Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Hypocritical Writer

I want to be a writer.

That's hardly a secret. Unfortunately a combination time, lack of drive (in certain areas) and an unwillingness to do some of the boring shit involved with being a writer mean that I'm really a stay-at-home Dad who writes sometimes. I don't even mean here. I mean piecing together a tangible project that you could call a complete piece of writing. I have a book version of this site in the works. Some Captain Cheesestick stuff that's been fleshed out. There's a very dark story I've been trying to write about families who wake up and their kids are missing - and then they start showing up dead. And there are a few hodge-podge things that are short and interesting (like the ghost who realizes that the person it's trying to haunt - but that won't wake up to be haunted properly - is actually itself just dead) but still aren't complete. That sort of writing that would give me a legitimate claim to being a writer. I like doing this - but it doesn't make me a writer no matter how many people read it (which on some days isn't very many). So in that way I'm not a writer. I'm a stay-at-home Dad who writes. Outside of that I'm not working at all. But hey - at least I'm not doing the work of Satan ("you mean insurance?") by trying to flog shit products to Americans by having an accent that marketing arseholes would claim sounds professorial. I don't care how fancy your accent is - nobody should be Googling the phrase, "Anthony Sullivan's Sticky Buddy" without expecting to arrive at a very unpleasant website. 

But then an irony hit me. I go about each and every day very aware that I haven't done any actual writing - and so does my daughter. She's right in amongst that explosive learning period where she is learning to write. First comes copying letters and words. Then being able to translate words she can read and adding those to her written vocabulary. Then - oddly - learning to hold a pen properly. But that is almost entirely conducted at school. I'd always imagined being the one that made that break-through with her. But I haven't been making those steps. Basically we've both been at home not doing any writing.

My daughter brought home a book from school this week that her and all the kids had made a portion of. Each week a different child is Star Of The Week and the other kids make a drawing of them and sign it. I found it pretty interesting to see how each child drew. Firstly  they all draw the same way. I know a person pretty much looks the same to most people - but I was expecting maybe one of the kids had a wacky Salvador Dali surrealist mess, or a Picasso cubist thing. But on the whole they're all clearly a combination of a few common shapes drawn together to make a person. Here are the two that are probably the most unalike.

Now to my eye there's not a lot of variety between those two (though the actual art students amongst you may disagree). Same essential parts and same colors. Every single drawing has the same strange features of two toes, green eyes and yellow hair that suggest my daughter looks like the cheap sex-doll merchandise that no-doubt someone made to go with Kim Catrall's characther in Big Trouble In Little China. My daughter explained that what the kids did was copy a drawing that the teacher had made. They didn't draw what they think she looked like - they copied a drawing of her with strictly trained instruction not to get creative. That's pretty much the methodology to learning at this stage. All the work she brings home is essentially copying something until it is replicated to a satisfactory standard. Now the kids do get graded - but I'm not aware if this is actually a reflection of ability or improvement or anything like that. All I know is that my daughter brings home her writing, math and other workbooks home with gushing praise and full marks on them.

But what I did notice was the variation in hand writing. My daughter can write her name well most times. Some days she'll inexplicably reverse a letter or write it quite scruffily. But generally it's okay. Measured against her class I'm told she's very much at the top end. Still - the way in which she was taught to write her name at school was the same method as shown above - copy what you see and don't deviate. Now she knows how her name is constructed she writes it from memory. But whereas there is very little deviation in drawing there is quite a bit of it in how well the kids can write their own name. Two of the names in the book are so clear and confidently written that they look like adults wrote them. On the other hand I can't make out a single letter of another one. The weird thing is that the drawings above the well-written and incomprehensible name are just as good as each other. I don't claim to understand why writing is different from drawing shapes (even intricate ones) but somewhere inside my brain I'd assumed that the two were linked together. So I assumed that the messy name would have a poor drawing with an utter mess of facial features on it. But if the kids drawings were almost identical then why was there so much difference in writing? And why could those two kids write so well? Was it innate or a technique?

Then I realized that while I read quite a bit with my kids I honestly don't help my daughter write very often. The extent of it really is maybe once a day helping her write on the crafts or drawings that she's

made in droves. This morning - for example - she made a Halloween story book about how she and our cat went trick or treating but were chased off by a squirrel ghost. She then asked me to write the dialogue on it. I prompted her to do it but she didn't want to. Instead what she did was get a specific kind of uncooperative. She behaves like she's unbearably tired by the notion of it. She doens't get shouty or aggressive. It's unlike any other disagreement we may have. It's like her brain starts processing at hyper-speed and it hurts to such degree that it forces her into a near-narcoleptic state,. So I ended up agreeing to write it and having her read it back to me. Good for reading - no help at all in teaching her to write.

So I went fishing online for some decent ideas on how to make writing together fun. Unfortunately the problem withthe internet is that it's often assumed that because someone has a title or a professional looking website that what they provide is sage advice composed by a knowledgeable expert on the issue at hand. When in reality the internet is mostly a digital toilet wall - scribbled on by people who are aware that most people or online to gamble or look at porn. So I gave up that quickly before wasting any time. Because for every online article that emotionally explains why doing something is the only moral way to parent a child, you'll easily be able to find someone who says the exact opposite.

Oddly enough I'd just listened to an old Radio 4 news quiz show where they'd mentioned that government ministers in the UK were considering making Omega 3 (the fish oil stuff) supplements compulsory for school children because research shows it dramatically helped some people in studies for reading ability. Oddly enough I can't find anything concise about that online. But it was on Radio 4 and that has to be correct right? Mind you Radio 4 also broadcast the shipping forecast even though it's patently obvious that mariners aren't sitting through Woman's Hour waiting patiently for updates on weather conditions in the North Sea. But again - I quickly wanted to jump away form looking for anything like that. Firstly because it leads you down the path of  avoiding actually doing the nitty-gritty of reading and writing with your kids and taking short cuts. But mostly because you can find anything online if you look for it. Want to find a photograph of a penguin about to rape you? Bingo. Want to find an appalling song about why someone's penis is bigger than a bridge and is just like Jesus but set to a video of Brett Michaels? Easy. Looking for a video called Two Girls, One Cyst? I wouldn't click on this if I were you. Looking for motivational posters for your daughter's room? Voila.

Basically if you want to titillate yourself with something awful and specific the internet will provide. More relevantly - if you want back up your pro-conceived biases about the best way to parent a child then you'll find it delivered to you. So while there are some things you can learn online about teaching a child to write - I'm not going to get moored in weird emotional arguments.

So I guess it's just going to be the good old fashioned way of sitting at the table with my daughter and just writing. And trying to get through the weird tiredness when she feels stressed out by it and making it fun. Because frankly - no matter how much experience and no matter how good the teacher at school is she isn't giving my daughter one-on-one focus on this. But I can. So I think it might be fun to have her actually help me write as well. I'll teach her how to write the characters names in my Captain Cheesestick stories. And then she can also draw stories to go with it.

Then we both win.

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