Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Ghostly Story Comes Back to Haunt Me

Do you remember when you learned to read?  I remember being read to, and then sometime after that, I remember reading on my own. What happened in the middle is a little fuzzy. I remember, as a grade schooler, wanting to create stories that spoke to the lunacy of modern life, that illuminated what we've come to call the human condition (not really; I wanted to write funny things about my classmates).

One of my first creations, around 1st or 2nd grade, was a picture book about a snowball fight with my neighbor. I believe it was aptly titled, "The Snowball Fight," and the last page featured an illustration of two mugs of steaming hot chocolate. Alas, that book has gone out of print.

Later, I took to short stories, including this piece, which was quite popular in its day (approximately 1985): "The Drastic Days of the Gluebottle." Here's the premise: a ghostly glue bottle haunts an evil little boy. The boy, after refusing to learn any of the important life lessons from the glue bottle, is trapped alive in a coffin with him for eternity.

Yes, this is the original story. My mom kept all my school papers. This story now resides in a nostalgic file folder in my office of very old, embarrassing writing. Backstory: I did not get along very well with this particular little boy, who shall remain anonymous. I had the misfortune of sitting directly behind him, but this gave me an advantage. I threatened him once with a squirt of Elmer's down the back of his shirt collar, and after that he pretty much left me alone. I wrote the story for spite, which, for many writers, is as fun (and profitable!) a reason to write as any.

My drawing abilities have not improved one bit since grade school. (Note: the shaky writing of "gluebottle" indicates this story is super scary.) My story writing abilities, I believe (I hope!) have gotten better, but still, each year when I look back over my work, I'm hoping to see improvement.  I read things I wrote just ten years ago (not to mention 30 years ago), and I'm embarrassed. This is a wonderful thing, to be embarrassed by one's old work. It means I'm getting better, which brings me to part two of this post, my volunteer service at my daughter's elementary school.

Mondays, I sit on a wee, white bench and listen to kindergartners read, offering assistance with unfamiliar words, plus lots of praise, and a cookie for a job well done. There are 23 kids in the class, at very different strages of the reading/writing game. They're working so hard, and it's such a challenge, to do something we as adults don't even think about.

To any parent, the language acquisition process is an amazing thing to witness, but to a writer, it's just mind-blowing. I remember when my daughter, and later her brother, learned to make their first sounds...the da da da that eventually led to "daddy." My daughter's first word? "Didee" (translation-kitty). My son's? "Hi." It was a thrill for me to follow them around and hear what word they'd say next, to hear the crazy way they'd string words together or mix up words. At mealtime, my daughter always used to say, "I'm huggy."

And now she's a studious almost-six year old, reading and writing, turning her bedside lamp back on when she thinks I'm not looking to get a few more pages in before sleep. Yup, she's hooked on phonics, just like her dear old mom. Here's something she wrote last fall after a gymnastics class. (Translation: "How can you do that? Look at me.") Got to love the eyelashed "look" and the girl doing a handstand.

Will she be penning stories about her classmates someday? Who knows? I can't say I would actually advise anyone to be a fiction writer unless they absolutely cannot think of anything else they'd be good at (especially since I'd like her someday to be self-sufficient, capable of paying her own mortgage, eating, etc.). But I do hope she'll always retain the joy of devouring a good book.

I've spent the past few years struggling to write a novel, learning so much along the way, but often becoming frustrated with myself for not learning it better and, most of all, faster. It's good to look back, at my daughter's work and my own and remember where we all, writers or not, begin.