I sit at the kitchen table staring at the blank document on my laptop. My ten year old daughter, Caroline, is across from me doing her homework. I glance over at her and she asks me what I’m doing.
“I have to write an essay for the online class I am taking.”
“An essay about what?” she asks.
“Anything,” I say, feeling defeated. I signed up for this class for motivation and now I stare at a blank screen. I could write about everything and nothing. It feels that it would be so easy to write if only I didn’t have to choose the topic. We were given prompts, but even these are not specific enough to get me through this writer’s block. Any idea that comes to me seems trivial and boring. Why can’t I come up with a single original idea? And who would want to read what I write anyway?
I stare across the table at my eldest daughter, to whom ideas come easily. Caroline is sitting with one leg up on the chair. The other dangles freely below. She wears an air of expectant waiting. She’s confident that a good idea will come to her. She takes her ponytail out. “How about books? Or me? No. Not me. How about Katherine? Or maybe how stupid dating is in the fifth grade?" she suggests, pulling her hair back into a ponytail again. I’m sure she’s done that a dozen times today. While others bite their nails or tap their feet, Caroline arranges ponytails.
She opens her own writer’s notebook and says, “Hey, you should use one of my prompts. We’re just supposed to start writing without thinking. That’s really hard for me.” She looks for my phone to set the timer. Her homework is to write for 5 minutes. She scrolls through ring tones before settling on "Chimes" and glances around the room for inspiration. Her prompt is, “Write about a time you felt proud of yourself.”
She doesn’t have to think for long. After less than a minute her pencil starts to move. I wonder what she will write. I can think of a thousand reasons that she has to be proud. Her teacher has recently told me how impressed she is with Caroline as a student. “Wise beyond her years,” she says. And then there is her improvement on the soccer field. Caroline has scored in three out of the past four games, an accomplishment that was unimaginable a few years ago. I wonder if she will write about what has happen over the weekend when she opened her first acceptance letter. Not to college. Not yet, thank goodness. But an acceptance letter nonetheless. With her teacher’s encouragement, Caroline had written to the editor at Stone Soup Magazine requesting to be one of their book reviewers. The editor responded saying that her letter was great, they would send books soon, and they would pay Caroline $40 each time her reviews were published. My ten year old was to be a professional writer. She beamed when she handed me the letter.
I know if I were given the assignment to “Write about a time you felt proud of yourself,” I would come up with excuses. I would clean the counters and put away the laundry. I would work my way around the mindless tasks of homemaking until the timer ran down and I would decide I didn’t have time to write that day. Even after Caroline has given me ideas and I have watched her write with ease, I feel paralyzed. I continue to stare at the blank screen.
But I remember days that my writing flowed as easily as my daughter’s. When I was in the fifth grade, I transferred to a new school and was painfully shy. I learned later that one of my classmates wondered if I had teeth because I so rarely opened my mouth to talk or smile. But my teacher, Mrs. Shipp, understood that writing might help me find my voice. So with her encouragement, I crafted stories of fairies and friendships and she edited them for me with a purple felt tip pen. I worked with Mrs. Shipp once a week, counting down the days from the moment I left the chair beside her desk until the moment I sat in it again a week later. She would read quietly, looking up every so often to tell me that she liked my word choices or to ask me to describe a character in greater detail. After that, I was addicted. In high school, I took honors English classes, published writing in our school’s literary journal, earned statewide writing awards and crafted our class graduation speech.
Certainly much of my writing was assigned, but much was not. I kept journals and lists of ideas and wrote with ease. I started stories and essays and came back to them when I had a spare moment. Recently, I found a few of these journals. In one, I discovered a page of words to use in place of the overused “said.” In another, there were lists of names to use for girl and boy characters. Strangely, I tended towards romantic names like Stephanie and Tiffany then, but named my own children Caroline and Katherine.
When I moved on to college, I majored in psychology and elementary education after deciding that writing was a hobby, not a profession. But I left no time for hobbies that did not involve socializing. So I stopped writing. Most of those years I was too busy to miss my pen and paper. Only when I was buried by psychology research papers and analysis of Shakespeare did I wonder why I had let my creative writing go. But I never wondered long enough to start writing again.
I did not start writing until Caroline was born, twenty years after I began writing and ten years after I stopped. Since then I have written hundreds of blog posts and dozens of articles for small parenting magazines. Still, each time I sit down to write, I wonder what I have to say. I wonder who will listen. I feel like the little girl in the plaid kilt with her knee socks pulled up to her knee caps, too shy to show her teeth.
Yet, I have grand plans for my writing career. I dream of having my writing in national magazines, my essays in books. I dream of speaking to young children about finding their own voices with paper and pencil.
Caroline is still writing, and the scratching of her pencil across paper gives me the encouragement I need. I close my laptop and instead pick up paper and pen. The feel of the pen on the paper is encouraging. I can’t edit so I don’t. I just write. And soon I am that little girl again, searching for my own voice. Sitting across the table from Caroline, this is the piece I write. The words come, slowly at first, and then more quickly. I feel my body relaxing as my hand moves. When Caroline’s timer chimes, my pen is still moving, faster than it was before this afternoon of writing together.
When I ask Caroline what she has written, she takes her ponytail down and puts it back up again before she responds. At first she says she won’t tell me, but in the same breath she does. She is a tween in every sense of the word now, feeling the need for privacy with the same strength that she feels the need to share. I am pleased but not surprised by the topic she has chosen. She has written about her acceptance to Stone Soup. Caroline asks what I have written and when I tell her, she is both pleased and embarrassed that she has played a role in my piece.
Later that night, I think about the fact that those of us who write, whether we are ten or forty years old, share something. We share a need to get our thoughts on paper, of course, but there is more. We share a need to be heard. I know that I can never again be that little girl who found her voice in a stubby pencil on a sheet of wide ruled loose-leaf paper. But maybe, as I sit across from my daughter, who believes fiercely in her right to be heard, I can relearn the joy in writing and the power in using my own voice.