“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” — Mark Twain
We drove down the looping skeins of Highway 95, my daughter and I, squinting south into the fading sunlight of a mild February day, when she asked me a question. The music was too loud, and I turned down the booming thump of a mix CD to ask her to say it again. She took a sip of Dr. Pepper and repeated the question.
“What’s the best thing for me to do to become a writer?”
My daughter is 8 years old. I thought she was still in the “I want to be a fashion model” phase, but apparently I missed a lap. On reflection, it’s not a surprise that she’s interested in writing; both she and her older brother successfully finished NaNoWriMo 2008, and with virtually no input from me (as their father, I reserve the right to interfere beyond all reason). Her story was about an evil taco. I gave her high marks for originality, though the carnage level in my son’s story was impressive enough to make a good showing in that particular sweepstakes. But, I digress.
“Well,” I said. She waited patiently for her old man to come up with some declamation of wit and profundity, perhaps expecting my next words to be carved upon Sinai stone, the Commandments version 2.0. She’s still young enough that she holds a great deal of stock in my opinions, and I have no desire to disappoint her yet. The teen years are still ahead.
I would like to say that in that plastic moment between heartbeats, my awesome intelligence and time-tempered experience distilled years of work and adventure into a few pithy words designed to shine revelation into her still-forming writerly mind. I would like to say that inspiration struck, and like a spark leaping between points of high and low charge, sprang into my daughter’s consciousness as fully formed as the mighty goddess of wisdom and war whose name she shares. That would be, in the slang of my teen years, bitchin’. In fact, I could say that, but it would be bullshit.
What actually happened is that my mouth, which runs on a different current than my head, sprang open and saved me a long-winded explanation by cutting right to the chase.
“Read a lot,” I said. “Write a lot.”
She sat back and pondered this. I had time to think, that’s it? That’s the best you can do, you idiot? No wonder she never cleans her room when you tell her. She asks you for advice, and you give her six words. Nice going.
“OK,” she said, and meant it. I looked over at her for a moment, hoping that the deer would wait until my attention was engaged before springing out to play chicken with me. They do that sometimes, especially now that I drive a car that would probably come out the loser in a head-on collision with Bambi. Anyway, I looked at her, and realized that she wasn’t looking for a secret technique, or a shortcut to riches and fame. All she wanted was her dad’s thoughts on the matter.
And, as I pondered the conversation later in the day, I realized that response was the best one I could have given, no matter how much time I had to think about it. Writing is an infinite but bounded art; there are only so many ways to express a written work, but within those constraints, possibilities stretch beyond lifetimes, like Borges’ Library of Babel. To get a handle on those possibilities, you have to know the rules, what’s been done before, if for no other reason so you can shatter the rules and do something new or better or different. That’s where reading serves you.
Furthermore, you have to be able to do it yourself; talent will get you started, but practice and experience will take you way past where talent sputters and grinds to a stop. Sufficiently determined, that same practice and experience will carry you into places where your talent alone could never go, might not even know exists. This is where writing serves you, the actual work of hammering thoughts and emotions into words, stringing words into sentences, linking ideas and images into narratives and poems, essays and rants, novels and textbooks. Practice may never make perfect, but unless you were born a Shakespeare or Chekhov, it’s the only way to get a little closer.
Sitting here now, as my children sleep away the night safe in bed, I realize anew that the best advice is often the simplest. And sometimes, despite myself, I get something right.