I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately — which is to say, doing a lot more thinking than writing. I’ve started teaching again, mostly adults this time, a part-time job that I am loving.
However, teaching writing and actually writing are two different things. Just as having 3 kids in school and actually managing three school schedules are two different things.
Terms bounce around in my head, devices to help me better understand and teach a well-constructed story. Real life, as it’s happening, is not a well-constructed story.
There are a lot of unresolved loose ends, undeveloped characters, confusing narratives and — let’s face it — the storyline is often dull (waiting in line at school pick up is not a compelling hook).
This time of year, I feel like most of my life is lived between significant dates on my calendar — first days of school, Halloween, report cards, Thanksgiving. These are the days that mark the passage of time and shifts in my story. What happens in between, however, ain’t always pretty.
Like, I knew summer was gone for good when I found myself yelling at my high school freshman about schoolwork as I removed a sheet pan of roast sausage and fennel from the oven.
I took down the fake spider web from my front porch last week. It’s November, of course, so it is time to take down the Halloween decorations to make room for [choose your own ending: Thanksgiving/Christmas].
These are the plot beats of my weeks. I’m still searching for an interesting hook.
Like all people, I am a complex individual. Like all mothers, I am several people in one.
For a while, I was summer mom: breezy, easy to laugh, happily driving with my windows down listening to yacht rock and John Mayer.
Slowly, I morphed into fall mom. Fall mom doesn’t have a great sense of humor. Like, it’s not funny when your son forgets his textbook the night before a unit test, no matter how handsome he looks in his school uniform, is it? Fall mom is less breezy. She drives with the windows closed so no one can hear her screaming.
Winter mom is coming. At fall’s end, there is always crying — over grades, schedules, getting up in the morning. Pretty much every plot beat causes tears. Winter mom listens to the crying and makes a lot of soup.
Good character development makes for a relatable, well-rounded character. She doesn’t have to always be likable.
I’m relieved to have the Halloween decorations down, to move onto the next holiday. The fake spider web had stretched beyond repair; I fought with it for weeks. It was sagging, stretched by the elements — rainy breezes and one nor’easter — drooping under its own flimsy weight. Not a gentle sag, but a massive cottony swoop of sticky Halloween decor that danced in the wind and caught in its grasp real spiders, real centipedes and, occasionally, the mailman.
In many ways, I feel like the web.
My emotional threads are stretched. An emphatic “Mom! I’m good” or “Leave me alone!” either means they’re totally fine or they’re totally falling apart. (Like good literature, teenagers are ripe for interpretation.)
Wait, maybe I’m not the web in this objective correlative.
I might be the fly, caught in the emotional traps set by high schoolers and a strong-willed 6 year old, paralyzed by the conflicting desire to stay close — to hang in there with them — or untangle myself and let them figure it out.
How’s this for tension: Do not, under any circumstances, mention college to my high school junior (see: plot beats that cause tears).
Narrative Voice/Reflective Voice
There’s the narrative of motherhood, which admittedly is quite boring. Laundry, work, drive, wait, laundry.
Then, there’s the reflection.
The heart of my story exists in the space between plot beats: between the start of school and the end of school, between Halloween and Christmas, between freshman year and senior year, between riding a bike with training wheels and riding a two-wheeler, between nervous preparation for first SATs and move-in day at a college.
That’s where my characters develop, tension ebbs and flows, and I am stretched as thin as a synthetic web ready to be taken down to make room for the next life event.