Lesson for a Guilty Mom

It is a good thing I am old enough to not take it personally because the comments on this essay are all over the place. It is interesting to see what people pick up on and what they don’t. In an 800-word article, you can only scratch the surface. I wrote a whole manuscript expanding on this, and still, it is not enough.

I suppose I should be glad that it pushed some buttons. It is like lancing a boil– but wow! Look out! You are going to get hit with some nasty stuff.

 

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What the “Wr” in “Write”’ Really Means

My son is a genius at spotting patterns and systems in sports and economics, but the rules for spelling the English language just never stuck with him, although he did admit that during most of his elementary years, he didn’t try very hard, so there’s that, too.

In my efforts to find ways to help him—we homeschooled so that was my job—I read that all the words that start with “wr” have some sort of twisting action in them. There was more truth to that than I realized at the time.

Bear with me while I compile a list of “wr” words from my thesaurus (Am I the only one who prefers a thesaurus to a dictionary? But that is a different topic):

Wrangle: quarrel, scrap, brawl
Wrap: envelope, wind, bundle
Wrath: rage, ire, fury
Wreathe: circle, ring, girdle
Wreck: ruin, smash, demolish
Wrench: tweak, twist, wring
Wrest: exact, extort, squeeze
Wretched: desolate, forlorn, miserable
Wriggle: twist, wiggle, squirm
Wring: squeeze, choke, throttle
Wrinkle: crease, pucker, rumple
Wrist: you know, but it does its share of wrapping, wrenching and wringing
Writhe: twist, suffer, pain
Wrong: injure, damage, harm
 

Oh, and there’s this one, too:
Write: put down, set down, jot down, note, keep in touch, communicate, doodle, dash off, inscribe, compose, draft, pen, scrawl.

Back when I was a teacher of spelling, among other things, I didn’t understand the irony. Now that I’ve taken up writing—or, more accurately, now that it has taken up with me—I can only laugh at the breezy synonyms. Has my thesaurus failed me?

Sure, there are times when the words fall out of the air, when I’m in touch with my creativity, my muse, the flow, whatever you want to call it. I am drafting, communicating, dashing off whole sentences—paragraphs! pages!—with grace and ease.

But there are more than enough times when writing is an amalgamation of all the other “wr” words. I notice that “wrack” is not there—I am often wracked by self-doubt. There are significant moments of wretchedness and mental hand-wringing.

So maybe “write” isn’t such an outlier, after all. As a writer, I now have more appreciation for the iceberg of hidden effort that goes into a finished piece. Maybe, to reflect more accurately the realities of the work of writing, we should spell it “wrork.”

Story and Curiosity

This is a re-post from 2013, but it feels relevant now:

My husband gave me my Christmas present early this year: a recording of Bruce McKee reading out loud an abridged version of his book, Story.  We had a six-hour drive to Philadelphia, so we listened while my husband drove and I took feverish notes. The book is geared specifically for screenwriting, but the basic structural foundation for a screenplay differs little from that of a book or a play.

My husband wanted a deeper understanding of the elements of story because, as a lawyer, part of his job is listening to his client’s story, and then re-telling that story to a judge or jury.

I appreciated Mr. McKee’s analysis because I had just finished the first draft of a memoir—and a primer on story structure was just what I needed before I embarked on the hard work of revision.

We were reminded of how important story is to humans. It is the primary way we learn about and understand our world—something I only understood after we began homeschooling.

And it reminded me how closely tied story is to judgment. A rush to judgment allows no time, no consideration for the story behind an apparent fact. That is what prejudice is—a pre-judging—based on the assumption that one already knows the story. Judgment is the end of the story—the period that says this sentence is over. No more questions. No more curiosity.

I used to think that love was the antidote for prejudice, but now I am considering that curiosity would be a better cure. Curiosity is just a hunger to know the story. And to love something that you don’t really know—that has always seemed a bit patronizing to me, or maybe it is just too abstract. But to be curious, to want to know the story, to be interested—My kids might say “Nosy, Mom. Admit it: you are nosy.”– that to me is a great blessing to bestow on another.

Safekeeping

I am slung back in an armchair in the living room, reading a memoir of sorts: Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas.  I laugh at one passage and turn the page and then am slammed—she does this, with the simplest of details—and glance into the study to see if my son and husband notice that I am crying.  They don’t.

Thomas is going to high school part-time this year.  He wanted to get out of the house, which makes sense to us.  We’d like to get out of it, too.  It is dark.  The whole state is dark.   But that is another story.

But my son wanted to keep doing math with his dad.  For the last few years, they have been working together through courses from “The Art of Problem-solving,” courses which are heinously and deliciously challenging.  They sit together at my husband’s desk in the study—I can see them from my chair—bent over their papers, murmuring to each other, scratching their chins, working to figure out the starred problems, which are designed to be nearly impossible.  They love this.  But every once in a while they both sit back after a particularly long wrestling match and sigh with frustration and chagrin.  It is often a simple matter of computation that gets them off track.  They can do the hard stuff.  It is that elementary multiplication that bites them on the butt.

Today, while I am sneaking in my tears, they do this again—sit back laughing and shaking their heads.

“The usual stumbling block?” I ask, smiling down the hall at them.

“Yeah, 8 times 7,” says Thomas.  They are grinning cheesey grins at me.  They are proud of themselves, thinking that these blind spots confirm their genius.

“Ooh.  That’s a rough one,” I say sarcastically. I have a role to play in this, too.

“Oh yeah… what is it?” says Thomas.

“56,” I say.

“Just checking,” says Ray.  And then he whispers loudly to Thomas, “write that down.”

He looks up at me, bouncing his eyebrows, enjoying his small coup. “There’s more than one way to get to the answer.”

Then they set their elbows on the desk and rest their chins in their hands, mirror images, and start on the next problem, their pleasure in themselves so absolute that it sheets off of them and sloshes up against the walls.

I hold my book up again, but instead of reading, I look past the pages at them and let those waves wash over me.