Friday, September 14, 2007

My Daughter Likes Stories

My wife, Erica, walked into the living room after a long day at work and heard the following exchange:

Me: “So, what disease do you think we should give her?”

Isabel: “How about malaria? That kills people, right?”

Me: “It does, but there aren’t many places in America where someone would get malaria. How about cancer?”

Isabel: “Oh yeah, cancer! That would be great because some people survive cancer, right? So she might live and she might not.”

Me: “Exactly! They won’t know if she is going to make it through the book or not. Especially since we already killed the grandmother off so early.”

Erica clucked her displeasure, rolled her eyes heavenward for help, and walked on into the kitchen for a cold beer. But where she sees a father and daughter casually discussing serious afflictions and dead grandmothers, I see a fresh way to interact with my girl now that she is getting older.

Isabel is seven and she is by now fully her own person. There are pieces of me and pieces of Erica that jut out here and there, but the vessel is purely Isabel at this point. The Nature-vs.-Nurture debate has been put to rest once and for all in my mind and it has been declared a draw.

Children are an unpredictable mix of their parents and their surroundings. When Isabel yanks harder because the door won’t open the first time, I see Erica in miniature. When she heads out the door on a winter morning without a jacket, I see myself. When she fearlessly throws her body around at gymnastics class, it is Isabel alone.

As she grows and changes, I feel like I am always a half-step behind. I want to be in her life and involved in what is important to her, but by the time I catch on and get up to speed with Dora the Explorer or Magic Treehouse or Webkinz, she has already moved on to the next thing and I am accused (by Isabel) of treating her like a baby. Not this time.

This time I got smart and I chose the next thing she was going to move on to. And I did it in a way that was so subtle, so below-the-radar, that even I didn’t know I was doing it.

My daughter loves to hear stories. She always has. Stories from books are good, but stories invented by Erica and me are even better. The thing is, as Isabel has gotten older and become a much more critical consumer of stories, it has gotten harder and harder to make up a story that passes muster. As a result, I have been telling her fewer and fewer original stories.

She noticed the precipitous drop off in my output and put me on the spot a month ago. She asked why I never tell her stories any more. I replied that I was empty and it was hard work being creative, but that I would give it my all and plan one more story that would make up for the long drought. Her majesty was pleased by this. (And when the queen is happy, we are all happy.)

Well, I thought for a week, hoping all the while that Isabel would forget my foolish promise. Isabel, being Isabel and having the mind of an elephant, did not forget. One week to the minute after my promise, she asked for the story. I was like a poor schlep on The Sopranos when the bagman appears and wants his first payment on a “non-traditional” loan…a payment the schlep doesn’t have.

“I think I need a little more time…” I wheedled.

“Nope. You said one week and it’s been one week. Start talking, old man.” She can be heartless sometimes, (more evidence of Erica’s genes, I believe.)

So I just started talking and, much to my surprise, out rolled a fairly engaging and affecting story. It spooled out over three weeks of short and long drives, ending just a few days ago. No one was more shocked than I. Okay, maybe Isabel was, after so many lame-o stories lately.

Neither one of us seemed to want to leave the world we had created together in the car during the telling of the story. When it was done Isabel asked right away if we could write it down. So we got home, opened the laptop and a fresh notebook and began to name and describe our main characters. I could feel the genuine excitement in both of us. The idea took on a life of its own and now we are working on a young adult novel together.

As described above, it will include both the death of a young mother and the terrible disease suffered by a young girl. The ninth graders I used to teach always accused me of liking only books and stories with tragedy at the center. Maybe they were right. And just maybe this is another piece of evidence for the Nature side of the debate, because Isabel is bored by sunshiny, happy stories and much prefers sad tales of early death and of love denied.

We have a day off tomorrow and Isabel has already asked if we can spend some of the day working on our book. She has a great idea for what can happen unexpectedly to the family dog and she wants to work it into the story. I think she wants to kill off the puppy in the third chapter…and I also think I may have created a monster. But if I have, at least she is MY monster and she wants to spend the day writing with ME.

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