Monday, December 9, 2013

A Thank You Letter to my Professor

Dear Professor Finn,

I'm writing you today to thank you; and not for just showing me how to write a story, even though I thought that was all I'd learn in your Intro to Writing Fiction class. I'd like to thank you for something I didn't anticipate; learning how to talk with my son.

Let me explain what I mean. On the first day of class, when you said that not only would we be writing a twelve page story, and then circulating it to the other classmates for them to read, comment on, and then discuss as a whole class, I wanted to drop out. I was already the oldest in the class, even older than you, and felt really out of place. The thought of twenty-something year old kids reading a story I wrote and then publicly telling me what was wrong with it gave me more gray hair than I already had and scared me.

Then you explained the rules. First, all comments had to be in the form of questions. No prescribing a solution to the problem. No telling the author that her made-up character Fern wasn't angry enough after her husband died, and her trip to New York that she had been waiting to go on for seventeen years was cancelled. No pointing out that there was no description of Fern's physical characteristics.  No explaining that there was no plot, that the word choice needed improving, or there were point of view problems. You taught us that the critique must be phrased as questions. Like this: "What if Fern was angrier and showed more emotion that her day was just turned upside down?" Or, "Could more be said about what Fern looked like?" or "Could you consider having Fern react to the news differently  instead of her sitting at the kitchen table and crying?" You explained that bluntly telling the author what was wrong with their story just hurt. It never helped. It only discouraged the writer and didn't let them "hear" the problem or give them the encouragement to fix it.

The other rule was that the author, on the day their story was workshopped and critiqued, had to remain completely silent and take notes of what questions were being asked and carefully listen to what was being said so they could improve the story when they went to revise it. The author was not allowed to explain what they meant, defend a choice, or make excuses. They must sit, take notes and listen-- and hope that everybody obeyed rule number one.

So I decided to stick it out and stay in your class and write my first short story. I was super glad you didn't choose mine to be workshopped first. I needed to practice this questioning technique anyhow, it didn't come naturally for me, at all. I'm a mother of five and I'm so used to just telling. "Hey, your room needs cleaning." or "Hey, you've got to get that college application in, the deadline is looming." or "You need to get your grade up in math." As I critiqued my classmates stories, I was very careful to frame my suggestions as questions-- which takes work and a lot of thinking. It's so much easier to see the flaws in their story and want to fix it for them. But to step back and be able to get them to see how to improve? It required me to carefully come up with the right question.

Week after week, I watched how you asked questions about stories that had maybe one phrase that was redeemable. Seriously. You could find two words in a story that was suffering that made me want to tell the author to hang it up, it will never happen, but you showed excitement for the two words. You were all over it, heaping praise on how well the words flowed. It was awesome to watch. Especially when I looked at the face of the student you were praising. I followed your example and continued to critique the students stories. I pointed out the good and asked questions that hopefully made the author consider a different choice. I marveled at the way you handled a story that had no theme, or poor character development. You would spend the critique time teaching, giving examples about stories that worked, or the difference between characters that act and characters that are acted upon. You took the opportunity to instruct, but never geared it at the particular student that was being critiqued that day. It was for everyone's benefit and the writer never felt humiliated.

And when the class workshopped my story? I left class that day, believing that I had a great story. I was INSPIRED and ON FIRE! My head spun with new ideas on how to write my second story. Fern actually was created that day, simply because you asked this question. "What if the young girl wants a dog so bad that she sneaks into someone's yard?" Instead of telling me, "YOU NEED to have the girl sneak into some one's back yard," you let me consider an alternative. I created Fern out of thin air and wrote a whole story about what if Fern lived across the street from the girl but had never left her home for seventeen years because she was grieving the loss of her son and had a dog that meant the world to her and she crocheted, a lot, so much that her whole house was covered in it and on and on. My mind went crazy with ideas.

And after a few weeks of this I started thinking, "what if I asked my son Tanner questions like this?" He's eighteen now, on the cusp of really making life decisions and "writing his own story" and I was stuck asking him questions like, "did you work on your college application?" "Did you study for math class?" Not inspiring ones, that let him be in charge of his destiny and let him find an answer. What if I also started searching for the "two words" that he had put together that would let him know he was awesome? It seemed like we were focusing on the disappointments this year-- he  missed qualifying for State Cross Country by ten seconds, he wasn't getting his usual A in math by a long shot. I realized, "you need to get that grade up," doesn't inspire anyone to actually get the grade up.

He wasn't excited about getting his college application essays written and submitted and he had not done as well as he thought on his ACTs. It was driving me crazy that he seemed to not care about it.  It was frustrating me, and not him. Which made me frustrated even more that he seemed not to care.  "You need to get those essays written," I prescribed, "and think about re-taking your ACT's." But the more I said it, the more he didn't do it.

I needed a really great question and it dawned on me to treat him like the author of his own story and I was just an editor encouraging him to make it better.

So one day I took a deep, humbling, non-controlling, faithful breath and asked him this, "T, what if you didn't apply to college?"

For me, that was a hard question to ask. I've raised all my kids with the definite expectation of attending college. But, I realized he wasn't in control of his own story.  I think "you need to go to college" was a prescription he was sick of hearing.

So we talked, really talked and discussed. IT WAS AWESOME.

"What if I didn't apply until after my mission?" He asked.

I answered him with another question, "What if you went to a trade school?"

"What if I just started working?"

"What if you worked at Jersey Mikes so you could eat your favorite subs all day long?"

"What if I became a fantasy football sports analyst?"

"What if you ran in the Olympics?"

We went crazy with the possibilities, and the what if's were endless. Why not?  Why not let him create the plot twists in his life and figure out how to get out of them? I told him whatever choice he decided to make, was up to him. He could write whatever story he wanted. And when I let go of the control, he was INSPIRED and ON FIRE.

A few days passed and I noticed a change. He was on the computer working on his application and sketching out ideas for the essays. Then, one night he asked if we would be around the third weekend in December because he wanted to re-take the ACT.

I think he remembered that what he has always loved is car design and engineering and realized a college degree needed to be written into his story.

But even if he would have chosen differently, I know now that as long as he is the author of his own tale, it will be a best-seller in my eyes. 

So, thank you for teaching me. I bet you didn't realize you were teaching a parenting class as well. But I'm so glad I stayed and learned.

Have a wonderful day! 


Tiffany Brown

P.S. I'm enclosing a picture of my son with three of his four sisters.

And here is one of his essays:

I'm the only boy in a family of four girls, smack in the middle of two older that bossed me and two younger that followed me everywhere. What is so hard about living with all girls? Well, the story starts with my youngest sister who went unresponsive one night and almost died.  We later found out that this incident was caused by massive seizures and she started taking several medications to control them. Then, on a regular check up with her neurologist, my other younger sister happened to be there and the doctor noticed her adorable, yet deformed feet.  With a history of hip surgery and other health issues, she tested positive for a genetic disorder called CMT.  Her feet caused her to trip a lot and created back problems.   An orthopedist recommended that corrective surgery was needed on both feet.  Over the next few months, her feet were fixed, requiring all the bones to be broken and pinned into a new position. At the same time, seizures continued to strike my youngest sister.   The medicines to help her were unsuccessful and after further testing, they found a lesion in her hippocampus that was the cause. She underwent brain surgery to have her hippocampus and amygdala removed.  It was hard for me to watch my sisters endure extreme physical pain, I learned from them real bravery and courage. But, what was the most difficult, was realizing that I couldn't ever trade places with them.


Jill Adams said...

What a sweet brother Tanner is! Critiquing the right ways is so important, especially in the creative world, cause you're putting vulnerable stuff out there for the world, or classmates to see. You're already doing a fantastic job and critiquing yourself, in the wrong way, when others critique it should be in an objective and respectful way, as you already know... Love you!

Nichole and Jeremy said...

So beautiful Tiff! Love you!

Danika said...

Awesome kids, awesome parents! :)

Valerie Ipson said...

Every bit of this post is awesome! Loved it!

Emily Park said...

I hope you don't mind if I pin this...Awesomeness. Pure awesomeness. I was needing this right now. Thank you for sharing your heart. Such wonderful parenting help! Love this.

Stacy said...

That was seriously one of the most fantastic posts I've read in a while. I'm sobbing as I think about the courage it took to ask your son that one question. With two adults in my home, I am inspired to do better in helping them write their own life stories by being a better "critiquer" and ask more questions like that. Thank you thank you.

liz said...

I love this even more when I read it and pause at certain places to put myself in the place of the mother. Perfectly written- can't wait to hear his reply!

Jared + Carly Reid said...

I am Hannah's friend and you are SUCH an amazing writer! And mother! I am saving this for my future mommyhood. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

hey, jode said...

I want to know his response!

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