“Mom, can you look at this and tell me what you think?”
My 15 year old son burst into my home office, without knocking, and thrust a short stack of notebook paper at me. On it was his neat, small handwriting. “It’s just a rough draft. Really rough. Like, first draft. I just wrote it and it’s not even finished or anything yet, so ignore all the spelling and stuff.”
I scanned the top page. A few things had been scratched out, but mostly it looked clean. How can a truly rough, handwritten draft be this clean? I’d seen this before from him, however, back when he was allowing me to try to help him on some of his essays in 5th grade. He was now suffering from intermittent testosterone poisoning, which translated into “Leave me alone. Stay out of my life. Don’t talk to me. I don’t need a mother anymore.” I was therefore surprised and honored that he was actually asking me to look at something he did.
“What is this?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Just a story.”
This time his shrug turned into a squirm. His eyes glanced around my office, avoiding me.
“No. It’s just…it’s a story I’ve been thinking of writing.”
Dangerous territory, I realized. He had put me in the position of an elephant stomping through a minefield.
Writing stories is like painting with your own blood. You are making art of your essence and, even if others don’t realize it, they are judging your soul. My son endured a difficult childhood. In his adolescence, he was still struggling with many issues that had been imposed on him by his imperfect parents. I wanted to encourage and uplift him in every way I could, but I couldn’t lie or pretend to like something I didn’t. Especially with literature, my passion drives me to tear apart anything less than great. I get so caught up in the story and the writing that I forget to be tactful.
My son was always a voracious reader and had become a good essay and report writer for school. He had also started posting comments on YouTube videos and in chats online – mostly inflammatory stuff he’d likely regret later, but he loved the outraged responses he would get from his intelligent, factually supported but crazy sounding statements. He hadn’t written any fiction before, however – at least nothing he’d show me. On top of that, he had been viciously critical of my stories when I shared them with my kids. It wasn’t constructive criticism, which I would have loved. Rather, he claimed to hate them all, but not for any specific reason that I could fix. He just declared them stupid. It seemed like he was trying to be hurtful, especially when I later caught him racing with his siblings to be the first to read the next chapter. It had to have crossed his mind that, by asking me to reread something of his, he had put me in a position where I could have retaliated in kind. Of course, I wouldn’t – and he probably knew that.
He also knew that I never read the first drafts of other writers I had agreed to help. I demanded well edited, later drafts that the writers identified as their best efforts. I’m as constructively critical of them as I wish people would be with me, but it is useless effort for first drafts. I believe authors need to know what they are trying to express clearly, before I can help them say it in the best, possible way.
I was tempted to tell my son to finish writing the story, prove to me that he had edited it at least ten times, and get it to the point where he felt ready to publish it, then bring it to me. I was burning with curiosity, however, so this time I made an exception.
It didn’t take me long to read. It was only one scene and he had hooked me well at the opening line. I was intrigued by the characters, the situation, the tension between the young man (older than my son) and his father. I didn’t even see any grammar or spelling mistakes. It was better than any first draft I had ever written. I saw signs of real writing talent in it. It was, however, only one scene.
“Where’s the rest?” I asked, looking vainly at the back of his pages in case he had hid the next part there.
“That’s all I got. I want to know if it is any good before I continue.”
“It’s excellent,” I told him, sincerely. “It has great potential. I want to know what happens next.”
He began to tell me.
I should have stopped him. Telling a story one intends to write is absolutely against my LAW! I know, well enough, that when someone tells a story, the urge to write it too often disappears. I know it isn’t just me, because it has happened with other writers I’ve tried to help. If you only want to tell me a story, I can enjoy that greatly, but if you plan to write the story, maybe even publish it, then you have to write it for me to read, NOT tell me. Period. Yet, he had me hooked so deeply I really wanted to know what happened next. Also, he was sharing with me again, as he used to when he was younger, before the “Get away from me, I don’t need a mother,” phase kicked in. I shouldn’t have, but I let him talk.
I loved the story he was developing, which seemed to have a lot of real promise. Eager to read more, I urged him to write it. He never wrote another word for it.
What he did do was start puzzling out a completely different story. He kept talking with me about that, for months. This time, for his sake, I did my best to insist that he write it, rather than tell me. He refused, claiming he couldn’t decide where to begin.
“You started telling me about it at the point you should probably start writing it,” I said. “You can always change it later, if you think you can do better, so it doesn’t really matter where you start. Always write the first draft with the idea that you’ll rewrite it later. Trying to be perfect with it only crushes creativity.”
He shot me a skeptical look, almost, but not quite, saying out loud, “Yeah? What do you know?” Then he saw my expression. He realized I was waiting for him to say aloud what we both knew he was thinking. He wisely reconsidered.
Every so often, he will tell me about a new twist in that story he is still considering writing someday. It breaks my heart because it has now been over a year and he hasn’t written a single word of it yet. I’m losing hope.
He got distracted for a while by Engineering classes and Engineering club in his high school. For a wondrous period, he seemed to always be tinkering to build something new and interesting. He’d come home delighted, to tell me how well one of his constructions had performed under various tests. He talked about becoming an Engineer someday. I was excited by his excitement. Then he suddenly stopped caring. He stopped doing his homework. He barely passed his last Engineering class and took no more after that.
Now his voice has finished breaking. It has settled into a lovely, resonate, masculine voice and he is playing with singing into a phone app he found to see how low he can go. I hear those beautiful, low tones and think he could, with some training, be an excellent bass. I would love to help him get that training, but he doesn’t want it. He’s just playing with his voice…and my heart. I wonder if he knows how frustrating it is for me to see all the potential in him that he is wasting.
A part of me really doesn’t care what he chooses to do with his life, as long as it is legal and moral. I just want him to be happy. I’m sure I’m a typical parent in this aspect. To see all the potential in him – to write, to design and create, to sing and probably much more of which I am still unaware – all of it taken for granted and ignored… (Sigh).
Perhaps it is a curse to be blessed with so many options. If he had only been potentially excellent at one thing, without hope of doing anything else well, he might have thrown himself into that single ability and could be developing it to greatness already. Sadly, for him, he’s got too many talents, too many interests, and no need to choose. If he doesn’t find something he can put his heart into, it will be truly tragic.