So my 10 year-old son is writing a novel. Naturally, I’m thrilled.
He is so excited about this novel. Gleeful that he gets to work on Mom’s computer with the cool fonts. Over the moon as he completes a chapter or a page, which so far have worked out to about the same thing. He started out by writing in a notebook, and then, as he transferred that to the screen, got even more ideas for chapter 1, which he was psyched about. Also, since he learned long ago that Mom is The Walking Dictionary, he is letting me into this process by shouting out random spelling questions. (My suggestion that he keep a paper dictionary next to him as he wrote was flatly rejected. Sigh.)
I am so ecstatic at his joy in this process, and feeling just a little pride in how I’m nurturing this along. When he asks me what I think of a sentence or paragraph, I find something about it I genuinely like. As long as I don’t compare his work to an adult or teen’s work, this is pretty easy.
Here’s what I am not doing: Criticizing these efforts in any way. And yeah, I know there are tons of you whose instant response is: “But he’s going to think he’s a great writer when he’s not.”
And my response is, “So the hell what? He’s 10, he’s just starting out, and he needs to be excited about the things he does right. If he’s confident now, and praised for stuff he does that’s genuinely good, he won’t quit when the expectations increase. Because he’ll have felt joy in the process to keep him going.”
This is actually a good tip for any beginning writer, lawyer or not. Be kind to yourself when you start out. Praise effort, not performance.
It’s not that I think my son’s novel is a work of pure genius and that he will doubtless win the National Book Award by age 25. At all. He is deep into the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan (which incidentally are totally excellent if you like mythology in the slightest). I assure you, what Little Man is writing is pure fan fiction.
But he does a lot things nicely, for a 4th-grader. He describes a teacher’s voice as “changed from a buffed up teacher’s voice to a deep and threatening voice.” His characters have distinct personalities, with one “addicted to action” and another “afraid of germs, mice, worms, spiders, turtles, and even birds. I think he has like everything-phobia or something like that.”
It’s Not About the Mechanics
Even if the plot ideas are completely unoriginal, I couldn’t care less. He’s developing enthusiasm and experimenting with how words can go together to tell a story that to him is funny and entertaining. That’s the core of how we learn to listen to our inner voices, whether they are a writer’s voice or just that voice that wants to tell you what it needs to grow and flourish.
Now I know perfectly well that most parents and teachers would probably fuss a lot about his shortcomings, like grammar, punctuation, organization, structure and the afore-mentioned lack of original plot ideas. But emphasizing the mechanics first is
what sucks the joy out of writing. It takes away that crucial part of writing, to get the idea on paper, to let go and enjoy playing with ideas and words. Schools’ emphasis on mechanics first is exactly why so many people think they can’t write, or why what they do write is horridly tortured and dull. Placing so much emphasis on the mechanics is like correcting the way a baby takes her first few steps.
None of us would dream of saying to a baby just learning to walk, “Hey, you’re looking pretty wobbly there. Stand up straighter! Hold your head higher! Suck in that tummy!” Because even assuming Little Precious could understand you, it would stop her in her tracks, and she’d sit down and cry, and probably not try again very soon. On the other hand, when she is encouraged madly for simply moving a foot in any direction, baby doesn’t let the failure keep her down.
This same methodology (wild encouragement of trying to do anything new at all) applies not only to young writers, but to young creatives of any stripe. But don’t think I’m talking “young” just as chronological age. If you haven’t worked at something for years and years, you are still very, very young in it. Writing, drawing, dancing, painting, building, piano, photographing, teaching, skiing, horseback riding—anything that is new to you falls into this category.
When it comes to creative endeavors, we’re usually taught that if we don’t do something better than average on our first try, we don’t have talent and should just move on to something else. Imagine if we took the same attitude toward reading or math in schools?! Time and again, research shows that it’s the amount of time that is put into reading and math, i.e., the practice, that is key to increasing skill level. Mind you, good teaching methods are pretty helpful, too. But if you don’t do something, in lots of variations and iterations, you don’t get better at it. You may never be a math genius, but you learned how to do basic math functions, just because someone insisted you practice it.
Sure, some people are more creative than others. Some people are way more creatively blocked than others. Guess what? The ones who have less raw talent, but get in there and keep trying and failing and then trying again, are often the ones who produce something less than perfect, but get the accolades.
I’ve learned that lesson for myself in both writing and singing. I think I have more raw talent as a writer, but my writing has gotten much better simply because I did much more of it during the decade I worked in publishing. Trust me, a lot of stuff I wrote stunk to high heaven. (If you were a BNA subscriber and suffered through that early work, I’m sorry about that!) But writing sucky stuff helped me learn to write less sucky stuff.
With singing, I’ve got an OK voice, an OK ear, and am fairly hopeless at any rhythm more complex than 4/4 or 3/4. But because I’ve shown up at nearly every choir rehearsal since 2007, I’ve gotten much, much better. So much so that when we sang the Dona Nobis Pacem from Bach’s Mass in B Minor this spring, I only stressed over it mildly.
Seven years ago, I would have freaked the hell out over the mere thought of singing such a complex, vocally demanding work. I’m not saying my performance this spring was awesome. Not even close! But I got up and sang competently, and didn’t die when I screwed up several of the notes. (Granted, it helps that there is so much volume and instrumentation in the piece that it’s hard for anyone except your section mates to know you screwed up.)
So here’s the bottom line: If you want to learn to write, or do anything new that you’re not an undiscovered genius at, you’re going to have to risk looking silly, or stupid, or far short of perfect. I know, that’s deeply frightening to those steeped in the perfectionistic culture of law. But somewhere along the way, lawyers forgot this core concept of success:
Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.
Sumner Redstone (a Harvard lawyer, among many other things)
I’ll leave you with one parting thought: Even if you don’t think you have the raw talent to write the Great American Novel, write what your soul wants you to write anyway. We need your voice.
Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.
Henry van Dyke
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who gets joy from writing, whether it’s a blog, a novel in progress, or a completely silly poem. If you need help learning to be kind and encouraging to your inner writer, schedule a sample coaching session with Jennifer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.