Yesterday, a very concerned parent told me that her daughter was overwhelmed with the project, a common issue for any writer reaching 10,000 words in her manuscript. She might not have spoken to me at all, except that I saw her lurking a little bit in the corner, and I asked if she was ok. She said her daughter was overextended, overscheduled, and over-stressed. Her mother told me of a grueling weekend where the family wrestled with the thought of taking the student out of class.
In fact, there were divisions among the family. Groups of people thought that the pressure of writing a novel quickly could break the girl, and other factions thought that if she wanted to write a novel, then this was her opportunity to do so, and she shouldn’t shy away from a challenge simply because it’s hard.
Anything worth doing is hard.
But what struck me wasn’t the conversation, the dialogue between family members, or even the fear in the young woman. I was struck that at no point did any of the adults involved call me. Or another student in class. Or Beth, my co-teacher, who is incredibly approachable.
And it occurs to me that if a parent or student or invested family member cares enough about their young writer enough to argue about whether or not she should learn to express herself in a healthy way, they should reach out to those who are writers as well.
Writers know fear and anxiety and self-criticism better than any group on the planet. Ok, so maybe I’m a bit biased on this front, but I believe that the introspection and empathy that fully-invested writing necessitates also results in, more often than not, a type-A personality in the writer.
I told the mother to give me two hours with her daughter in class. If she wasn’t excited about her work and ready to dive back in, she was welcome to walk away. But I feared a much more impactful consequence of deciding not to finish the task at hand. I was afraid that her daughter would believe that she was a failure at being a writer, and that her perception would cloud her self-esteem for years to come. So I did what any self-respecting (and fearful!) writer would do: I talked to her.
And do you know what I learned? She’s just a teenager.
There was no murky muck lurking in her brain. She had no impossible fears to conquer. She wasn’t racked with guilt or worry or anxiety. In fact, she’d expressed a little worry after our last class, which sent her parents, family members, and interested parties into the debate of the century. Am I surprised? In a word, no.
So I ventured out on a limb at the beginning of class and told everyone to quit, already.
Their shocked faces stared at me in disbelief. Mouths hung agape. Brows furrowed. Someone shook his head slowly.
I said, “This is too hard for you guys. You’re just kids. You shouldn’t be burdened with the pressure of writing a novel. And you’d probably rather just be running around this summer, spending time at the pool, and relaxing. So why don’t we all quit already.”
“Are you kidding?” one student asked, outraged.
“You need to talk to your doctor and get on some new medications,” one kid said, pointing his finger at me.
The whole class shook their heads, said “no way!”
When I told them that they’d just proven my point, that this project wasn’t too hard, and that they were doing exactly the right thing for their brains, for their hearts, for their minds, and for their dreams of becoming writers, they all cheered.
One boy sighed his relief and said, “oh my gosh, I’m so glad. You scared me to death!”
Read that again. I scared him to death.
Merely telling a young person that he couldn’t achieve a goal he’d held in his heart for himself was enough to raise his fear level, freak him out, and push his internal panic button.
He wasn’t scared or nervous before class. He wasn’t unsure of himself. None of them were! And then I said they couldn’t do it.
As parents, we teach our children, even when we don’t think we’re teaching. They overhear our conversations, they intuit our emotions, they soak up our fears and dreams for their lives. And what my student’s very well-meaning and loving mother did was magnify an emotion in her daughter by discussing it, worrying about it, and projecting her own fears onto her daughter.
During class, this student had marvelous things to say. I worked her into my lesson plan, using her name as an example character, and by the end of the first half-hour lecture, she was grinning, giggling, and ready to write.
I sent her mom an email after class and I took my own advice. I told her how proud I was of her daughter for taking on the challenge, how proud I was of her for supporting her daughter, and how excited I was to be a part of this journey.
I’m happy to say that my student has gotten back into her novel-writing groove. But I have learned an incredibly powerful lesson in this exchange. Kindness is empowering. Encouragement can conquer incredible fear. And communication can both wreck and rebuild a writer’s confidence.
I am so thankful for that parent for helping me redouble my efforts to hug students, stick my hand out for high-fives, and tell them, genuinely, that I’m proud of their work.
Positivity breeds optimism, and optimism feeds our dreams.