A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Woman

 

When I was in high school, I took an Advanced Placement English class that I absolutely loved, and that ultimately became instrumental in shaping my personal literary aesthetic. It was in this class that I was first exposed to favorite works such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and the early works of Hawthorne, Poe, and Blake, learning to love the dense, evocative style of the Romantics with surprising fervor. Most importantly, though, this class became one that my father took particular interest in, helping me through the year-long course in a way that would prove to be crucial to the early formation of my style as a reader and writer.

Every week, the class would read a short story (very often written by the likes of the aforementioned Poe, Hawthorne, or Blake) and on Fridays, each student would turn in a two-page close reading, or what we in the writing industry refer to as “Lit-Crit.” At the time, I was just beginning to figure out what my own writing process and style would look like, and I’d most often turn to my father—a gifted writer both creatively and within his professional endeavors—for guidance. In what quickly became our favorite academic ritual, Dad and I would read each week’s assignment separately, and then gather together in our home office on Thursday evenings to write up my essay. I’d sit at the computer with my notes and textbooks, and Dad would stand behind me, sometimes pacing as he collected his thoughts. He would start by asking me what I liked about the story and what I didn’t like, and once I got that surface-level analysis out of my system, he would ask me the more important question: “What did the story make you think?” I would tell my dad what I wanted to say about the theme, tone, diction, point of view, etc, and Dad would pause, listening to my every word as if we were working through some life-altering theorem. Then, he would tell me what to type what he dictated, articulating my own thoughts in a way that I couldn’t yet manage. Every single time I’d type the sentences he dictated, I’d be amazed at how intelligent and insightful my analyses were when run through my father’s well-seasoned filter.

 

It was in this manner that my father built my authorial process, brick by brick and week by week. I learned the nuances of controlling and manipulating syntax, grammar, style, pacing, and tone from him, taking careful notice of how he turned my jumbled, sprawling thoughts into concise, cogent theses. Slowly, my dad would intrude less and less on the creative process, letting me learn to form my own sentences by following in the examples he had so carefully ingrained in me. What was so great about my father, both as a parent and as an educator, was that he had a way of knowing exactly when to step in and when to back off, and how to lead me to discover the answers I sought, all the while making me believe I’d arrived at those answers on my own steam.

Through all these long years and all the many evolutions of my writing life, those early lessons from my father stay with me, constantly influencing my work. As time passes and my career gains momentum, I find that I’ve got a wonderful mix of Dad’s style and my own at play. Recently, I edited some website content that my father wrote a few years before he passed away. Because the work he did is so sacred to my family and because I know his writing style so intimately, I feel incredibly protective and possessive of his writing—not wanting anyone else to touch it. As I worked, I found myself not just altering or truncating his writing, but actually correcting it. And suddenly a confusing and startling realization occurred to me: I’ve surpassed my father’s writing abilities. Of course if he were still alive, Dad would surely still be writing and naturally he would have evolved and changed as a writer. But as with all of his skills and special qualities, his writing remains fixed and frozen forever, however incomplete or unfinished, and though I suspected I might move past his talents at some point, I don’t supposed I even gave it too much thought.

It’s a funny thing to idolize a parent’s skill your whole life, and then suddenly realize you’ve superseded those levels of skill and creative prowess you once thought unattainable. It makes me feel too sad to wonder how my father’s incredible gift with the written word would have grown if he were still alive, so today, I instead fill my thoughts with fond memories of he and I together in that office, crafting punchy titles and killer opening lines, and how it never, ever felt like work as long as Dad was with me.

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