Tineke Bryson, Staff Writer
NOTE: If you attended the 2015 Summer Workshop as a parent, you may remember some of these ideas from Tineke’s parent session.
Oh, the Cringe Questions! We’re asked them at every stage of life, but they fall thick and fast when you’re a teen writer—or their parent! Tell me these aren’t familiar:
CRINGE LIST FOR TEEN WRITER
• Are you going to study Writing/English in college or something more practical?
• What’s your plan?
• Do you think you can get published?
• How are you going to make a living?
• But what about [marriage/parenthood/other-skill-you-have/insert other goal]?
• Do you know how much that will cost?!!
CRINGE LIST FOR PARENT OF TEEN WRITER
• What is she going to do after high school?
• How are you going to pay for that?
• Will that really help?
• Isn’t there a cheap (read: free) way for him to get published?
• Is she any good, really? Can she do it?
I am well beyond my college degree in Writing now, and I don’t know who has it worse, but I sometimes think it’s the parent. People try to be encouraging to teens (You have a bright future ahead of you, etc.) even if they have doubts. People are less considerate of adult feelings.
As a parent, you field these well-meaning but bewildering questions from relatives and friends. They make you anxious, defensive. All the while, you ache for your son or daughter as they wrestle with their own questions, and there’s no way for you to hand them the answers. A glimpse into a teen writer’s head is dizzying:
Should I go to college, or train as a writer some other way? If I worked hard enough, could I succeed without expensive training? Should I study English? If I study something else, will it limit what I go on to do as a writer? Would I have time to write if I went after something else? Will I (should I?) “grow out” of my writing dreams? Am I any good at writing? How do I find out, and could I bear the truth?
Half the time when your daughter accuses you of treading on her dreams with the muddy boots of pragmatism, you were only asking the hard questions about money and career plans because somebody asked you, and you hope maybe your kid will make you feel better. It’s terrible to be the parent of a writer sometimes.
But you know all this. Here’s why I’m writing this post: I have two questions of my own.
Why do these questions trouble us?
Should we be anxious about these questions?
Picking a Frame
The questions we dwell on form the frame through which we peer at our life. If we let them, the Cringe Questions dominate our view. I would like to suggest that one reason why the Cringe Questions leave us—writer or parent—anxious and frustrated is that they are the wrong questions to dwell on. They may be valid questions, but they don’t make a strong frame for decision-making.
My best try at the right question for a frame is this: Who is my writer becoming? (Or, if you’re reading this as a young writer: Who am I becoming?)
Here’s the truth: a good book (or movie script or short story…) is the product of a life lived fully, not the result of finding and following a formula.
I know. I work for The One Year Adventure Novel, which is all about teaching students that stories have a structure and there are tried-and-true techniques for telling a compelling story. None of that changes the fact that passionate, curious, honest living is critical for a story idea to become something more than a cool concept. Great stories have heart. They are not only well-written and effectively structured, but reflect true emotion. When it comes to writing, a life lived fully is more important than what you study in college.
Be mom or dad first. Your goal for your young writer is that he or she be a well- rounded person of character—the kind of person who, incidentally, has a life that yields powerful stories.
Becoming a writer is about the person your daughter becomes, not about the royalties she could earn or the book agents she could impress. You know this. You’re right that this is what matters. You’re not naïve about your daughter’s future. You’re not too soft on your son’s big dreams.
This is one major reason why the solicitous questions your friends and family ask you bother you so much: because no one is asking the right question: “Who is your son/daughter becoming?”
And this is also true for you if you’re the young—or not so young—writer: The questions trouble you because they’re based on a misunderstanding about what matters most to you. They miss the mark.
The ability to write is not a means to an end. It’s a gift to the writer, from God, to connect with Him. It’s a worship-opening. An opportunity for meaningful engagement with life’s hardest and most rewarding questions. The gift might make your daughter money. It may make her friends in high places. It may make your son famous, or provide him a way to make a living while traveling, etc., etc., but that’s not why your student has the gift—or the dreams of using it.
Next time a friend says, “Has Amanda made any progress toward choosing a major?” or “Has Josh come up with a better job idea yet?” give yourself permission to step back and acknowledge the feelings of frustration. Because you are frustrated for a reason. And as you mumble something about how busy your student has been lately, reach for your better, stronger frame.
And when you watch your daughter stumble over her words or try to escape the room when her aunt or uncle ask her what her plans are, find a way to let her know you look at her through a different frame: the “Who-are-you-becoming?” frame.
At One Year Adventure Novel, we’re with you on this. Let’s help them continue to love words, love character change, love learning, and keep asking “What if?” Let’s tell them we’re on the side of who they are intended to become, not what they might go on to do.
Creativity will result.
What “frames” have helped you think about your student’s—or your own—future?
Tineke Bryson (Honors in Writing, Houghton College) lives in the very center of a pretty complicated Venn diagram, right where fiction and nonfiction, creating and editing, and North American, European, and West African culture meet. Tineke grew up abroad, and before joining The One Year Adventure Novel, she worked as an editor.
She and her husband, Matthias, live in Lawrence, Kansas. She loves British history, reading YA fantasy, and collecting moths.