Long ago, when someone would ask what I wrote about, a friend would jump in and answer first: “Angst. She writes about angst.”
I used to get defensive about that answer – my writing is so much more complex and nuanced than a simple word can convey, right? But over the years, I have adopted this as my own half-joking answer. It is an apt, if simplistic, description.
My daughter and I just returned from visiting my parents. My dad volunteers three days a week in a second-grade classroom. During our visit, he volunteered me to speak as a guest author in his classroom. This is the second time he has volunteered me, but this time, I was prepared.
Two years ago when we visited, my dad wanted to “show us off” at the school. We met the administrative staff, and walked through the library, and met the second-grade teacher and her class. Either he didn’t make it clear or I didn’t listen closely enough but I didn’t realize, until the teacher said she was ready for me, that I was going to speak to the class about life as a writer.
Terrified, I tried to back out of it but she just thought I was being humble. I winged my way through it, and it was fine, but I certainly didn’t feel that they were convinced I was a “real” writer. I know I wasn’t.
This time, my dad was more clear and I listened.
Before we left for the school, I posted on Facebook where I was going and jokingly asked how would I explain “angst” to a bunch of second-graders. Two writing friends posted great suggestions:
Val: “It’s like when you get an ice cream cone and it falls on the sidewalk.”
Stan: “Plan your talk to run into their recess.”
While I didn’t use either of these gems, it did get me thinking about my writing in a different way.
First, I had to explain my stories, and writing process, in a way that a child could understand. This wasn’t always easy, as none of my stories are G-rated.
“What do you write about?” a girl asked. I thought for a moment, and said that one of my stories was about a woman who was going to have a baby and wasn’t sure she was ready to have a baby. Sounds simple enough.
But really, if an adult asked, I would have said, “A pregnant woman is afraid that there isn’t enough room in her marriage for a baby but, instead of talking to her husband, she decides to surreptitiously rearrange the furniture in their apartment to embody the principles of feng shui to make more room in their lives both physically and spiritually.”
Luckily, the kids were satisfied with the short answer.
The teacher then asked what were the names of my stories. I blanked for a moment, trying to figure out how to explain “The Small of Her Back” and “Debris” to kids who didn’t know where the small of a back was or how to spell “debris.”
I settled on talking about the “The Safest Place in the World” (and refrained from describing how this was used ironically in the story) and “Minimal.” (You know,” I said, to dubious nods, “like the minimum amount you need of something.”)
The most persistent questions, however, were A) why don’t I write childrens’ books, and B) why don’t I draw pictures to go with my stories. I answered that people like writing different kinds of stories and I like writing stories for grown-ups best, and besides I am not very good at drawing. (I was waiting for a kid to tell me to keep practicing.)
I imagined illustrations to go with my stories, but my skills just aren’t up to par to draw a woman fantasizing about life with a dead cowboy or a crazy lady obsessed with earthquakes.
And why don’t I write childrens’ books? Because, in a normal childrens’ book, if a kid dropped her ice cream cone on the sidewalk, a benevolent parent would magically appear to give her a new one and they’d walk away happy, having learned something.
In my children’s book, while the kid was lamenting her fallen scoop, a parent would appear and march the child home, scolding her on the way: “I told you to hold it with both hands. See what happens?” The child, tears in her eyes, would give one last glance over her shoulder at the pink ice cream and strawberry bits melting into the grooves of the sidewalk, realizing for the first time that sometimes life sucks.