I am writing. Trying to write. The characters are reeling away from one other as the plot falls apart yet again. At this point, my page has more words scratched out than still standing. Wait, why is this guy climbing a tree? When is the antagonist supposed to appear? And why is he a bad guy? Guess I didn’t think this through very well. Pretty evident that no cohesive story will be emerging out of this mess. Even my old standby technique — incessantly checking the thesaurus for ritzy words — isn’t working.
As I consider whether to abandon ship or power through begrudgingly, Vonnegut’s voice turns up accusingly in my head: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” Failed again, Kurt. So it goes. Demoralized and frustrated, I wonder why I even bother with this.
Then I look to the other end of the desk where my boy drives his pencil furiously across the page. My mood lightens considerably as I watch him work. Between us sits the think-sheet listing all the ideas we conjured up before we set to writing. He finishes with a flourish and passes his notebook over to me. I read through his story and concede defeat once again. No, that doesn’t quite capture it. More like, I rejoice in glorious defeat.
You see, this kid is ultracompetitive. Like Michael-Jordan-in-the-playoffs competitive. Sometimes we encourage him to rein it in so that he’ll still be able to have friends, but occasionally we leverage it for good. Like with this short story business. If, in a pure attempt to foster creativity, I suggest he go write a fun story, he’ll return only a vacant gaze and a shoulder shrug. Propose a story-writing contest, however, and suddenly he’s abuzz with unbridled imagination.
Now that’s something I can work with.
Having successfully duped him, we sit down to brainstorm our writing prompts. Fierce negotiations give way to a few scribbled thoughts that will serve as the common starting point for our stories — a character name, a setting, maybe a particular artifact that has to be worked in somehow. Today: a boy named Wiggan, a place called Quinland, and a stone knife.
His stories are usually tight and concise as they drive to a solid conclusion. They are also usually better than mine. His characters reveal themselves compellingly and with no wasted motion as they plot along, something I could stand to learn a thing or two about. In my hands, Wiggan and his stone knife get stuck in a tree gathering ingredients for the village druggist. On my son’s page, the unlikely hero rises up in defiance of a wicked king, leading the Quinsfolk in an exhilarating (albeit bloody) revolution.
No contest. He’s bested me yet again, and I love it.
To be honest, toiling with a miserable opening paragraph is no fun for me. I’m too easily frustrated by my own ineptitude (or is it ineptness?). And yet I come back to it again and again. Self-preservation might compel me to avoid that which aggravates and defeats me, but the privilege of having a front row seat as my son’s imagination is unleashed makes it worth the price.
So I’ll continue to take my literary drubbing as long as he’s dishing it out. Besides, one of these days my story is going to clobber his. Where do you think he gets his competitive nature from, after all?