Waiting for applause
April 30, 2012
The other day my wife found a notebook tucked beneath a pile of kindergarten papers and rainy day projects. It was my daughter’s. Her first notebook, as a matter of fact. With chewed corners and squiggly lines instead of sentences.
She’s a chip off the old block, my little girl—equal parts bookworm, nerd, dreamer, and writer. That last bit has taken hold over the last few years. She wants to be a writer, just like her daddy. I’m good with this.
This past week, she had the honor of attending a gathering of county elementary school students known as Young Authors, which included a genuine flesh-and-blood children’s writer. Maybe even cooler than that, each student had to write his or her own story that would be read during the event.
This was big stuff. Important stuff.
My daughter worked for three weeks on her story. She wrote and rewrote, edited and cut, pasted and revised. And fretted. There was a lot of fretting. That’s when I figured she was closer to becoming a real writer than I’d thought. The result was nearly seven hundred words concerning a Middle Ages princess who found herself in very deep trouble.
I wasn’t there when she read it, but I received the blow-by-blow later that evening between sniffles and those wet, whispery hiccups young girls tend to develop in the midst of an emotional breakdown.
It wasn’t because she faltered while reciting her story, nor was the story itself horrible (on the contrary, I was quite smitten with it). No, it was something else. Something much, much worse.
No one applauded at the end.
That no one applauded for any of the other stories offered seemed to me an extremely relevant fact. Not so to her. To her, it didn’t matter at all that none of the other children’s stories was met with adulation. All that mattered was that HERS didn’t.
She was crushed, wholly and completely. Ruined to the point where she vowed to never write a single word again. The simple act of writing hurt itself, she said. But writing without applause at the end? That was a pain beyond description, one that could only be expressed by sniffles and wet, whispery hiccups.
That’s when I knew my daughter wasn’t just close to becoming a writer, she was actually on the precipice. She was there, mere steps away.
There are things writers are supposed to say when asked why they do what they do. They say it’s because they want to define the world, and once that’s done, change it. They say its because there is a story in them that begs telling. They say it’s because writing is their ministry or their passion or their calling.
And yet while those things may be true in some respect, the plain fact is that all of it is mostly bull. Because deep down in places we’d rather keep shadowed, we’re really doing it for the applause at the end.
Despite whatever sin we think this involves, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Writing is work. Hard, sweaty, painful work. It is what Hemmingway called “hard and clear about what hurts.” It is the tilling of the packed soil within us, the dredging up of our angers and fears not so we may hide them further, but so we may show them to the world.
The applause we seek isn’t for that; we do not want to be congratulated for our valor. No, it’s for something more fundamental. We want claps so that we may know we’ve been heard, that by exposing our pain we have built a bridge that spans Me and You and creates an Us.
To a writer, the only thing that is worse than derision is silence.
I write this post with my daughter on the other side of the couch. She just asked me for a synonym for the word “courageous”. I stopped pecking at this keyboard long enough to glance over and see another notebook on her lap. She’s begun another story.
I tell her to use “intrepid,” but inside I’m thinking a better word would be her.
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