Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tap Dancing through a Minefield of Homework

You know that old saying about the shoemaker's kids going shoeless? That's how I feel every time my daughter asks me to help her with a paper. You'd think that a writer would be in a wonderful position to assist a teenager with her writing assignments, but I am slowly coming to understand that doing so requires tap dancing through a minefield. Shoeless.

As a writer, I don't really think about how I write. I just do it. I haven't even thought about topic sentences in decades, let alone intentionally crafted or used them. Sure, they have a tendency to show up on the page, usually in more or less the right spot, but that's after forty years of practice. When you ask me how they got there, I am often mystified.

To make things worse, I'm a pantser. I don't plan -- I just write. Okay, maybe I plan a little, but I don't structure my writing the way my daughter is required to structure her school essays. Consequently,   I'm always terrified that the advice I give her is going to run counter to what she's supposed to do. If I urge her to put her passion on the page so that her voice comes through, am I discouraging objectivity and formal writing style? If I suggest that the number of sentences in a paragraph is, indeed, variable and that writing a first draft without an extensive organizational chart might be a good place to start, will she lose points for organization and structure?

And that's the easy part. When I edit my own work, I am brutal. I don't worry about hurting my own feelings or maintaining my own self-esteem. A finished product that is tightly written with good voice will boost my self-esteem more than any darlings on the page that ought to be killed off because they aren't blooming where I have planted them.

But brutality has no place in parenting, let alone in the editing process that is inevitably in its final stages twelve hours before the finished product is due.

And so the tap dancing begins. I wield a pencil instead of a pen because if I cover the page with "suggestions" (as I do with my own work), I can erase the evidence if it mounts to painful heights. I choose my battles, letting some things stand in the name of voice and individuality, stubbornness -- some things I just know she won't change -- and yes, self-esteem.
As I begin to back out of the minefield, the second guessing begins. If I let some things stand, will her teacher do the same? Or will my daughter get her paper back covered in the ink I saved, then come home wondering why I didn't tell her to fix those things? I am, after all, a writer.

Tap dancing barefoot through a minefield of essays.

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