I got to teach my son the craft of fiction writing the other day. He had to write the opening scene for a story for Language Arts. My son, Sawyer, is never at a loss for stories. He spends most of his days lost in stories of his own invention. However, as I discovered when I read his first attempt, he tells the stories as a list of events: the dog dies, the girl gets teased, the man and woman get married and so on. In this case, the story he told was quite dramatic and tragic, filled with suicide and murder and ruin. I told him I liked it. “But why aren’t crying?” he asked. “Because I couldn’t feel what was happening to the characters,” I explained. So we took another swing at it, me at the computer, him pacing and dictating. “Where does it begin?” I asked him.
“In a graveyard.”
“What does it feel like in the graveyard? Happy or sad?”
“What do you see? What does it look like?”
“There’s mist in the graveyard.”
“Perfect. That’s your first sentence. What else do you see?”
“There are tombstones.”
“What do they look like? How many?”
“A lot. There were a lot of white crosses, all made of stone.”
“Beautiful. That’s your next sentence.”
On and on. He saw the coffin, the father comforting the mother (“The mother’s sad. She’s crying.” “If she’s crying, we know she’s sad. Leave out the sad.”) The second paragraph ended with dirt being shoveled onto the boy’s grave. I reread it to him, and he said, “That’s really sad,” as if someone else had written it.
I have not gotten to teach my sons how to run a square out and catch the post, as my father taught me. Nor how to shoot a hook or make a whiffle ball sink, skills I spent my boyhood perfecting. They don’t care about sports, and I don’t care about building things or fixing cars, so that’s out too. But as I revealed the fundamentals of showing and not telling to Sawyer, I felt useful to him in a way I rarely do. I know he loves me and I know he knows I love him, and mostly that’s my job, to make sure that love remains a constant and constantly known. Yet I am a teacher at heart, and my sons so rarely want to be taught, and for about twenty minutes I felt just about the way I had imagined fatherhood would feel before I actually became a father.
And don’t you know there was a part of me—a part who, if you’ve read this column before, you probably know doesn’t like to talk about the nuts and the bolts—don’t you know a small part of me watched my son’s story come to life as he started showing and stopped telling, and thought, “Jeez. This stuff really works.”
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing