“I’m NOT a writer!” Frances says. She is staring at me from across the black kitchen counter, stark against the white glass of milk firmly set in her small hand. The pencil lies diagonally across her paper, which is covered in the ghosts of labored sentences, impressions from the tightly gripped pencil, then erased furiously until the page is ragged.
Poor Frances, I think to myself. She really is a writer.
In third grade, her teacher is trying to get them serious about their writing. They have something called “Writer’s Workshop,” and in the beginning of the year Frances was writing personal essays, focusing on “small moments,” and being encouraged to describe her feelings. The young writers learn to share their work publicly in a “writing celebration” that is attended by friends and family. I remember attending her first writing celebration, listening to all of her classmates speaking their words out loud in front of adults they didn’t even know, and thinking it was great for kids to take themselves seriously as writers so early.
Now I’m not so sure. It is almost the end of the year and Frances has her first “informational essay” to write. It’s really a term paper. She had to pick a topic, make a list of subtopics, do research and site references. Having worked on it for three weeks now, she has produced five pages of pencil scratches, crossed out words, corrected spelling, grammar and punctuation squeezed in on layers of post-it notes, and margins full of words and arrows.
The edited and revised draft was due Monday. We had no other plans so I thought it would be fun to spend the weekend bonding over our writing. I would work on my book and provide support for her essay. In the past we have written stories together, and I have watched her sit at a typewriter for hours, pressing the keys letter by letter to build some fabulous convoluted fictional tale.
But that was then. The weekend of writing was spent pulling teeth.
“Frances, after breakfast we are going to write,” I said on Saturday, and again on Sunday. But as soon as she sat down to work, she got up to go to the bathroom. Then I heard her brushing her teeth.
“I have something caught in my molars!”
“Okay Frances, sit!” I said. But no sooner had I said it and she was out of her chair.
“I have to get something,” she said, disappearing before I could stop her. When I went to find her she was doing origami on the floor of her room.
“Frances, come on. We have to write,” I said, annoyed.
“I’m hungry,” she said softly. I glanced at the clock. Where did the morning go?
“Okay. We’ll eat, and then we will write.”
This went on all weekend. It was incredible how much time and energy I wasted trying to get her to sit down and focus. And when I managed to get her to look at her text and think about what she needed to add or subtract, she would fall into despair.
“I don’t know what to say!” she wailed. “I don’t want to do this anymore!!”
She fought me for two days but somehow we still managed to comb through her five pages, correcting spelling, cleaning up phrases and even adding a little more information. But there was one chapter that her teacher had told her needed more work and that was the part she couldn’t face. In the end, she avoided it so hard I gave up. It was late on Sunday evening when I broke the bad news: She had to go to bed.
“But I’m not finished!” she cried, her eyes brimming with tears.
“Frances,” I said gently. “It’s all right. We tried our best and it’s good enough.”
“But I didn’t do what my teacher told me to do.”
“I know. And sometimes we just don’t manage to do what we set out to do. It’s okay.”
She stared at me like I was crazy. “Why do you think this has been so hard?” I asked.
“Because I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t know anything about art.”
“Oh yes you do. You know all about the struggle of making something and how vulnerable that makes you feel and that is at the crux of all art. We have to be brave to write and sometimes that’s really hard.”
“I HATE writing!!” she screamed as she marched off to her room, leaving me to question the wisdom of the assignment. Or maybe for Frances, it’s just the way it is.