Epiphanies do seem to come suddenly and from the strangest places … I suppose that’s why they call them epiphanies instead of “thoughts you just have because they make sense.” Case in point, I have this kid — or small proto-adult — living in my home. We call her “Lil’ Q.” She’s six … soon to be seven. Her hobbies are, for the most part, drawing and writing. I mean, seriously writing. Most little girls this age, based on my observation, like to play with dolls or Barbie’s or whatever and play-act scenarios. Not mine. We were at the store the other day, and like any completely pwned father, I took her through the toy aisle, thinking I might let her pick out something, seeing as how she was being very well behaved for a six-year-old who had been dragged to at least four stores by her father who was attempting to run weekly errands and such. So, half-expecting we’d be picking up our forty-fifth or forty-sixth Barbie doll to complete the small army she’s attempting to assemble, I was completely taken aback when she declared, “Actually, I need a new secret journal for my stories and a new song lyric notebook. I filled up all the pages in my old ones.”
Ummm … those were 100-page composition books your grandmother gave you for Christmas. That was only, like, two months ago. Come on, kid, we’ve got a whole toy department. Are you sure those are full? Did you write on the backs of the pages and everything, because that comes to something like fifteen pages a day on the days you’re with me? (She insisted she had, and I later confirmed she was mostly correct.) Sure, whatever. I can buy ten new notebooks for the price of a Barbie doll. Heck, kid, take four.
Now, it’s not like this was a TOTAL surprise. She’s got stacks of papers with little poems, song lyrics, and stories she’s written. I will admit, at one point she shocked me by presenting three pages of a story, complete with punctuation, spelling, and a vocabulary well in advance of a first-grader – that was until I realized she’d spent an entire afternoon diligently copying pages out of a Robert Ludlum novel I was reading. Not to mention, I’d already been called to a conference with the teacher about Lil’ Q’s … prolificacy. Apparently, when you give her a writing assignment like “write two lines about what you did last weekend,” MY kid takes two lines PLUS the entire back of the page to craft some weird, semi-surrealistic Madeline L’Engle short story that mashes up Nickelodeon sitcoms, DC comics, and Disney Princesses. Her teacher admits she has never seen anything like it, and unfortunately, there is no real curriculum in the first grade for encouraging and developing future Kerouacs (who I’m sure she has never read, though she can imitate his prose style with surprising fidelity).
As with most of the things our kids do, this got me thinking back to my childhood. Sure, at her age, I suppose I too was a budding storyteller. I had just discovered the joys of the Hardy Boys and Star Trek, and my earliest creative tendencies probably did involve the same odd mash-up storylines acted out by various completely unrelated action figures. I just don’t remember the driving urge to write them down. Of course, I had other distractions – piano lessons, little league, friends constantly knocking on the door wanting to go ride bikes. Hell, it was Mississippi. We didn’t have that three or four-month stretch where it was too cold to go outside, and kids back then didn’t tend to sit around in isolation playing video games or watching 200 channels of television the way HER friends seem to. So perhaps this is, in a way, a strange evolution for a 21st-century kid whose dad doesn’t watch or encourage the watching of television. I’m starting to think we might need to have mandatory TV time.
So, this much sussed out, the next question is, what the hell do you do about it? Instinctively, I know encouragement is key, and assuming her personality is like mine in most of the other ways, formal instruction or correction is guaranteed to put her off faster than anything. It took me a while to figure out that this was a key underlying motivation that drove me to computer science (which my parents know NOTHING about) and turned me off of any kind of organized instruction in music or sports (which they were experts in and ALWAYS had a critique of). Sure, at her teacher’s recommendation, I will offer constructive challenges like making sure stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. As for spelling and general trivia, I simply direct her to the non-judgmental tutelage of Amazon’s Alexa, although the latter is notoriously bad with homonyms, resulting in a disturbing story last weekend about “meating friends,” which I can only hope was an honest mistake.
As for the rest, I have no idea. I can very clearly remember my creative bursts as a third or fourth-grader, recording various and sundry “radio plays” on a shoebox cassette recorder, constructing epic D&D modules as a fifth and sixth grader, or attempting to write a sprawling sci-fi novel as a teenager. Back then, inspiration came from everywhere. I remember when the briefest glimpse down an alleyway or throwaway line of conversation in a crowd could explode into a million ideas for stories – half the time already played out in my head before I got home to commit them to a more permanent medium. I also remember the cruel wall of self-awareness that came in high school, when the post-puberty version of me began to ask that most-defeating of questions, “Wait … is this any good?!” By the end of high school, creativity was quite literally shut down. Practically overnight, I went from editing fanzines in my bedroom with my buddies to pretty much hating every book, record album, or movie I consumed thinking, “I could have done THAT, and BETTER even.”
Yeah … but, you didn’t. You were — and by the way, decades later, STILL ARE — too busy worrying about whether it’s any good instead of just producing something you can call “Draft 1.”
So, what’s a proud father to do? Go all “Leopold Mozart/Billy Ray Cyrus” on her? I’ve read/seen/experienced enough to know that you can’t push, discourage, or otherwise interfere with someone else’s creative process. Heck, she’s already given up on ballet lessons and decided she’s going to get her black belt next. Who am I to stop her? (Yeah, never finished karate lessons either.) I could warn her about the Hemingway-esque self-doubt and creative bankruptcy that looms with impending adulthood, though who in the heck ever listens to signs and portents of doom? Hell, if that worked, pretty much every novel ever written would be a LOT shorter … and more boring. I could just clear her path and let her go, hoping she gets enough momentum to break through or steer around the wall she’s on a collision course with, but would that be enough? Or is there more to be gained letting her clear those paths herself? Or heck, she’s six, maybe by next week she’ll want to be an astronaut or something and will have forgotten all about her writing. Obviously, I’m Dad. I’m never going to stand in her way, and I will give her whatever she needs (or asks for), it’s just a weird feeling of helplessness wondering if that’s the most I can do, and should I even be doing THAT.