My amazing mother
While in Grand Rapids, one of the moms asked me how I came to teach writing in this way. If there really weren’t writing materials that approached writing with this emphasis on relationship, how did I stumble onto the idea, the process? Well, the journey is more complex than a soundbite answer.
Still, there is one towering influence on how I see the relationship of writer to parent: my mother.
Karen O’Connor, my mother and author of over 60 books (juvenile non-fiction, adult Christian, devotionals), was my first writing teacher. Scratch that. She was my writing ally, my primary educator. A lover of books, my mother read aloud to us regularly. I remember snuggling in bed listening to her voice wrap itself around each of the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories.
Trips to the library were highlights of each week. My mom would walk through the children’s section with each of us pointing out favorites like the Carolyn Haywood books, or Ramona, the Pest by Beverly Cleary. I snapped them up. Each day during the summers between school years, my mom expected us to spend time after lunch reading quietly to ourselves. She sometimes ran through flashcards with us for math or musical notes, too, because she believed that education was year round and didn’t want us to lose what we had gained in school over a summer.
She took us to museums, plays, and movies. She sewed Halloween costumes and dress up clothes. She indulged our need for tea parties with miniature tea sets.
And when I risked writing (as I did from a young age), my mother’s delight made me want to do it again, and again, and again.
In 7th grade I wrote a short story for my language arts class. We were supposed to pick a plot model: Man v. Man, Man v. Nature or Man v. Himself (sorry about all those masculines, but that’s how they framed things back then). I chose “Man v. Himself” for my story. I wrote about a girl getting lost in Mexico on a family trip, drawing directly on a recent family vacation in Guaymas. I still remember the purple marker I used to copy the final draft.
When I presented the original to my mother, she appropriately gushed over the development of the primary character (a direct rip-off of myself), the anxiety the reader felt when the girl got lost and the resourcefulness of that same character to solve her own dilemma. Then, she did what any good editor should do: “I love your idea. I would love your opening to grab me. How about adding a dialog here that shows me how she’s getting ready rather than telling me?” My mom then asked me to imagine in my mind what the family room scene might look like.
I closed my eyes and saw bottles of RC Cola, Cheeto’s spilled on the floor, a TV turned on, and a mother scolding the two main characters to get things cleaned up so that they could start packing for the trip. My mother enthused that this would be a far superior way to get the ball rolling. She helped me to translate these images into conversation. Then we worked our way through the story as she helped me to beef up my verbs, to add dialog in a few other places, to heighten the danger at the climax.
That story wound up being about 12 pages of purple ink held together by a yellow folder. My teacher loved my story. She made a special point of saying so to me privately.
Thus began a very meaningful, happy partnership between my mother and me over the next twenty years of writing. Her insight and support transformed my college entrance essay into a model that my high school English teacher used for his students. She typed papers for me and taught me how to cite references. When I took my first steps toward publication, she gave me her old favorite books about writing and she helped me understand the importance of craft, not just inspiration. Then she gushed over each feeble attempt to draft a short story. She cheered when my first published article appeared in La Leche League’s magazine.
Whenever I send her my writing (which I have continued to do throughout my life), my mom is the one I can count on to notice the good stuff first, to find the gems in the mess of dirt, to help me see the value of my ideas before the writing matches. Her feedback comes from both her wisdom as a writer herself, but also as a mother: someone who knows me well and wants to pull from me the rare insights that she can see by virtue of being my mother.
I don’t need her for editorial feedback so much today. But my mom is still one of my favorite audiences. When I wrote my MA thesis last year, that she would wade through fifty pages of theological treatise just to see what my mind had been up to meant the worl;d to me. Because she’s been reading my writing since I was seven years old and wrote about a litter of kittens, I felt strangely proud of her feedback knowing it came with love and the long view of my development as a human being. And of course, as only she could, my mother gushed about my work.
So yeah: Brave Writer owes a lot to my mom who blazed a trail of what it means to create a language-rich environment while nurturing her children’s writing abilities. Thanks Mom.
And happy birthday to her. She turns 70 on April 8 and I get to spend the weekend before it with my mother, my aunt and my sister in San Francisco. Lucky me.