Monday, December 3, 2007

Go Fish

by Lynn York

I don’t know about you other mothers of school-aged children out there, but I am possibly a little too involved with my children’s school work. On Sunday, I spent a long day with my son prompting, cajoling, querying, editing and biting my lip while he wrote a ten page history paper. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph—it was excruciating. Every hour or so, he would stop and downsize his margins. Welcome to the club, son, I wanted to say. Writing is hard.

Writing is probably harder for my son than most. A brilliant kid with amazing insights, my son has a brain wired like a Def Leppard soundboard. He is so dyslexic that he cried when his first grade teacher put the words “saw and “was” in front of him. “It’s not fair, Mom, that they made two words so exactly the same,” he told me. He was right, it’s not fair. So I hovered last Sunday—making him tea, suggesting a transition here and there. I did a little literary cheerleading (“Great verb! Great verb!”). And as I have a million times over the past 10 years, I watched him struggle to get his ideas onto paper.

He was writing about a photograph of Confederate dead taken at the Battle of Chancellorsville. He had researched the exact troop movements, the battle plans, and the generals involved. He spent hours staring at the photograph which, he decided, had a kind of terrible beauty. He found a quote from the photographer about how his work was meant to be a commentary on the horror of war. My son, a member of the YouTube generation that can call up a clip of any atrocity on a laptop, connected mightily to this man’s mission. By midmorning, he was so full of ideas and Darjeeling, his head quivered like he had a bunch of fish swimming around in it.

If you write, you know this feeling. You work and you work, you research, you do exercises, you stare out the window, and then, in a flash, there it is—the whole beautiful piece of writing floats across your brain. You rush to your desk and try to transfer it into the real world of words. When this happens to me, I am usually thwarted by the second sentence. On a good day, I get a paragraph or two before a critical thought or a gnarly syntax problem interrupts the flow. I continue, but the vision—the goldfish—swims away. By now, I know I can’t wait for it to come back. I can fiddle with my margins, drink more tea—on and on, but eventually, I have to move forward, slug it out, write my pages. If I do this, I will finish the chapter, the section, and before I know it, the next book.

Yes, my son, I wanted to say, I am familiar with every step of this grim experience. We parents are full of experience, and we’re full of analogies about swimming goldfish. We like to share this wisdom with our children. On this particular occasion, I refrained. I sat across the room pretending to read the newspaper. I reflected on my own recent efforts to get my third novel written. Despite the great plans I have for this book—the interesting characters, the ambitious structure, the architectural plot—I end my days with pages that fall short of my ideas. If I keep writing, the pages will improve. The final book will approach the shiny flash of my first ideas, and in some ways, it may outgrow them. In other ways, for me, my work will always fall short. I don’t consider this failure as much as propellant, the thing that moves me on to the next project.

I am not about to share all this writerly angst with my teenage son on a nice Sunday morning. For one thing, he has enough angst already. For another, writing is a solitary pursuit. It’s one of those things—like showering, dating, and taking SATs—that a parent can’t do for her teenager.

I peek around the lifestyle section. Remember how perfect and beautiful a baby looks when he’s sleeping? This is the teenaged equivalent: my son smiles, lifts his hands to the keyboard, and begins to slug it out.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is and for her writing group,


A Good Blog Is Hard to Find said...

Gorgeous essay, Lynn! You write so beautifully about motherhood. Almost makes me not want to sing my happy spinster song. ;)

Pamela Duncan said...

Gorgeous essay, Lynn! You write so beautifully about motherhood. Almost makes me not want to sing my happy spinster song. ;)

barbara.bergin said...

Loved your essay. But what I want to ask is how do you define “school aged” children? Because as a mother of two college-aged children who currently go to the University of Texas, I can tell you the interest and involvement, the tooth grinding and worry never end. I think it is especially escalated in this day of internet access. It only takes a click of a button for them to send you a copy of their term paper to review/critique. The fact that I’m just down the street from them really doesn’t matter. I’m glad to hear another mother/writer sharing her experiences.

Barbara Bergin
author of "Endings"

Lynn York said...

Reviewing my kids' college essays? Reliving the grind of my undergraduate years without any of the extracurricular fun? It makes me tired just to think about this possibility.
On the flip side, I'll admit that I still require my mother's counsel (though thankfully not her editing) on a regular basis.