages to keep up a nearly constant patter of talk that in no way uses a single spelling word) and completely unable to just. sit. still.

(Like Moby) I try. I bribe. I yell. I threaten. I look at each spelling word and find connections to our life ("Look honey, 'whale' is one of your words. We live on a bay that is full of whales. Would you like to write about that?" "Nah." "Okay. Here are some pictures of whales on the Internet. Oh look, the blue whale is the biggest animal ever. Even bigger than dinosaurs. Would you like to write about that?" "Nah."). I even (gulp) make connections to his video games ("We can write a story about Sonic and a whale." "Nah, I want to write about Mario and a whale" "[Ecstatic that we are getting somewhere] Okay, let's do that!" "Nah.").

Nothing works. In fact, the more I try to engage his writerly self, the more active his body becomes in a Tourette's-like litany of wiggles and twitches and rolling and pencil tossing and exorcist-like head rotations, searching for any distraction at all ("Mom, why is there a turtle in that picture? Mom, look at that bird out there on the house. Mom, check out how my pencil rolls farther than this cookie."). One second he writes a single letter (poorly) and the next he is doing a three-legged down dog.

Nothing. Works. And then I lose it. I leave the room (instantly he drops to the floor and starts playing with the cat, singing his spelling words instead of writing them down), and I start screaming in my head:
Why doesn't he love writing like I do?
Is he even my son?
He hates salsa too, maybe there was a switch at the hospital.
Why won't he stop moving?
Is he going to be a dumb jock?
I am so just going to give up.
It's not worth it.
Let him be a math nerd.
I don't care.
I won't share my books anymore with him, see how he feels then.
How is his writing process different from mine?

I stop there.

How is his writing process different from mine?

I get ready to write every morning. Then I wander the house, call a friend, write a sentence or two, fold laundry, do dishes, make tea, put on some music, check to see if the chickens have laid any eggs, write another sentence or so, delete it all, dance a little to a really good song, check Twitter, etc . . . I may fake a bit more purpose than holding a pencil in my mouth and barking like a dog, but my writing process isn't really all that different from my son's six-year-old version.

Ultimately, we are both trying to accomplish the same thing: we are seeking order in the colorful, butterfly-winged words that skitter and flit and zoom and swoop constantly in our heads. All our movement and procrastination is an attempt to shake these words into a semblance of form without being overwhelmed by their sheer power--to pin them down in a way that makes sense on the confines of 70% recycled, brown, lined paper.

I loosened up. The story about Mario feeding a singing whale a cube of chopped old and new fish got written. Peace reigned again in our house.

Until next week at least.

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