Friday, July 30, 2010

Writing Is Therapy for Parents

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Three of my all-time favorite words in the English language are follow my mouth. Just recalling those words transforms any moment into a good one because those three words bring to life a good memory for me.

One afternoon, after pre-school, my daughter let me know that she had learned a new song and wanted to teach it to me. The song had gestures to match the lyrics and a bouncy beat. I recognized the appeal once I had heard her sing the song and witnessed her delight, but we had several moments of frustration before we actually shared the song because my daughter said follow my mouth.

I did not understand her meaning. I had never heard learning a song described that way, but that is the way she experienced it. The teacher spoke words and the children echoed them. In other words, the children followed the teacher’s mouth, and my daughter wanted me to follow hers to learn the song.

I don’t even remember the song today, but I remember my daughter’s excitement. She truly wanted to share and sing the song with me. I also remember how I fumbled the moment. Instead of saying “show me,” I asked her to explain what she meant by follow my mouth. Such an explanation was beyond her age and so she was frustrated, so much so that I almost missed sharing in her delight for this particular song.

Later, when I had a moment, follow my mouth became the heading for a journal entry that was never completed. As all parents with young children know, finding the time for thoughtful reflection is more than many of us can manage. I did, however, record those three magical words, and they not only helped me remember the moment in my daughter’s childhood, but also remember a lesson: explanations are difficult, especially spur-of-the-moment ones and especially if the child is young.

I wish I could tell you that I never fumbled as a parent again. I cannot. I fumbled again and often. Sometimes I even made the exact same mistake: I asked my daughter to explain herself when she truly did not understand yet. (Do I? Do you?) My consolation is that even as I asked for an explanation, I backed down quickly, reminding myself that extemporaneous speaking is terrifying and terribly difficult for most people and speaking about feelings even harder.

So if you wonder what you can write about and you are a parent, then a parenting journal will have great value for you and your children
. Trying to keep up with one, however infrequently, encourages you to be more mindful, more aware of causes and effects, of what works and what does not, of what you will never ever do again and what you will. It will also make deposits into a memory account that you can return to many years later.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

If you make an accurate record of parent-child interaction, surely you will use dialogue to record who said what, to whom, and how. Dialogue is an excellent way to be specific and concrete, to show and not tell. (You may wish to review blog posts for April 18 and 25, 2010; these deal with being specific and concrete and with showing details.)

Here are a few guidelines for dialogue.

1. Several prize-winning modern authors, including Cormac McCarthy and Tim O’Brien, do not use quotation marks each time they write dialogue, but each author insures that readers can follow the conversational chain. For those of us not among the ranks of prize-winning authors, quotation marks are useful.

2. Remember that if you use the first set of quotation marks at the beginning of one speaker’s words, you must use a second set to signal that one speaker’s turn in the conversation has come to an end. In other words, quotation marks always travel in pairs.

3. Sometimes, one speaker is very long-winded, rattling on for a couple of paragraphs. In this case, you may begin a new paragraph with an opening set of quotation marks and leave the closing set of quotation marks off until the speaker finally takes a breath and comes to the end of his remarks. For example:

Speaker 1: “I beg your pardon. What did you say?”

Speaker 2: “I said, and it bears repeating because everything I say carries weight and should be blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

“In fact, I should say that you are a yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada.”

4. Often, writers characterize the way in which a speaker delivers his message or clarifies if the speaker actually speaks out loud by one of the following methods:

“I dare you to say that again,” Billy taunted.

“I don’t think you can hit that ball,” Billy thought, but he said, “You can do it! Knock it out of the park!”

Notice that in each example above, the punctuation appears inside the closing quotation marks.

Reading Challenge:

The list below is in no way comprehensive. So much has been published on this subject. Here are a few thoughtful and occasionally hilarious personal accounts about parenting and one book about preserving memories for generations to come:

1. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish
2. Good Morning, Merry Sunshine by Bob Greene
3. To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford
4. Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing from America’s Favorite Humorist [Erma Bombeck]
5. A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd
6. “My Teenage Son’s Goal in Life Is to Make Me Feel 3,500 Years Old” and Other Thoughts on Parenting from Dave Barry by Dave Barry

Writing Challenge:

Reflect upon a day in the life of parenting. Capture one of the joys or frustrations, using dialogue.

Good Morning, Merry Sunshine