Look what came in the mail
This week the proof copy of Bedtime Stories for the Living arrived via mail 5 days ahead of schedule. As if the universe and the US Postal Service got together and decided to throw me a first-class bone.
I sat at the kitchen table writing a “Thank you” email to everyone who bought Write On Fight On shirts when there was a knock on the front door. When I opened the front door the white van was pulling from the curb and a brown envelope sat on my front step.
“No way!” I thought.
As I write this post, the first copy of BSFL rests next to me. It’s difficult to articulate what I feel. Excited. Nervous. Anxious. Terrified. I guess it’s that electric energy humans feel when we’re about to embark on something big and scary and unknown.
When the kids come home from school, they circle around the book. Dylan holds the book as Chase instructs him to find the chapter, “Chase Learns the F-Word.” I watch their eyes skim the pages until the find “fuck’ spelled out in print. They giggle, lose interest, toss the book on the table, and raid the Halloween candy bowl.
Haley pulls out a chair, sits down, and opens the book. I stand a few feet behind her as she slowly flips through the pages. Stopping to read. Stopping to study the pictures. And then, after Dylan announces he’s on his third Kit-Kat, Haley turns to me, smiles, and says, “Cool.”
Receiving praise from a 13-year-old is a monumental feat. Most things I say or do are met with eye rolls and head shakes. But here, as the boys devour Kit-Kats, Haley’s four letter word makes me smile. “Cool.”
(Just like the four letter “fuck” made the boys smile.)
Maybe “cool” was her compressed way of saying she’s glad I wrote the book. That my book will inspire her to write her own book one day. That she’s proud of me.
Below you will find an excerpt from BSFL where I write a letter to Haley. Yes, its a letter to Haley that dispels some writing advice but at it’s heart, it’s a letter about connection. How we’re out here trying to figure out a way to connect. How we’re all desperately looking for a connection, an approving smile, and an unsolicited “cool.”
Here’s a confession: Sometimes I don’t know what to say to you. I know it sounds weird. A father unsure of what to say to his daughter, but I have to believe I’m not the only father in the history of fathers, and there have been some bad ones, who has clammed up when faced with the terrifying prospect of talking to his preteen daughter.
I’ve asked myself: What if I look foolish? What if you roll your eyes and walk away? What if this ends with us yelling at each other? What if I say something that inspires you to shave your eyebrows, get a chainsaw neck tattoo, and form a hardcore metal-punk band called “Death to our Fathers?”
Let me be clear. This has nothing to do with you. This is my inadequacy. My problem to fix. Take the evening of February 4, 2021, for example. It was just you and me at dinner because Mom and the boys were off at baseball practice. Aside from the chewing, slurping, and the occasional knife blade scratching the ceramic plate, dinner was silent.
See, writers are afforded the luxury of imperfection. We can draft, edit, and revise a sentence until the sentence says exactly what we want it to say. Fathers don’t have such luxury. I can’t spend hours, years, writing multiple drafts of what I want to say to you. By the time I had finally finished, it would be too late. You’d be a grown woman, and I’d be an old coot with gray chin stubble, draped in a flannel robe, mumbling nonsense to myself. Right now, at my computer, I have a thesaurus and spell-check and a worn-out “delete” key. But there, at the dinner table with you, it’s just me. Preteen you. Imperfect me.
“So. Did your teacher read your essay about faith?”
“Oh. I thought it was good.”
“Um, well—” I took a sip of iced tea, set the cup down, and wiped my lips with a napkin. The clouds drifted across the moon. The sun set in Tulsa. Snow swirled in Ontario. Lava bubbled in Bandung. Rain pattered on London roofs. The Indian Ocean swelled and groaned. A cherry blossom quivered, broke apart, and fell on soft green Japanese grass. And I cleared my throat and say, “—yeah, so if you ever want to talk about writing, just ask.”
And then we ate in silence.
While I was busy writing this book, the act of writing, like a pair of pure white, fresh-out-the-box Vans, caught your attention. Your teacher assigned you to answer the essay: “What does faith mean to me?” One night, as I was writing, you had asked if I wanted to read it. With one eye on the words, and another eye on you, I recognized a smile. Not my child’s smile, but a writer’s smile. A smile a writer sneaks covertly when she has written something she is proud of. You wrote:
I am sitting in my classroom, surrounded by teenagers who are slowly drifting away from their faith and God, including myself. As we get older, we are focused on our phones and don’t take time out of our day to talk to God. I try my best to pray to God every night and thank him for the gift of life. I pray for my family’s and my health and happiness.
Throughout my life, I have learned and gained more information about my father’s health. I never really realized that he had incurable diseases until last year. About a month before Christmas, my father had a tumor on the side of his cheek. It was cancerous. I remember praying to God every night until the day he got it removed. Over Christmas break, my family and I would take walks/runs around the neighborhood. My dad, having health issues, cannot run. My siblings and I cheered him on as he jogged down the street. I kept my faith in him and saw him run for the first time in my life.
When I had finished reading your essay, I cried. And I assume, seeing your reader cry, made you cry too. Reader and writer were crying together. Father and daughter were crying together. It was a beautiful scene and an important writing lesson.
If I could rewind time and return to our dinner on February 4, I would fill the uncomfortable silence with some writing instruction I had learned while writing this book. Since I missed my opportunity, a common theme in everyone’s life no matter how confident they appear, I will offer you some of that instruction now in this letter. These are the things I should have told you at dinner:
1. There are two types of writing, private and public. Private writing is for your eyes only: journals, diaries, and memos on your phone. These are important for helping you clarify what is in your heart and mind. Public writing is meant to be read by a reader. It includes school essays, blogs, emails, novels, children’s books, or an angry letter to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The point of public writing is to connect to the reader. A public writer must be selfless. A public writer must attempt to identify, visualize, and connect to their private reader in order to deliver a coherent message.
2. The first draft is always for the writer. Every other draft after is for the reader.
3. Good writing is vulnerable writing. Let your reader hear the things they’re reluctant to say out loud by daring to write them down.
4. Young writers often think long sentences mark good writing. Rubbish. Good writing is about communicating clearly. Short sentences show poise and control. They are easily digestible and appreciated by the reader.
5. However, long sentences are sometimes needed to vary the rhythm of a piece, convey a complicated feeling or to show action. Consider the following 142-word sentence in Tim O’Brien’s chapter, “The Man I Killed” from The Things They Carried. This sentence taught me more about writing than four years of college:
His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, his nose was undamaged, there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of the skull, his forehead was lightly freckled, his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him.
Like the narrator, O’Brien wants the reader to feel overwhelmed. To achieve this, he overwhelms the reader with a sheer volume of words. By the time you come to that merciful period, you’re dizzy and out of breath and thankful it’s over.
6. Get comfortable with contradictions. Humans are contradictory creatures. We value privacy yet we post our lives on the internet. We long for truth yet often lie. We want to know other people’s secrets yet fear being exposed. We want awards and prestige yet shrink at hard work. We want to hold on but we yearn to let go. The point is, contradictions are the earthly hub of human conflict. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you want to develop characters who—like you and I—are struggling with their own contradictions.
7. Include natural imagery in your writing. As you or your characters live life, gravity pulls, the world turns. Juxtaposing human strife with the grand yet indifferent natural world will stir your reader’s imagination and offer them comfort. Because while they are reading your writing, nature is outside their window doing its thing.
8. Include sensory imagery in your writing. Readers want their senses tickled. Describing how something smells, tastes, feels, or sounds helps the reader further appreciate and experience your writing.
9. When you doubt yourself as a writer, take a deep breath, and repeat, “I am a writer” as many times as you need to drive self-doubt away. Also, know that self-doubt never goes away. You can only hope to exile self-doubt to the time-out corner for a brief period. A good rule is one minute of time-out for every year of the writer. For example, a forty-year-old writer should hope to keep self-doubt in time-out for forty minutes.
10. Young writers often measure their writing ability by scores or teacher evaluations. This is a trap, especially if you earn high marks. A good writer knows writing will never be completely mastered or fully understood.
11. Like your room, your first draft should be a mess. Do not capitalize, concern yourself with punctuation, grammar, or proper writing etiquette. Save this tedium for the second and third drafts. Your job with the first draft is to be defiant, dump everything you own on the page and rummage through your stuff until you find what you’re looking for.
12. When stuck, go to the supermarket. Maybe it’s the neatly arranged produce, the perfectly aligned shelves, the bustle of carts, the buzz of commerce, or the checkerboard floor. When I’m struggling to write, I often wander the supermarket. I know, your dad is so weird. But the supermarket swirls with the stuff of good writing. An urgent journey, sensory imagery, and conflict. Everyone is hunting. And everyone has a desire, a craving, a coupon, and a need to be somewhere else.
13. Have enough confidence to write a poor first draft and enough guts to write a second.
14. Have fun. Write with humor. And remind your reader laughter is essential for survival.
15. The pursuit of perfection leads to procrastination. You or your writing won’t be perfect. Get used to it.
16. Start walking. This will help clear your mind and allow for writing breakthroughs you can’t achieve while sitting at a computer. Also, walking is a fine metaphor for writing. Go at your own pace, breathe, be patient, and take one step at a time.
17. When you’re ready—buy, read, and study the following four books on writing: Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Read with a pen on hand. Highlight and note the parts that strike you as important. Once you finish reading, go write. Reading about writing is helpful, but it will not make you a better writer. Only the act of writing will make you a better writer.
18. A story is only as interesting as its conflict.
19. And finally, as I wrote this book, there were times I rubbed my hands and said, “I can’t do this.” Ninety-five percent of writing is overcoming those four words. Heck, 95 percent of life is overcoming those four words. You may wonder what the remaining 5 percent is. I don’t know. I think it’s for us to figure out on our own.
I love you.
See you in the morning.
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